The recent success of the England team and the corresponding rise of national pride has, I suspect like many who have a slightly more tangled relationship with England and Englishness, created a mixture of complex feelings. For me Englishness unlike to some extent Britishness, has historically lacked much of the cosmopolitan and in many ways outward looking symbolism of latter. This appeared all the more clear when observing the 2016 referendum where vote to leave the EU was largely concentrated within in England, even in Wales, a devolved region which also voted for Brexit analysis suggested that it was retired English people who swung the vote in favour of the Brexit vote.
The recent Adam Curtis documentary ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ revisited the work of the troubled activist Michael De Freitas, otherwise known as Michael X who back in the 1960s coined the term ‘Englishism’ to describe a post-colonial melancholia caused in part by the loss of empire and the corresponding deep suspicion of the other which he believed was part of what caused the racist attitudes levied at himself and other citizens of the post-colonial diaspora. This malaise often manifesting itself in banal suburban racism, vicious state violence, ignorance and systemic discrimination has whilst perhaps reduced, been a feature of the lives of many that have made their home within England.
The current UK administration’s efforts to deal with this have in many ways amounted to gaslighting, a recent report’s1 investigation into institutional racism which, on closer inspection misrepresented much of the evidence under consideration, often omitting passages from cited work which arrived at conclusions opposed to the ones put forward by the report itself. Perhaps most egregiously the report never gives a consistent definition of racism veering between the apparently disconnected effects of social-economic deprivation and the supposedly malignant effects of discourses around “victimhood”.
The final report was so poorly presented that institutions such as the Runnymeade trust2 suggested that the UK may be in breach of the UN convention on human rights and that the governments current approach to equality may indeed exacerbate many of the issues it supposedly set out to tackle. Despite this the Conservatives a party which have taken up the mantle of English nationalism3 continue to perform admirably in national polling. What hope is there then for an inclusive, principled and outward looking Englishness?
A recent piece by the English manager Gareth Southgate touches on many of the issue that come with trying to seek a positive depiction of England, discussing how whilst his relationship with the country differs from that of many of the other people who have lived and continue to live in England he can still see England as:
“an incredible nation — relative to our size and population — that has contributed so much to the arts, science and sport.”
For George Orwell, critical of nationalism as he was he believed the particularities of England and Englishness, what he described as it’s gentleness and a certain sense of liberty, not in terms of the crude economic liberty often proclaimed today but rather the freedom to live life free of coercion, a stance which perhaps has impacted efforts to deal with the COVID pandemic. England for Orwell had the following characteristics:
England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.
As such it wasn’t so much a nation to be praised in its entirety for what it currently represented but rather for what it might be. For Orwell, he believed that the war, if England were to survive it would spell the end of class society a future which, unfortunately did not come to pass, however he did recognize that England was changing. This notion of change is something which has grasped English liberals since the 18th century and beyond the infamous whig history tract the The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, Saw a more modern enlightened England emerging from autocracy and superstition. Whilst Gladstone looked for England to be:
“The standard-bearer of the nations upon the fruitful paths of peace, industry, and commerce.”
In July 2020, following months of protest sparked by the murder of George Floyd the English football team knelt in solidarity, echoing actions taken by Colin Kaepernick, and representatives of numerous US sports including Major League Baseball, WNBA and NBA. The protests as well as being praised in some quarters also raised jeers and heckles from some England fans and to some extent by members of the government who either accused the England team of gesture politics pointing to their relative privilege or protested the “politicization” of sport. Southgate however steadfastly defended the team saying:
“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
Additionally sport historically has often been a space for protest from the clenched fist of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, to the refusal of the Peruvian government in 1936 to partake in the Olympic games to explicit migrant solidarity and social advocacy of Germany’s FC Pauli.
The book I’ve been mulling over a lot in reference to the current surge in nationalist sentiment is Alex Niven’s New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond The Idea of England. Similar to Freitas identification of Englishness with post-colonial melancholia, Niven speculated on a “geopolitical void” which stood in the gap between England, and Britain, when trying to examine the idea of English nationalism. This is a void I’ve seen repeatedly come up with very few references to Englishness as phenomena unto itself actually being spoken of positively instead the various socio-cultural features associated with English patriotism are either associated with Britain overall or one of the other devolved regions. For example in the 19th century the former English Prime Minister William Gladstone himself the child of Scottish parents made regular reference to England’s trading exploits however given the acts of the union had existed since the 18th century these activities could perhaps more accurately be described as belonging to Britain.
For Niven he believed the devolution of much of the power held in Westminster to various regions of England could be a solution and perhaps federalization could eventually hold the answer to the unchecked centralization of power in Westminster. For others the dissolution of England into the regions of old, such as that the political project announced by the Northern Independence Party holds at least part of the answer.
Similar to Orwell, I can recognize that England and Englishness as it stands is a flawed in so many ways, unlike his predictions England surviving the war did not end up in the overturning of class society. Perhaps, however there’s hope yet. The England team is one which is staunchly anti-racist, cosmopolitan in composition and has challenged the government on socio-economic questions often in the face of openly hostile media criticism. The team has also managed to marshal the backing of a similarly multi-cultural fanbase with the match on Sunday being proceeded with bhangra, attention from the Jamaican disapora4 and praise from Nigerian media5.
On Sunday people of multiple ethnicities, orientations and gender will fill stadiums, living rooms and pubs, at least for moment discovering a shared interest and temporarily a significant portion of the country riven by socio-economic inequality and government that thrives on cultural division and it’s ultimately this, I can see a reason to support.