Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 August 2012

Great Britain is merely an Olympic nation

It is often said of England that it is just a football nation. By that, it is meant that England comes together as a nation, and has national institutions of its own, only when it comes to football competitions and to other sports where England has its own team or league, such as rugby union or cricket. There is some justification for this, in that England clearly is not a civic nation – either a sovereign state or a self-governing part of a larger state – but nonetheless has the footballing status of one. Indeed, it has superior status to other nation states’ football associations, in that the FA still has a veto on any rule changes to the beautiful game. England is a football nation, then, in part because it is the home of football.

The same could be said of Great Britain and the Olympics. The Olympics are now arguably the only occasion when ‘Great Britain’ unites as a nation. For a little while, albeit imperfectly, we forget that we are in fact three nations (or four, or five, if you include Northern Ireland and / or Cornwall – but that’s a different story) and get together behind ‘Team GB’, with the mandatory Union Flags being draped around the shoulders of our Olympic heroes (whether they want it or not – and how could they refuse?): all differences cloaked in the colours of a rediscovered British patriotism.

And just like England, Great Britain is not a civic nation. The civic nation, the sovereign state, is the United Kingdom (informally known as ‘Britain’, rather than Great Britain). But we choose to compete as Great Britain. Why? In part, this is so that Northern Irish athletes have the freedom to choose whether to represent Britain or the Republic of Ireland. In part, also, this is because ‘Great Britain’ can arguably claim to have originated the present Olympic movement, in that the first modern Olympic Games of any sort were held in England (in the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock from 1850 onwards), while Great Britain was an inaugural participant in the first international Games in 1896, and has taken part – as Great Britain – in every summer and winter Olympics since. The IOC president Jacques Rogge paid tribute to Great Britain’s Olympic heritage in his speech at the 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony, when he referred to the fact that Great Britain had in effect originated modern sport as such by codifying its rules: just as England is the home of football, the Olympics were in effect coming home by taking place in Great Britain in 2012.

So football and the Olympics are two global sporting institutions with which our nationhood – whether as England or Great Britain – is bound up as originator and ‘owner’. It’s almost as if those particular games – football and Olympic – are not just an incidental part of our national heritage and of our contribution to global culture, but are an integral part of what constitutes us as nations: we are not so much nations that rediscover our sense of nationhood through international sports competitions, but are nations who experience ourselves truly as nations only when playing the games that properly speaking are ours to begin with, and which we have given to the world. Temporarily, the existential void that exists where a secure sense of nationhood should be is filled with the passion of the game and the excitement of ‘representing’ the nation under the colours of the flag – be they red and white, or red, white and blue.

But who in fact are the ‘we’ who lack the grounded experience of nationhood that comes from national civic institutions, and from sovereign, national self-rule? Who are the ‘we’ who so lack ‘internal’ recognition as a nation, and the ability to feel pride about ourselves as a nation, that we feel validated only when we are able to stand as the first among equals amid the international community of nations which, in a sense, we have brought into existence in the particular form in which that community has come together, e.g. through football or the Olympics? Our fragile national egos stand poised perilously between non-existence – non-particularity – and internationality: perfectly reflected in the international world that England or Great Britain can claim to have created, insofar as our very internationality is said by some commentators to be the quintessence of our ‘British nationhood’ and of the new, confident Britishness that Team GB’s successes is helping to cement. Hence, ‘we’ see ourselves as a nation – and see ourselves only when – perfectly mirrored and validated by the admiring international community of nations: as being a ‘nation of nations’ – effectively, an international community of nations ourselves; Great Britain.

The ‘we’ who escape in this way from our everyday nationless state to the ludic, spectacular, imaginary and international nationhood of the Games that seem to define us as a nation are the English people. Whether the sporting team concerned is England or Great Britain, it is we the English people that lose ourselves in the short-lived high of imagining ourselves as a great nation, once more, on the international stage – reasserting our ownership of and identification with the global community by beating them at, literally, our own game, so that the international community has no choice other than to recognise us as truly a unique nation in their midst.

