Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

21 June 2008

National Identity: Ancient Frontiers And the Football Test

Watching the Euro 2008 football tournament has provided another occasion for me to ruminate on questions of national identity. I find myself being envious of the players and supporters of our European neighbours, whose countries are also their nations – injecting just that little bit of extra national pride into the efforts of the teams as they struggle not just for football glory but the (self-)esteem of their whole nation.

It’s hard to imagine the same sort of sentiments surrounding the England team, had they qualified; although, undoubtedly, the same passions would have been invoked in their respective countries by the participation of Scotland or Ireland. It’s not that a great many English people, including myself, would not be filled with jubilation if an England team won a tournament such as the European Nations Championship or the World Cup; nor that those who represent England in team sports don’t do so without a huge amount of pride. It’s just that it doesn’t mean quite as much as if your nation is also reflected and represented in every aspect of the public life of your country: politics, institutions, culture, the media, language, national traditions, a coherent sense of national identity, and a passionate attachment to a specific territory and its peoples. This is the case, in different ways, for all the nations participating in Euro 2008. But if England were competing, it would not be the case, in the same way, for her: we do not have an English Parliament or government; our national institutions are those of the UK, or else of England and Wales; there is widespread diffidence about, if not contempt towards, English culture; our media are officially ‘British’ (although in reality often English in all but name); our language is the global language and the official language of UEFA, even though no English-speaking nation is taking part in Euro 2008; many of our national traditions are ‘British’; English people still wrestle uncomfortably with their dual English-British national identity, and even with the very notion of national identity as such; and our territory and peoples – are they England and the English, or Britain and the British?

One imagines that the minds of players representing the likes of France, Spain, Germany or Croatia become filled with the historical facts and lore of their nations; and they see themselves handed the opportunity to symbolically defend and uphold the dignity, values and even territorial integrity of their nations as they represent everything their countries stand for and their nations’ entire histories, which have led to the existence of the national teams they themselves are a part of. By contrast, the great national achievements and struggles that an England player can call to mind are those of Britain, not – nominally, at least – of England: the British Empire; the democratic principles, rule of law and language that we have spread throughout the world; the victorious fight for freedom and justice in the Battle of Britain and the Second World War. The nation and the territory that were at the heart of these great convulsions of history were those of Britain. And this Britain is now falling apart and provokes considerable ambivalence in the minds and hearts of most English people and particularly, perhaps, in members of a sporting team for England, a country whose separateness from Britain / the UK only further calls to mind the break up of a once-proud Britain and the absence of an English nation state. Needless to say, this ambivalence can only be stirred up all the more as the strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ boom out throughout the stadium before the match begins; while French hearts, by contrast, are filled with national pride by the tones of the Marseillaise.

This idea of the national football team symbolically enacting a defence of the nation’s territory is quite an important one, it seems to me. Anthropologists of the Desmond Morris school would say that national team sport is a peaceful way to act out aggression and rivalry between countries. Games between England and Scotland, or between Germany and the Netherlands, always have something of this character of re-playing ancient enmities and settling old scores.

This is, as it were, the football test of national identity, which is probably a more valid and universal indicator than Norman Tebbit’s famous cricket test, given the greater passions provoked by football internationals than cricket test matches, and given the fact that football – like so many other things – is something that England has given to the whole world. The reality of national identity, as an emotional and cultural thing, is for me demonstrated by football allegiances more than by any other phenomenon. It’s in connection with football that you immediately realise that England and Scotland are indeed different nations and that they’ll never be merged into a unitary British sense of national identity. Indeed, it’s because of this incontrovertible evidence of nationhood that no other countries seem to have any difficulty accepting that England and Scotland should have separate national football teams and football associations, despite the fact that their nations (plus Wales and Northern Ireland) are not also states – unlike every other nation with a football team.

And, as I indicated above, the England and Scotland that are represented by their respective football teams are, among other things, territorial entities. When we think of England or Scotland, or indeed any other nation, one of the things we always picture in our minds are the outlines of those nations’ territories as they appear on maps. These are boundaries hard won by the battles of the past, re-played in the football contests of the present. But they are in many cases also ancient frontiers stretching back through history to Roman times and beyond. France – occupying pretty much the same land as ancient Gaul; Spain – España – Roman Hispania, minus Portugal; Germany – the Barbarian peoples of Germania; and Catholic Croatia, whose historic rivalry with its ethnic twin, Orthodox Serbia, reflects their location right on the divide between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, and the Western and Eastern Christian Church.

