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.

27 November 2007

Are England crap at football?

You’d think so to listen to all the wailing and gnashing of teeth there’s been since England were dumped into the outer darkness of non-qualification for Euro 2008! Nothing illustrates better the English character trait of self-deprecation than our chest-beating response to sporting failure. How different the reaction would have been had we held on to the 2-2 score line! Then it would have been a ‘dogged fight back’: the ‘never-say-die Dunkirk spirit’ whereby our ‘under-par side’ had determinedly held on to qualification. Not pretty but professional and effective. A very English defeat that was, then, and a very English victory that wasn’t: overhyped and self-depreciating in equal measure.

I should say that, as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, I’m used to making excuses for footballing under-achievement! But was England’s failure as abject as people are making out? Let’s look at the facts: we were without our two most influential and experienced defenders, including the captain John Terry. We were also without two world-class, match-winning strikers, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. This absence of key team members was compounded by the coach’s error in dropping the goalkeeper Paul Robinson in favour of Scott Carson, who’d never played a full international, let alone one as crucial as this one. This created extra uncertainty in defence, with a group of defenders not used to playing with each other joined by a new keeper lacking the confidence to boss his area. I’m sure that had Robinson played, the first goal would never have happened; and had Terry and Ferdinand been on the pitch, the striker who ghosted in for the second would have been picked up and blocked.

This lack of leadership also translated itself to midfield. Why did McLaren insist on playing both Gerrard and Lampard, when they hardly ever work well together, and seem to cramp each other’s style and natural tendency to impose their stamp on midfield? Gerrard should have been played on his own (and substituted by Lampard if it wasn’t working out) with someone like Owen Hargreaves in the anchor role, where he displayed such flair in another crucial game: in the World Cup quarter-final against Portugal in 2006. And then to change the formation to 3-5-1-1 – or whatever it was they played – rather than stick with predictable old 4-4-2, which at least was working, is absolutely daft for such a big match.

All of which must give the impression that I do think the performance was inept. Yes, mistakes were made; but there was also not a little misfortune. There aren’t many teams missing four of their top players who would have been unaffected by their absence, something which was largely unremarked upon amid the orgy of self-castigation. I’m sure the Croatians would have been greatly encouraged by the fact their names were missing from the team sheet.

And what about the Croatians? Sure, they’re not Brazil, although they had a Brazilian playing for them! But there’s a rather arrogant assumption being made that it was especially humiliating that England’s defeat should come at the hands of such a small, ‘insignificant’ nation with a population about 8% that of England’s. What have the Croatians ever done in football, people say? Well, Croatia has existed as an independent country for only 16 years, and in that time, they’ve been regular qualifiers for the World Cup and the European Championship; they even reached the semi-final of the World Cup in 1998, beating Germany in the process. The former Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a part, was also quite a footballing force and reached the final of the European Nations Cup twice in the 1960s, which is more than England have done.

In other words, you could compare Croatia in football terms to a country like Holland: small but with a distinguished tradition and elevated skill level. The latter was certainly in evidence last Wednesday as they gave the highly paid English stars a run for their money. But what was most impressive, I thought, was the level of commitment and energy they brought into winning a game where they didn’t even need a draw, doubtless spurred on by the roars of their 4,000-odd supporters who conspicuously out-shouted their normally more vocal English counterparts. Here’s a country only recently set free from the shackles of a larger state where they were dominated by their age-old neighbours and rivals, the Serbs; and the players seemed to really inject their game with patriotic pride and a will to win.

Now, what does that remind us of? ‘Scotland the Brave’, goes out the cry from north of the border! Maybe the rejuvenation of the Scottish football team also owes not a little to the boost to Scotland’s national pride that has been provided by the establishment of limited self-government and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that Scotland now actually has a meaningful official status as a distinct nation – which England does not. But Scotland also went out of the tournament, admittedly in the face of sterner opposition than England (both world champions Italy and France being in their group). However, for Scotland, their team’s unlucky last-minute downfall to the Italians was a heroic defeat. A similar loss by England would have been viewed by the media as farcical and inadequate just as was last Wednesday’s rude lesson administered at the hands of the Croatians. Deservedly so, one might well say: the Croatians are to the English what the Scots are to the Italians, in both population and footballing terms. But if you’re going to adopt that argument, then you’d have to say that it was to be expected that England should be pipped to the post by the much more numerous Russians – except that, on the balance of the two games between them, England got the better of the Russians. And you’d fancy both Croatia and England to beat Scotland more times than not; and Croatia also beat Italy at the 2002 World Cup group stage.

The point of all this is that the size of the population has nothing to do with it. After all, when it comes down to it, it’s still a case of 11 players on each side (or 21 players in each squad). A team is greater than the sum of its parts, and the Croatian team were fired up by their patriotic pride and will to win to achieve a little bit of greatness that belies the size of their country. It’s this above all that’s lacking from the England team and the organisation of the national side in general. There are many reasons for this: the much greater priority that is placed on the club game than on the national team; the fact that it’s the clubs predominantly that pay the players’ exorbitant wages and offer footballers at that level their most realistic chance of winning trophies – so they don’t want to go and get injured playing for England; and the fact that so many Premier League clubs prefer the short cut to success of bringing in imported talent for less cost than English players (see Blame Gordon Brown for England’s defeat) rather than making the longer-term investments in home-grown football skills. In this, football is a bit of a metaphor for modern Britain itself: commercial interests and selfish ambition dominate at the expense of opportunities for working-class people from our own country; and English football, in the guise of the Premier League, is offered up as a lucrative media product to a global market. So world superstars are what have to be served up to the paying public; not working-class lads being given a chance to make it for their local team.

Or promising talent being given a chance to make it through the national team . . .. Maybe the way to counteract the lack of motivation to play for one’s country for its own sake is to build an England team from the kind of young, raw talent that is not being given so much of a chance to make it in the club game. Perhaps the next England manager should bypass the egos and agents that exploit the national team as a form of self-promotion and product placement, and with whom the commercial managers at the FA are blandly complicit. The new coach should get together a group of talented youngsters who can be motivated to see the England side as the primary avenue through which they can strive for greatness and success in football, rather than the club game. There are plenty of gifted young footballers at Premier League or Championship clubs who are not being given the opportunity to establish themselves as first-team regulars and who are unlikely to ever win anything in the era of the dominance of the Top Four along with a few also-rans. Well, perhaps they should be given the chance to establish themselves as England regulars, and let’s forget about the superstars whose loyalty lies with their clubs. In this way, a true team can be developed: players who grow up together and get used to playing – and who want to play – for each other and for England. The England team and set up could become something along the lines of what top football clubs used to be: places where young English talent can be nurtured, trained and built into a winning combination that is greater than the sum of its parts.

England needs a football team whose players want to win for England more than for themselves and their clubs – just like the Croatians last week. That, together with official nation status that will eventually come from an English parliament or independence, could provide the injection of pride that England needs to achieve success at international football. Indeed, can there be success at international level unless we truly wish to achieve greatness and succeed as a nation?

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