Friday 16 July 2021

Another country?

The big story of the week is football. Given the volume of comment there has been, it’s difficult to say anything which is interesting or original but, as mentioned in my previous post, it’s hard not to connect it with Brexit so I’ll try to say something about it even though I don’t know much about football (I support Crystal Palace, boom-boom).

For some, of course, the connection is of a negative sort in that the whole tournament could be seen as welcome for being nothing to do with Brexit or politics. Or, which may be a different version of the same thing, as showing how the divisions of Brexit could be healed. A few suggested that England’s success represented a triumph of Brexit. Others thought that Gareth Southgate, in particular, and his team in general, articulated and embodied a new progressive patriotism that was at odds with Brexit. Some in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may have wondered what a Number 10 decked out with St George’s flags had to do with them.

Then came the post-tournament fall-out over taking the knee, booing taking the knee (and the condemning or condoning of that), the thuggery of some supporters, the racist attacks on England’s black footballers, and their and others’ responses to it. Unavoidably, this is about politics. Unavoidably, too, it is an aspect of the culture wars that have been simmering over Brexit itself as well as over racism, the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism, ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’ politics, and, at the most generic level, over the (different) questions of what it now means to be English and of what it now means to be British.

A nation not at ease with itself

There can never be a single answer to such questions. The idea of a ‘united’ country is necessarily a somewhat absurd one, all the more so when, as with the UK, it is made up of more than one country. National cultures are just too complex and heterogenous to be capturable in any one way, and attempts to make them so are likely to be unpleasantly totalitarian and, even then, not to be fully realized. For that matter, the received image that World War Two Britain saw ‘everyone pulling together for the common good’ is somewhat misleading, as can be seen from the many published Mass Observation diaries, as well as the work of historians like Angus Calder.

Even so, there has been a palpable sense during the Brexit years of Britain as a country more than usually riven, and more than usually divided over both its understanding of its own past and its present-day meaning, let alone its future direction. It has become a cliché that whereas the 2012 London Olympics seemed to present a country that had some comfort with itself, Brexit slammed into that like a wrecking ball. So whilst the notion of a ‘nation at ease with itself’ is a rather illusory one, it has been tangible since Brexit that Britain is a nation that isn’t at ease with itself.

Some of that is to do with race and ethnicity. Manifestly Britain isn’t the only country where that is so, so it would be lazy to ascribe everything to Brexit. It is also lazy to explain Brexit solely, or even necessarily mainly, in terms of anti-immigration sentiment - but it would be entirely dishonest to deny it having been a significant driver. For all that some Brexiters may have disowned it, they were content to profit from, for example, the UKIP “Breaking Point” poster.

Certainly the promise to end freedom of movement of people was a major factor in the vote to leave, and also a decisive one in the subsequent decision that that meant leaving the single market.  And the post-Brexit culture war has been very much conducted on the terrain of ‘cracking down’ on asylum seekers and of controlling immigration (though both of these pre-date Brexit) as well as things like the battles over statues with associations with slavery and colonialism.

But that culture war has other fronts as well. Examples include ongoing skirmishes over ‘cancel culture’ and freedom of speech. In particular, there are remarkably strong connections and overlaps between Brexit and anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown and anti-mask positions. That may be less of a cleavage between leave and remain voters, but is fairly clear at the level of the high-profile Brexiter leaders in politics and the media – Farage being the most obvious example, and the links between the ERG and the ‘Covid Recovery Group’ of Tory MPs being another.

Johnson’s vulnerability

Within all this, Boris Johnson has clearly been an important figure but in a rather peculiar way. Despite fronting the Vote Leave campaign, his commitment to Brexit was never very deep or genuine and, as is well-known, he nearly backed remain. Covid forced him into backing restrictions which, undoubtedly, he would have opposed had he not been Prime Minister, and his antipathy to them explains why he was always late to adopt them and usually gives the impression that he doesn’t fully support them.

Crucially, it is clearly the case that fomenting the culture war has been part of a deliberate strategy developed by senior government advisers (£) who see it as central to holding together Johnson’s electoral coalition. It is this strategy which has now caught him out – especially in refusing to condemn the booing of knee-taking and then, with wearying inevitability, lying about it – in the same way as it has caught out Priti Patel.