It is the same with England and Scotland: a territorial divide so ancient that the landscape of Northumberland still carries its traces in the Roman emperor Hadrian’s Wall. With one difference: Roman Britannia did not extend to the whole island of Britain; so the territory we now know as Britain (unlike in the cases referred to above) is an extension beyond the original Roman and pre-Roman territorial boundaries. Ancient Britannia referred pretty much to the territory now known as England and Wales; while Caledonia – Scotland – was a separate territorial and political entity.

These ancient divisions run deep. ‘Divisions’ is not the right word: ‘distinctions’ is perhaps better. These differences in culture, history, traditions and institutions – linked to an attachment to a specific land, and to a way of life which, in the past, was very much more dependent on the land – are what gives us our national characteristics, and defines us as a distinct national community. In this way, the nations of England and Scotland can trace their differences – their distinctions – along a continuous historical and folkloric thread that leads back to pre-Roman, indeed pre-historic, times; such as when the Celtic Britons were distinct from the Caledonian, non-Celtic Picts.

There was no integral, Celtic Britain that was somehow broken up by the Anglo-Saxon invasion – unless, of course, by ‘Britain’ you mean the territory of England and Wales (Roman Britannia). And that division between Celtic Britain and non-Celtic Caledonia has been carried over to this day in the division within the Celtic linguistic domain between ‘Brythonic’ Celtic (Welsh, Cornish and Breton) and ‘Goidelic’ (Gaelic in both its Irish form and its imported offshoot that is Scots). And these ancient divisions and distinctions within the island of Britain have been very much carried forward from history through to the present in the much closer institutional and national links that still exist between England and Wales, compared with the historically more recent and looser – and ever more loosening – ties between England and Scotland.

These ancient historic distinctions – demarcators of national territory and identity – suggest an illuminating perspective on the conflicting English and British identities of the English people. Beyond more transient considerations of 18th-century political union, ideology and imperial ambitions, the formation of a United Kingdom of Great Britain by the 1707 Act of Union expressed a more primordial, territorial logic. As people inhabiting a comparatively small island, it was natural that the instinct of the English to defend their national territory should extend beyond the border with Scotland to the whole of Britain, especially as trade and technology led to both many more dealings and rivalries with our continental neighbours – and consequently, many more dangers of assault and invasion by sea and later by air. This thinking is still very much alive in one of the key rationales that is brought forward for preserving the United Kingdom today: that we share a single territory, whose defence and security is best assured by preserving a political union.

For these expedient, but also vital, reasons, the political dominion of England was extended beyond England and Wales to encompass Scotland, and thereafter Ireland. Or, putting this another way, the national and political entity (England, incorporating Wales) that was the inheritor of the ancient Roman / pre-Roman Britannia was extended to Caledonia, i.e. to the whole island of Britannia. This has led to the two Britains that we have today: the political Britain, the UK state, that in so many ways is in practice the English state in all but name, even to this day; and the territory of Britain, where the distinctions between England, Scotland and Wales are increasingly being marked by separate institutional and cultural expressions of national identity. One Britain that really is England: the product of English history, difference, and the defence of her independence and territorial integrity that extended to the whole of Britain. And another geographical Britain that encompasses the two nations of England and Scotland (if you include Wales and Cornwall – historically, Brythonic Celtic entities – within England / Britannia); or four nations if you regard Wales and Cornwall as nations that are seceding more from England than from a Britain which, politically, was always already only England.

But what we have, and what we have ever had, is certainly not one Britain. We do, or at least did, have a United – English – Kingdom of Great Britain, maybe; but this has never been a single, united nation in the territorial sense, and hence in all the other senses that really matter to a people that identify with a land.

And when England can once again celebrate and affirm its distinction from Britain, and take pride in all that it has achieved both under the guise of Britain and in its own name, then maybe the English football team, too, will see itself as the defender and inheritor of a great English nation: of its history and its future.



  1. I haven’t been watching Euro 2008 because England is not in it.

    I rarely watch football because it tends to be a bunch of foreigners kicking a ball about.

    I don’t watch England’s rugby union team because it fields players that have played for New Zealand at rugby league.

    I now no longer go to horse races because just about every jockey is Irish, and increasingly foreigners from other countries.

