Three Lions on a Shirt

England fan and academic Mark Perryman writes about how the England shirt could be the most appropriate national dress of an inclusive, progressive society and how a public holiday on St George’s Day, an English National Anthem and an England Football Team in the Olympics would all also be welcome.

Footballing Identity

‘Fuck off you racist, gypo cunts.’  Bulgaria vs England, 2 September 2011

It’s around the 70th minute in England’s well-deserved 3-0 victory over Bulgaria at Sofia’s Stadion Vasil Levski stadium. Tiresome and predictable, a bunch of the locals, wannabe hooligans, lose interest in their side going down to a heavyish defeat and resort instead to winding up our players. Not the catcalls and banter we’re more used to back home but richly offensive monkey grunts and gestures. In a split second the enjoyment of an England win turns to a collective fury at the way the likes of Ashley Young, Theo Walcott and debutant Chris Smalling are being singled out for abuse simply because of the colour of their skins.

This is an angry English, mainly white, mob, pumped up with Three Lions on our chest patriotism yet knowing precisely the nature of the offence being committed against our own is racism. Of course the contradictions in that anger matter: the anti-Roma prejudice, the sexism and the physical violence which would surely have erupted if the segregation between us and them hadn’t been maintained. But the reality of that anger directed at others’ racism should not be lightly discounted either.

Researcher Daniel Burdsey has recently pointed out the complexities when accounting for racism, and anti-racism, in football. “Overly optimistic views of progress neatly side-step questions around power and politics, and ignore the fact that to look beyond the multiethnic spectacle on the pitch, in Europe at least, football remains a primarily white institution: games are watched by crowds of predominantly white supporters, controlled by white match officials, and teams are run by white (male) managers, coaches, owners and directors.” And he adds a poignant afterthought too for anyone who has attended a modern football stadium with eyes on more than simply what’s going on the pitch. “You will often see a significant presence of minority ethnic people in the stadium: they will be directing you to your seat or serving your refreshments. The racialised historical antecedents, and continuing legacy, of these roles – entertaining or serving the white folk – should not be lost within the contemporary clamour of positivity.”

This is the kind of terrain of steps forwards, and backwards, upon which a contemporary Englishness is being constructed. In the stands of the Vasil Levski Stadion a vigorous opposition to racist abuse mixed up with an all pervasive anti-Roma sentiment. The latter hardly much of a surprise when after a few days spent in Bulgaria almost every hotel employee, tour guide, or taxi driver would be going out of their way to warn us against those ‘gypsy pickpockets’ while back home the radio phone-ins were bristling with callers demanding the bulldozing of the travellers encampment at Dale Farm.

Flags and colours

Those angrily responding to the racist taunting of our players in Sofia were voicing the sentiment that it’s the colour of the shirt our players wear which matters (in this case a curious navy blue with sky blue trimmings but that’s for another argument), not the colour of their skins. Contrast this kind of mood of popular inclusiveness, or at least an outline shape of something along those lines, with the press adverts for the ‘Official beer of England Rugby’ as England’s ill-fated World Cup 2011 campaign opened in New Zealand. A headline screaming “100% ENGLISH” with four very white England internationals lined up behind it. A sport that has hardly excelled in terms of breaking with its mostly middle-class and white culture went out of its way to confirm the worst suspicions that it has a long way to grapple with change. This is nothing to do with the ‘political correctness gone mad’ so beloved of radio phone-in callers’ raw rhetoric or keyboard warriors typing out their anger either. But if a national sport’s governing body can allow one of its sponsors to promote such an image of England is it any wonder that issues of race, nation and Englishness can on occasion prove to be such a toxic mix?

Sunday 25 September 2011. It’s the Last Night of the Proms and in an East Sussex country town, as in hundreds of other places mainly across England, but with more scattered participation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, locals are being invited to join in. The publicity leaflets urge us to bring ‘picnics, flags and patriotic paraphernalia’. Cheese and pickle sandwiches, a thermos of tea, a sponge cake to cut up and share, all tucked into on the faintly damp grass of the garden at Lewes Castle, nothing could be more quintessentially English. Flags? The customary confusion over whether to wave the Union Jack or St George Cross, a  mix up unlikely to occur in other parts of the once United Kingdom. Or if it does there will be a clear purpose to it rather than just confusing the flags we wave for England with the ones we’ll be waving for Team GB at London 2012.

However, it is the ‘patriotic paraphernalia’ which was likely to leave most rather bemused. Connected with our confusion over which flag to bring what on earth might such ‘paraphernalia’ consist of. A rose in our lapel? Well you have to have a lapel in the first place, something to do with rugby perhaps, but a red rose will always be Lancashire’s to those on the other side of the Pennines so hardly a candidate for national unity. Modern jester’s hats with all sorts of odd shapes and bells to match? Plastic chain mail armour worn fancy dress Richard the Lionheart style? A furry lion to tuck under your arm? Each could be candidates but hardly likely to have mass appeal. More popular still is likely to be anything connected with World War Two. Such martial nostalgia, almost invariably disconnected from the anti-Nazi cause of 1939-45 appeals to a certain version of Englishness as a national identity which almost every other European nation has moved decisively on from. Unsurprisingly the defeated Axis powers but more significantly those who suffered from the Jackboot of German Occupation and closer to home our Celtic neighbours have all chosen to move on from his facile embrace of a past without the meaning.