It remains to be seen how this now plays out, but Johnson’s particular vulnerability is the naked opportunism of his desire for popularity, which makes charges of hypocrisy easy and, therefore, public conviction on those charges an ever-present possibility, especially now that it brings him into conflict with the likeable, gifted, articulate and extremely popular English football stars. If nothing else, it exposes the difference between ‘popular’ and ‘populist’, something which some Tories are now realizing and which the Labour Party has begun to explore.

2016: the national conversation we didn’t know we were having

Johnson’s fate isn’t, however, the main issue in the football rows. What is more important, I think, is that they show an appetite for a ‘national conversation’ (whatever that might actually mean) about ‘what kind of country’ – or, rather, countries - we are which challenges the apparent victory of the Brexiter narrative of ‘the people’. The latter didn’t happen as the result of such a national conversation but emerged, almost accidentally, as the result of a sort of smash and grab raid because, at the time of the referendum, few people quite understood what was going on (I certainly didn’t).

That was perhaps because the general assumption, on all sides, was that remain would win. So we didn’t really know that we weren’t just deciding whether or not to leave the EU but were engaged in something which was about to shape the entirety of what ‘we’ – the United Kingdom, England – meant, both for ourselves and for how we are seen abroad. (A recent example of the latter is German journalist Annette Dittert’s evisceration of Johnson’s regime.)

So, in a way which wouldn’t have been the case had remain won, literally overnight a radical alteration occurred in the terrain and texture of politics. Very soon it became clear that the Brexit process wasn’t going to be just one of ‘technical’ adjustments but would be a battle for Britain’s ‘political soul’. With that, it emerged, as I wrote a few weeks ago, that Brexit had, in effect, ‘cancelled’ half the population as being of no account and an idea that they are unpatriotic or, even, anti-patriotic. Perhaps now they are finding a voice again. At all events, as I suggested in that post, it’s not sustainable for a country to simply dismiss half its population, and the younger, more educated half at that, as an irrelevance.

Redefining patriotism

That’s not to say that the football rows line up leavers and remainers for, as it were, a cultural penalty shoot-out (for one thing, it won’t have such a decisive outcome). The lines are much less clearly drawn than that. But they do involve an adjacent set of distinctions between mono- and multi-culturalism, exclusivity and inclusivity, insularity and openness, and between simplistic and complex understandings of history, culture and nationhood. Football is a potent terrain for that because these rows are about the national team (of England), and so deny the fault-line as being between patriots and non-patriots, or between those who ‘love the country’ versus ‘those who would talk it down’. Rather, and quite starkly, the fault-line becomes between two competing versions of what the country is, of whose country it is, and of what patriotism means.

During the referendum (and, in fact, for years before) a common expression, or complaint, amongst pro-Brexit people was ‘I just want my country back’. That was often code for hostility to immigration, but it also referenced a wider set of actual or perceived lost stabilities. With Brexit, though it seems hardly to have diminished the complaint (since it is an essentially unsatisfiable desire), they have got their country back. But it was an expression which was predicated on other people losing their country as, with Brexit, many felt they did, and those people are still, for the most part, here. There was, literally, no possibility of reversing time so as to ‘get back’ something which, even if it had ever existed, no longer did so, and couldn’t be voted into being. In fact, to the extent it was a promise of Brexit, it was another of the false promises of Brexit.

Challenging inverted snobbery

As well as breaking through the false division of the patriotic and the unpatriotic, the football rows are significant in breaking the associated attempt of populist inverted snobbery to draw an essential divide between ‘ordinary’ working-class people and the supposedly sneering, university-educated middle-class.

That is an inadequate way of understanding the Brexit vote, as for example research on ‘comfortable leavers’ shows. It is also, ironically, a hugely patronizing and stereotypical view of class and of region, in which the ‘people up north’ are imagined as pigeon-fancying, leave-voting, terrace house dwellers who have never been to university and enjoy nothing more than a pint of wallop, whilst liberal metropolitan remain-voting southerners sit around sipping Sancerre and discussing Derrida with the au pair in their Tuscan holiday homes.