Looking only at the surface of things, it would be easy to conclude that the English patriotic fervour that accompanied the nation’s football team’s progress through international competitions, up until its dismal performance in the 2010 World Cup, was a radically different phenomenon from the outbreak of British patriotic fervour that has accompanied Team GB’s glittering successes at London 2012. But they are fundamentally the same: they are expressions of English people’s need to have a proud sense of nationhood, which is ‘fulfilled’ temporarily through sport. This is the case, not only because those sports ‘belong to us’ but because those feelings are denied in day-to-day life, where we live in a nationless state in the other sense: a state – the UK – that is not a nation and denies nationhood to the English. The blossoming of the Union Flag, sprouting in bunting and branding over shops, pubs and homes across England, is a continuation not a break from the similar sprouting of the Cross of St. George that has accompanied football tournaments in the past. The England team has let us down and dashed our pride; but now Team GB seems to be restoring it. Great Britain is an Olympic nation just as England is a football nation; and fundamentally, this is because the nation, the people, who identify with and rave about those countries’ respective sporting feats are in both cases the English.

Of course, on another level, England and Great Britain are completely different entities. But they are also non-entities – non-civic nations – and so are ironically perfect, interchangeable channels for our unfulfilled desire for replete nationhood. ‘Team UK’ or ‘Team Britain’ wouldn’t do the job, a) because they’re names for the state, not ‘the nation’, and b) because they are too difficult for English people to identify with – too neutral and un-English. ‘Great Britain’ can function as ‘the nation’ only because English people identify with it as their nation: as effectively a proxy for, and a more grandiose way of saying, ‘England’. This may seem counter-intuitive, because the outbreak of unionflagitis across England would tend to suggest the opposite: that English people are espousing a British-not-English identity. But in fact, it’s a British-because-English identity, and ordinary people across the land are, once again, failing to make the kind of categorical distinction between Britishness and Englishness that the promoters of those two brands might wish they did.

Take the woman in my local corner shop, who said “the whole of England” would have been cheering on Mo Farah to win the 5000m race on Saturday night; or my partner – a university-educated woman who’s just turned 50 – who persists unself-consciously in referring to ‘Team GB’ as ‘England’, to the extent that I’ve given up correcting her. This sort of attitude, and habit of thought and speech, is replicated up and down the land: Team GB is simply viewed as an ‘English’ team, and all distinction between England and Britain is swept away in a tide of Union Flags.

This is the opposite effect from that which the political and media establishment, along with the liberal promoters of a self-sufficient Britishness, believe has been achieved. For them, saying ‘Great Britain’ is a way to avoid saying ‘England’ and invoking English nationhood; but for the English people, supporting Team GB is just another way of being patriotically English. This has been obvious from the extent to which the BBC, in its Olympics coverage, has been desperate to prevent any mention of Team GB athletes’ English identity, and to correct them whenever they referred to ‘England’ or ‘English’ competitors. Ironically, of course, the sheer fact of imposing an exclusively British identity on English sportsmen and -women only – while allowing ‘non-English’ British athletes to celebrate a dual identity (Scottish and British, or Somali and British) – reinforces the very Englishness of Britishness: the fact that Britishness, and the British patriotism of the Games, is at root just an expression of Englishness. English athletes who carelessly let the word ‘England’ slip from their mouths are in effect giving the Game away, in both senses: the Olympic Games being by definition an opportunity to celebrate a supposedly inclusive Britishness.

Liberal commentators have played along with this establishment game, observing how Team GB’s supposedly multicultural (by which is really meant multi-ethnic) composition, and the support the Team received across the social spectrum, illustrate and consolidate a new inclusive, civic Britishness. It achieves this, however, only if all reference to England and Englishness is systematically eliminated. Britishness is an inclusive identity only on the basis of England’s exclusion. The inclusive, civic Britishness is predicated on the idea that no nationality has any claim to being a pre-eminent or core element of British identity or culture. England is that core, and so it must be eradicated; and English people are only allowed to be British – or, as I said above, only English people must be British-only.