A Bri-nylon National Dress with Three Lions

But even those who would sport a plastic version of a Tommy’s tin hat or replica Dambuster headgear are hardly serious rivals to the runaway contender for England’s national dress. Every other summer since Euro ‘96 the current bri-nylon England kit, complete with Three Lions on our chest has become the identity a sizeable chunk of the English wrap themselves in. The forlorn hopes dashed of ending the post-1966 years of hurt returning the shirt to the wardrobe only for the new, not improved version to be whipped out whenever the next Euro or World Cup adventure comes around. Mostly harmless, the days of a hooligan, sometimes more than tinged with racism too, reputation fading into a welcome faraway memory. And generationally the identification with shirt, team and flag has become steadily multicultural too.

The number of analyses of Englishness seems to grow almost by the week. ‘Is There an English Nationalism?’ by Richard English in the IPPR’s series English Questions  and Anthony Painter’s piece ‘Time for an Optimistic Englishness’  in the Winter 2011 edition  of Soundings are just two of the most recent contributions.

Both make a range of interesting points. Richard English describes a distinction between a resurgent Englishness and a political movement that could in any accurate sense be described as English nationalism. Anthony Painter’s argument articulates the case for an optimistic Englishness which rejects its most exclusivist tendencies. So far, so good. But what is quite staggering is that in neither of these contribution is there a paragraph, a sentence, a throwaway observation even on the most popular and potent expression of modern Englishness – the bi-annual summer of very public support for the England football team with St George flown, worn, daubed on a kid’s face the length and breadth of the nation.

The erudition of English and Painter’s argument is fatally flawed by this patently obvious omission. Eric Hobsbawm’s dictum has been so widely quoted it has become almost a cliché yet in the absence of the connections that really need to be made by all writers on this subject it clearly needs repeating. “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”  Perhaps I should declare an interest here. I’m an active England fan. I follow the team not just to Wembley but in the past decade and a half to South Africa, Germany, Portugal, Japan, Belgium, Holland France for World Cups and Euros. I’ve written a series of books based on the experience and along the way become a regular media commentator on England fan issues. Throw in the T-shirt business I co-founded ‘Philosophy Football’ and a research fellowship in sport and leisure culture. Is my vision  clouded. Not to mention narrowed? Perhaps a shade, but I would argue most vigorously that any project to understand Englishness cannot be taken seriously if it omits a single mention of this explosion of identification with England that football more than any other occasion has come to represent.

Ironically the argument that the revival of Englishness has to date been largely divorced from an identifiably nationalist politics sits snugly with the particularities of Englishness that football has generated. Waving St George, an England football shirt as our national dress, the widely accepted multicultural make-up of the team, or more correctly the presence of Afro-Caribbean and mixed race players, each is of some considerable significance.

There is still uncertainty on how to make the distinction between Englishness and Britishness, when to wave St George and when the Union Jack, who to cheer as Team GB and who to support as England. Despite the 2012 summertime hoopla of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics the Union Jack bunting is unlikely to last much beyond the extra Bank Holiday and the Closing Ceremony. St George will make its biannual reappearance too with Euro 2012.

To change the vocabulary of politics wouldn’t be a bad starting point. To recognise that Britain is not England, the national is not Britain, and Westminster has to co-exist with the Scottish Parliament , Welsh Assembly and Stormont. To give such a campaign an avowedly populist dimension why not seek to equalise the distribution of public holidays. Only in Scotland and Northern Ireland are their respective national days taken as public holidays. St David and St George getting a public holiday each would both be immensely popular, who in their right minds is against more public holidays, while providing a focus for our co-existence and difference. Likewise the so-called ‘National Anthem’: Scotland and Wales have their own, England doesn’t and neither does Northern Ireland.

God Save the Queen remains the song of choice for those who wish to celebrate the Queen as their head of their state. But it is most certainly not England’s National Anthem, and never has been. And what about London 2012 and Team GB. A month or so before the Olympics begin England will have competed at Euro 2012, the only team in football’s European Championships which isn’t a nation. Yet if England is good enough for football, rugby, cricket, and not forgetting Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in 2014 why not the Olympics too?

A song to sing, a national holiday on St George’s Day and a team to call our own shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Mark Perryman

This is an edited extract of an article by Mark Perryman, ‘Red, White and Blue Labour’ on the wider subject of progressive patriotism, and is published in the latest edition of Soundings which contains full references and footnotes. A free download is available hereThe Photograph at the top of this piece is by Simon Green, who owns the copyright.

The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey in the 2010-11 Champions League, from a qualifier in Berne to the front row at the Final, full of the flavour of the escapism that travelling to football over land and sea brings.