Needless to say, many of the most earnest of these heroic culture warriors are, in fact, well-heeled, London-based graduates but ‘will have you know’ that their grandfather on their mother’s side was a coal miner which, by some mysterious process of genetic and historical osmosis, makes them the voice of the people. It sometimes seems as if their politics is a decades-long reaction to the excitement of hearing Pulp’s Common People played at a JCR disco in 1995.

In any case, it manifestly falls apart when it involves positioning footballers like Marcus Rashford - who actively and effectively campaigned for free school meals drawing on his own childhood experiences of poverty in Manchester, and is an inspirational role model to people of all kinds of backgrounds and ages - as out of touch or engaged in ‘gesture politics’.

The role of masculinity?

There’s perhaps also something to be said about masculinity in all this, although it is hard to pin down. The Brexit vote was evenly split in terms of gender, but there’s an undercurrent of macho bravado about ‘going it alone’ and in the associated culture war attack on ‘remoaners’, ‘snowflakes’ and ‘cry babies’, as well as a definite sense amongst some lockdown sceptics of ‘masks being for wimps’.

Even harder to pin down, but discernible I think, is an implicit idea of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ of whatever gender as being effete, and the ‘authentic working class’ of whatever gender as being rugged and earthy. Again, it’s hard to position professional footballers as effete wimps, so the polarizing dyads of the culture war work less effectively here as well.

Within this there is an interesting and subtle twist. Because in some ways these footballers are re-writing traditional machismo, including that associated with football, in the way they emphasise cooperation and solidarity. Apart from the conduct of the team during the tournament, that was evident in the support Rashford gave to another fine British sporting talent, the tennis player Emma Raducanu.

Radacunu, whose Canadian-Chinese-Romanian background itself bespeaks of a multi-cultural Britain, whilst making her a target for social media mutterings that she’s not ‘really’ British, had had to withdraw from Wimbledon suffering what appeared to be an anxiety attack. She should take advice on how to “toughen up”, opined Piers Morgan; “you should be proud of yourself”, said Rashford.

A new conversation?

So in just the same way as the referendum vote became, even if it was unexpected and unplanned that it should be so, an occasion for redefining national identity, there is a kind of pent-up desire for that process, having been started, to continue. For a while, under the bludgeon of ‘the will of the people’ it couldn’t quite happen, but it has kept trying to attach itself to suitable occasions – the ‘Harry and Meghan’ rows are perhaps an example – and football is the latest and most potent of them.

How long this episode lasts, and how significant it is, remains to be seen. But in some form or another I think the process is certain to continue as regards both England and Britain. That is because not only is the notion of a ‘unified culture’ a myth, but so too is that of a static one. Culture, in its anthropological meanings, isn’t a branch of the heritage industry. It is also – as studies of organizational culture show, but the same is perhaps even more true of national culture – remarkably resistant to ‘top-down’ management of the sort being attempted by the present government through, for example, its efforts to exert control universities, heritage organizations, and the BBC.

Writing on his blog this week, David Allen Green points out that “those who start culture wars can also lose them”, whilst Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu in Byline Times suggest that the football rows may represent a point when the tide turns in Johnson et al.’s culture war. It certainly seems to have impaled GBNews on the inherent contradiction between positioning itself as ‘anti-woke’ yet proclaiming to stand for free speech. But I’m not sure that culture wars ever have a decisive outcome, and it’s worth noting that the usual self-styled ‘contrarians’ have been quick to fight back this week.

That said, to the extent that the current one has its proximate roots in the Brexit vote, it’s significant that, along with and closely linked to educational level, the best predictor of how people voted in 2016 was age. In that sense the electoral success of Johnson’s approach may be rather time-limited - something Conservative strategists are well aware of (£). Equally, that means there are opportunities, especially for the Labour Party, to catch the tide if not of history then of its close cousin, demography.

But, to reiterate, this is not just or mainly about political parties, although they affect and are affected by it. It is a wider matter, not created but exacerbated by Brexit, of identity and belonging. Football is only incidental to that, but primarily because it is popular it offers an arena – after years of talk of ‘the will of the people’ and of ‘enemies of the people’ – to ask what manner of people the English and, if indirectly, the British are.

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