And this illustrates what the Olympic nation that is Great Britain – Team GB – actually is at root: it’s a flight from English nationhood, mostly by English people themselves, into the idealised, international nationhood that is ‘Britain’. But it needs to tap into English patriotism to gain the loyalty and support of the masses. So rather than succeeding in cancelling out English nationality, ‘Great Britain’ is nothing without it.

Great Britain, in other words, is merely an Olympic nation; but the real nation that underlies it, and will outlive the four-yearly enthusiasm for Team GB, is England.

29 July 2012

Further thoughts on the Olympics opening ceremony: a new British nationalism

At two days’ remove from the London Olympics opening ceremony, I’ve been able to form a clearer idea of what its underlying narrative was and why it appeals so strongly to lovers of all things British. In short, the ceremony enacted a journey from a pre-industrial, rural, geopolitically undefined Britain made up of the four historic nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to a unified, modern, post-industrial, technological and urban British nation formed from the fusion of the historic nations together with the cultures and peoples that have immigrated to Britain in the post-war era.

Hence, although it was to some extent gratifying that the show began with the singing of the national anthems, or would-be national anthems, of the four historic nations, this places those nations firmly in the pre-modern past; whereas those same four nations were not represented as having any place or voice in the multi-ethnic Britain of today. [And at this point, I’ll just observe that Cornwall had no recognition whatsoever.] In other words, the ceremony dramatised the narrative of the new British nationalism, which sees ‘Britain’ as a civic nation to which all can belong on equal terms – those of an immigrant background alongside ‘native Britons’ – and which subsumes and traverses the supposedly more ethnic identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The face of the nation that the ceremony presented to the world was that of multi-ethnic, mono-national Britain, in contradistinction to a historically mono-ethnic (i.e. white) but multi-national Britain.

But is this multi-ethnic face merely skin-deep? Why, for instance, did Boyle not have the courage of his Briticist convictions, and make the girl and boy that hook up via a Facebook-type social network towards the end of the narrative section of the ceremony a white-black couple, instead of having the female part played by a black-white mixed-race girl and the male role taken by a black boy? Would it have been too shocking and unacceptable to the great British public, even today, to make a white girl getting together with a black boy the focal point of the whole multi-ethnic narrative? Or why not have a white man getting it on with a black girl – or is that too suggestive of the history of colonialism and slavery the ceremony refused to touch upon? How truly multi-ethnic is this brave new Britain if such a black and white beast with two backs is unpalatable to the viewing public?

This particular point touches upon the whole vacuity of the ceremony’s representation of modern Britain, with the multi-ethnic youth dancing in harmony to the fusion beats of grime music and the like. Merely one year ago, the multi-ethnic youth of areas such as Hackney – just down the road from the Olympic stadium – were rocking to a different beat as they smashed shop windows and burnt buildings to the ground. Which is the more authentic vision of contemporary Britain? Possibly both, or neither; or perhaps, one is the hope and the other is the experience. And the experience of many young English urbanites is a lack of meaningful opportunities and hope for work, education, or a better future for themselves and their families. The children may play – in the Olympics or in the disinhibited freedom of the riot – but how will they live? What are their prospects in an England denied recognition by the British state, and as citizens on the ethnic and economic margins of a marketised British society? Will the glittering spectacle of the Olympics, to which they are denied access, make them feel even more alienated from the opportunities and successes that seem reserved for a social elite: bankers, corporations, Olympians?

The opening ceremony identified Britain firmly with the Olympic ideal of nations fusing together as the Olympic rings emerged from the mills that made modern Britain. But is this ideal, in Britain’s case, a mere forgery: a fake, counterfeit image whose underlying reality is far more disunited, chaotic and ugly?

28 July 2012

Isles of Wonder, or a world left wondering?