    I don’t miss any of it.

    Any Englishman who supports Arsenal, for example, is just one prize prat as far as I’m concerned. If Englishmen refused to watch such teams we might regain some national pride again.

    I place England above football, not football above England.

    Comment by Stephen Gash — 22 June 2008 @ 10.09 am | Reply

  2. “Any Englishman who supports Arsenal, for example, is just one prize prat as far as I’m concerned”

    Well a prize prat I must be then! Why pick on The Arsenal, Stephen. You sound like one of those morons who support Derby or Reading who chant “Engurlund, Engurlund” at us whilst overlooking the latest clogger who their manager has just signed from Wales or Estonia or Slovakia who they are bringing on to try and turn around a four goal deficit! What if I have been supporting Arsenal since the late 80’s when the only foreigner in our squad was a Stoke Newington born Irishman, should I just swap alliegences now? Let’s see there’s Spurs, oh no they’ve got Keane, Bale , Berbatov, Chimbonda, Zokora etc.etc. What about West Ham, no there’s Neill, Gabbidon, Spector, Ljungberg. OK there’s little old Fulham but wait, they’ve got Keller, Volz, Healy, Davies etc. So do you see a pattern forming here, Stephen? It aint just an Arsenal phenomena nor is it a recent thing as English teams have been filled with Irish, Scots and Welsh players since the dawn of football.

    Now I would like nothing more than to watch 11 lads from Islington, Holloway or Hackney taking to the field every week but where do you think we would end up adopting such a policy were it legal to do so? Really Stephen I thought better of you as your points of view usually have me nodding in agreement but that post sounds more like xenophobia than patriotism. As for disliking horse racing because there are too many Irish jockeys, well you must have stopped going before most of us were born then!

    There is a great deal wrong with English football but most of it is caused by the incompetence and spinelessnes of the FA. Don’t you think that a body with the interests of English football at heart would have done something about the “national” anthem or not appointed someone so obviously out of his depth as McLaren? If you have a problem with the way that football is run in this country it is they and not Arsenal or any other club who deserve your wrath.

    Comment by Little Englander — 22 June 2008 @ 6.33 pm | Reply

  3. Little Englander, though I would not put it in quite the same graphic terms as Stephen, I would tend to agree with his comment about Arsenal; but then again, as a Spurs supporter, I would do, wouldn’t I? You have to admit, though, that Arsenal are one of the worst offenders in the Premier League when it comes to fielding teams without English, or even British or Irish, players. But then I agree with you that the problem with the English game is the FA and, beyond that organisation, the excessive commercialisation of the club game, which means that financial success for the clubs, the Premier League and the FA becomes the main driver.

    I just think that if the whole English football establishment showed a bit more pride and commitment about gaining success for the national team, and put this pride before their money, we might have more of a chance of achieving something at international level. But the issue of national pride is a more general one, as my example of the difficulties footballers might have in feeling they are really playing for the whole nation was intended to illustrate.

    Comment by David — 22 June 2008 @ 11.26 pm | Reply

  4. David,

    As I have said I would prefer 11 local lads to turn out for Arsenal but that is unlikely to happen in the immediate future. The point which I am making is that it is very easy to knock The Arsenal but do you honestly think that we should have persisted with Jeffers and flogged Henry or not signed Vieira in the hope that Hillier fulfilled his potential? I also fail to see what relevance to the English national team signing non-English British and Irish players has. They may just as well be French or Sweedish!

    As much as our current squad is full of foreigners you can still make up a fairly decent squad made up of English players who have come through the youth system at Arsenal (Stuart Taylor, Justin Hoyte, Ashley Cole, Steve Sidwell, David Bentley etc.) not to mention a production line of many young English players coming through (Jack Wilshere, Gavin Hoyte, Kerrea Gilbert, Kieran Gibbs, Mark Randall and Henri Lansbury) who will have had one of the best footballing educations there is even if they fail to make the grade at Arsenal, something which I doubt most other clubs could claim.

    As you say the real problem with English football and the lack of national pride is the people who run the game who have consistantly not acted of the best interests of English football (such as potentially allowing Cardiff City to represent England in the UEFA cup) in which they are aided by a media and establishment who go out of their way to not claim ownership of the English national team as ours, for example the use of the term “England fans” when refering to English people following their national team as though they were supporting a club side rather than their country.