So what are we to make of last night’s Olympics opening ceremony? Firstly, I would have to say that it was indeed spectacular and impressive, and many moments stood out that will doubtless linger on in the memory, such as the factory funnels emerging from [England’s] green and pleasant land; the Olympic rings being forged in the steel mills; and the magnificent solution they come up with for lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Now for the criticism. It would be easy to be churlish and run off a list of all the many aspects of British and English history that were glossed over or left out altogether. The ones that stuck out in my mind were the history of Empire and slavery, and the darker moments of our industrial past; although the ‘Satanic mills’ segment of last night’s show did allude to those in a gentle way. You could also mention Magna Carta; the long story of Christianity as a central pillar of the UK nations’ society and culture; the role of sports not included in the Olympics, such as rugby and cricket (or those which, from an English point of view, should not be represented by a British team, such as football); and the history of violence in English society, for which we are infamous throughout the world, as typified by football hooliganism and last summer’s riots.

Similarly, I thought that some of the history in the performance was a bit garbled and skewed, such as when there was a brief moment of remembrance for the victims of World Wars I and II, and the narrative then returned to 19th-century industrial scenes. How about remembering the victims of all wars Great Britain, and then the UK, has been involved in, including the American War of Independence, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Crimean and Boer Wars? Perhaps just a tad sensitive vis-à-vis our US, French, Russian and African guests – so the ceremony shied away from those out of political correctness.

Politically correct does really sum it up, although this was not always compatible with factually correct. I’m thinking, for example, of the celebration of the NHS, which pretended that there is still a ‘UK NHS’, true to its founding principles. The truth, as we know, is that there are now four NHS’s – one for each of the UK’s nations – and that the English one has just recently been opened up to private market forces. Of course, I suppose the creator of last night’s spectacular, Danny Boyle, could have been making another political point by making ‘the NHS’ such a centrepiece; although, if he was, this was again very subtle and indirect, and glossed over the fact that the NHS – the British one – is no more. Perhaps, rather, we should interpret the NHS bit as a celebration of ‘British times past’, of bygone Britain, like most of the rest of the show.

This was in fact a highly backward- and inward-looking, nostalgic and retro view of Britain, and will probably confirm to people of many other countries just how self-important, arrogant and insular ‘the British’ are. ‘Oh’, they might say, ‘so Britain invented the industrial revolution, unionism, women’s rights and suffrage, modern sport, popular music and the World Wide Web, did they?’ Apart from the fact that this is not strictly true, it’s all historical. What is its relevance to the present, and what sort of vision of its future does ‘Great Britain’ have today? And what is its relevance to the many other participating nations that are going through similar convulsions in the present? Has Britain learned something from its past that can help it to guide those other countries and help prepare a sustainable future for the community of nations going forward? What about a vision for a sustainable planet – post-industrial for countries like Britain but still very industrial for many developing nations – to present to all the nations gathered symbolically in the Olympic stadium and watching via the medium, TV, that was invented and first used in live broadcasts in Britain? And what were they to make of all of the ‘in’ cultural references that only British, and sometimes only English, people could really relate to? ‘God, these people are so damn introverted and up their own proverbials!’

The truth of the matter is that ‘Great Britain’ doesn’t actually have a vision of its future nor of its place in a rapidly evolving world. In no small measure, that’s because Great Britain is indeed a historical relic in itself: neither ever a proper, unified nation in its past; nor, certainly, a nation or polity in the present that is capable of expressing and mediating the hopes, aspirations, national sentiment or desire for deeper democracy on the part of its respective constituent nations.

So last night’s event was perhaps after all a fitting celebration of what it means to be British: a multifarious community with a strong sense of its past but no vision for the future. Isles of Wonder and historical reverie, indeed; but one that would have left the rest of the world wondering.

2 June 2012

The British patriotic colours of the English

As an English patriot and nationalist, I wonder whether I should be dismayed at the explosion of British patriotism that is accompanying the queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations this weekend. One could be tempted to think that all the patient efforts that have been made, and the slow progress that has been achieved, towards articulating and celebrating a distinct English identity and politics, separate from the British, have been reversed in a single weekend as the English lapse into their archaic, feudal reverence for their British monarchical overlords.