    Comment by Little Englander — 23 June 2008 @ 4.53 pm | Reply

  5. Did you dozy English not read the guys’ article? There has never been such a thing as ‘English football’, as untold hundreds if not thousands of Welsh, Irish and particulary Scots, came to England to teach you lot how to play. The resulting game was, at least, ‘British’, if not Scottish. Check your history, check your clubs’ history, trace all the non-English players, coaches, adminstrators, who have built the game in England, from the 1850’s through to the 1890’s. By then it was a mass participation spectator sport and big business. Do you really think that would have been achieved by the English alone? Dream on!

    I do agree that in the future the English should concentrate on their players. They have produced thousands of great players, but only one World Cup (at home, with built-in refs etc.. Time to focus on your own guys, you have the talent. Only Alf Ramsey understood what an English TEAM had to be. Take note of your own history and apply to today!

    Comment by Thamas the Rhymer — 23 June 2008 @ 5.07 pm | Reply

  6. Little Englander. As I said, I rarely watch football because it is full of foreigners and your list reinforces my point. I picked Arsenal not merely arbitrarily, but to my knowledge it is the first club to field a team with not a single English player in it and is run from top to bottom by foreigners. Even its stadium is The *Emirates* Stadium.

    Arsenal epitomises all that is wrong with English sport and indeed with England itself. Arsenal makes xenophobia a virtue.

    I have followed horseracing for over 30 years and although we had our fair share of Irish jockeys in the past an English jockey winning a Group 1 race is becoming as rare as rocking horse manure.

    Nowhere else have foreigners been allowed to take over sport as much as they have in England. In France there are French jockeys, in Germany, German and so on. None of these countries would allow such dominance of foreigners, legally or otherwise.

    The thing about the English, post WW 2, is that you make a rule and you’ll end up with some officious prat adhering to it with any recourse to common sense.

    I don’t care any longer about abuse being hurled my way, such as being called a bigot or xenophobe. Firstly because foreigners invented both (I suspect Scots), and secondly in “multicultural” Br*tain diversity actually means exclusivity with the English being the ones excluded. Except of course it is to abuse and discriminate against them.

    So I’m no longer averse to hurling a bit of abuse about myself these days.

    To reiterate, anybody who supports Arsenal (and I concede all other Premiership teams) must be a prize prat. It is they who are leading us to a Euro-league, which again will be full of foreigners, and making sure that real international (that is between countries) will die.

    All in the name of globalism and so-called free trade. Like I said xenophobia is really a virtue and will in fact be the saving of the world.

    True nationalism means looking after your own people and country while refraining from interfering in another’s. The totalitarian empire builders like Barroso and Gordon Brown have a compulsion to interfere in other countries.

    Comment by Stephen Gash — 25 June 2008 @ 1.36 pm | Reply

  7. I should have said “without recourse to any common sense”

    Comment by Stephen Gash — 25 June 2008 @ 1.38 pm | Reply

  8. Maybe Michel Platini’s suggestion of a limit to the number of foreign players per team isn’t such a bad idea, after all: how about three per side, including any substitutes used in a game? However, this would never get past the Eurocrats!

    Scottish and Irish players would be counted as ‘foreign’ in this context. But the case of Wales would be ambiguous, as the English league includes some Welsh teams: another instance like those I discuss, in fact, where England and Wales are more closely integrated than are England, Scotland and Ireland.

    Comment by David — 25 June 2008 @ 2.48 pm | Reply

  9. As you may know football doesn’t really figure on the radar in Cornwall and traditionally Rugby has always been our game. Rugby is a real phenomena in the Duchy with a quasi national level of support for all Cornish teams who play against a team from another nation.

    Of course plenty of Cornish people support the English Football and Rugby teams because after all we are good sports, but imagine if we were given true national teams for both these sports.

    Comment by Philip Hosking — 25 June 2008 @ 4.12 pm | Reply

  10. Stephen,

    I wasn’t hurling abuse at you, merely debating. I don’t really disagree with most of what you are saying, I just object to the singling out of Arsenal Football Club. It isn’t just an Arsenal problem it is one which affects every level of the profesional game. Incidently Arsenal were not the first club to field an all foreign XI as Liverpool did so in the mid 1980’s (albeit with a couple of Irishmen from Lancashire!) as did Chelsea in the early 2000’s. The problem is that it isn’t an issue which can be solved by one club alone or indeed the English clubs unilaterally, it can only happen if and when all clubs worldwide agree to a voluntery system of self regulation. To impose something on to clubs will only lead to legal challenges I fear, as happened with the Bosman case. David has raised the point about Michel Platini’s idea which would see clubs limited to five players who aren’t home grown playing for all clubs in Europe, but as he points out it will probably never happen for the reasons outlined above. There are also a couple of other problems with this idea as “home grown” means a player who has come through the youth system at a club who isn’t neccesarily English. As things stand a club can recruit a player under 16 from anywhere in Europe but not from more than 100 miles away in England. Arsenal or Spurs could quite legally recruit a 13 year old starlet from Warsaw but would be unable to do the same with a kid from Walsall! The other issue would be that it is quite conceivable for a local lad to be brought through as a “home grown” player only for them to decide to opt to play for another country when the time comes, an example of which you will see tonight when an Arsenal supporting Walthamstow lad is likely to play against Germany.

    There is an awful lot which the FA can do to improve the national side and install the same sort of pride in the players which is evident in countries like Croatia and Scotland. The first thing would be to change their area of jurisdiction. At the moment they are the administrators of football in England, Cornwall, Guernsey, Jersey and Man aswell as having Welsh clubs who are affiliated to them and who compete in their competitions. They should be re-named “The English FA” and have jurisdiction over football in England only. The clubs from outside England should be asked to politely leave and join their own FA’s competitions (in the case of Wales) or form their own national associations. Secondly, the “national” anthem. How can you expect players to be fired up to give their all for England when they are asked to stand for a song which doesn’t even mention the country for whom they are being asked to give 100% for? Thirdly, perhaps this is just a personal bug-bear, but why do we play in white and BLUE? Where is the blue in the English flag? Shouldn’t we play in all white trimmed with red as the Rugby team does? Finally, out of the FA’s control I know but they could ask for the media to start speaking of the national teams (in all sports not just football) as though they were just that, THE NATIONAL TEAM. In every other country in the World the national media refer to their national teams as WE or OUR and their players and supporters as Irish footballers, American athletes, Australian cricketers, Dutch fans etc.etc. It is only in England where the (British) “national” media consistently avoid speaking of English teams, players or supporters whilst refering to them as “they” rather than thinking of themselves as part of the same national community and getting behind them too. Perhaps when the day comes that an England team stands and belts out “Jerusalem” playing for a truely English team (rather than a UK/Crown Dependencies minus Scotland, Wales and NI one as is the de-facto case now) with an English media fully behind the team of eleven ENGLISHMEN rather than “England players” and without grudging analysis from a surley Scot working for a British “national” broadcaster, then we may have a chance of getting the same sort of pride in representing England as we presently see with Croatia, Germany, Australia and indeed most other nations around the World. I for one will have a tear in my eye should that ever happen in my lifetime.

    Comment by Little Englander — 25 June 2008 @ 6.41 pm | Reply

  11. Thanks, Little Englander; I agree with you. I’ve always thought the blue in the England kit comes from the blue in the Union Flag, i.e. from SCOTLAND! This is a vestige of the days when English people saw no distinction between England and Britain, and the Union Jack was paraded proudly by England football fans. Clearly, this identification has completely broken down now, and maybe we should play in all white as you suggest; although I kind of like the fact England plays basically in Spurs kit!

    Comment by David — 25 June 2008 @ 10.44 pm | Reply

  12. David,

    But don’t you now play in all white too?

    Comment by Little Englander — 26 June 2008 @ 7.23 am | Reply

  13. No, that was just one of those random one-season kit changes for merchandising purposes: we’re going back to the classic white and blue next season with our new Croatian and Mexican players!

    Comment by David — 26 June 2008 @ 7.47 am | Reply

  14. Don’t get me started on random kit changes. An Arsenal shirt with no white sleeves! Grrrrrrrr.

    Comment by Little Englander — 26 June 2008 @ 4.50 pm | Reply

  15. I agree with most of this post, but it’s worth noting that both France and particularly Spain are “problematic” nation-states, i.e. Parisian/Castillian “cores” with a large number of not very happy “regions” in their orbit containing ethnic and linguistic minorities who would be better off as autonomous states.

    Comment by Rob — 30 August 2013 @ 5.38 am | Reply

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