But I’m not sure that such gloom and doom would be justified. People are just getting swept up into a tribal mega-celebration. Meanwhile, I feel like the supporter of a small, local football team within the catchment area of a much bigger and more successful club – say, a Tranmere Rovers follower surrounded by Liverpool and Everton fans: my simple all-white colours dwarfed by the red, white and blue of those other clubs as they celebrate winning the Premier League and the FA Cup respectively in the same season! Some chance I’ve got to show off my more modest loyalties! Indeed, I’m not surprised that not many cars, homes or shops are – yet – decked out with the red and white of England that one might otherwise expect to be sprouting from first-floor windows and the tops of car doors during the run up to Euro 2012. If one were, during this weekend, to display the Cross of St. George instead of the all-conquering emblem of the Union Flag from one’s car or front window, it would be like turning up to a posh garden party in an England shirt instead of the black tie that was stipulated on the invite.

Clearly, however, British patriotism is alive and well, and living in England, and possibly in the UK’s other nations, though not to the same extent or in the same home nation-denying way. I have to say I’ve been a bit surprised and disappointed by it, although I perhaps shouldn’t have been. It’s probably too early to draw many conclusions about the long-term impact of the ‘Great British Summer’ on the English identity and the possibility of a distinct English politics. I think one thing it illustrates – which has been confirmed by surveys over the years – is that more English people than any other category in fact make no distinction between Englishness and Britishness, and see absolutely no conflict between displaying both British and English patriotism, though not simultaneously. It will be interesting to see whether there is a similar explosion of English English patriotism around Euro 2012 once the sound and fury of the Jubilee has subsided – especially if, against the odds, the England team progresses through to the quarter- or semi-final. Will people’s patriotic fervour be too worn out after the Jubilee festivities to get wound up again and refocused on England for Euro 2012? Well, a great deal depends on the performance of the team. Come on, England!

In this context, it was again disappointing that the (supposedly English) FA has chosen to run with the ridiculous away England kit that the team modelled in its friendly against Norway last Saturday: navy blue shirts and light blue shorts.

For a start, these are not England colours (which are, of course, red and white) but are Union colours; indeed, Scottish colours. It is as if the FA has aped the England-denying design philosophy of the British Olympic Association, which opted for Stella McCartney’s all-dark and pale blue Union Jack design for this year’s British Olympics kit (see below).

Look, guys, you might as well re-brand the England football team ‘Team GB’ now and have an end of it! Have these men at the FA got no sense of national pride and heritage? Why can’t they just stick to the red shirts and white shorts of proud 1966, Bobby Moore, World Cup-winning memory? I tell you why: it’s about commercialism. They’ve gone with the England-denying trend of the whole Jubilympics year – thinking, presumably, that English football fans, like suckers, will flock to buy the new kit to replace the red England shirts that are now surplus to requirements. Well, all I hope is that the kit bombs, along with the Olympic kit, and that if the England team does progress to the knock-out stages of Euro 2012, it’s drawn against teams where it has to wear its home kit, which, at least, has expunged the Union blue.

But there’s another thing I’d like to say about the England away kit for Euro 2012. I don’t know of a single incidence, apart from this, of a professional football team’s colours that have violated an unspoken design rule for football kits: that the shorts should not be in a lighter colour than the shirts, unless they are white. Just think for a moment: do you know of any team that plays in, say, red shirts and yellow shorts; or black shirts and red shorts; or, more to the point, dark blue shirts and light blue shorts? I don’t, although I’m sure people could trawl up some obscure examples.

This unwritten rule seems to have as its premise that combinations of dark-coloured shirts and light-coloured shorts (apart from white, which is seen a non-colour) suggest weakness and lack of masculine power: basically, you need to have a strong, male colour in your pants, or no colour at all. This England kit suggests emasculated weakness. It’s a losing kit, as opposed to England’s winning kit of 1966: full-blooded red shirts, with masculine (and English) white in the groin area. The most successful English club teams have all played in red, though it hurts me to say so: Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. And of course, so did the English national team in its hour of glory. So why on earth isn’t this England team going to do so? Do they actually want the team to lose?

All I can hope is that the England team goes on to indeed defy the odds and perform successfully in Euro 2012 in its home kit of white with red trim. Let’s see England’s streets bedecked in England’s colours, and so let the memory of this weekend’s Union fervour fade rapidly into the distance!

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