Inorte 1973, when I was eight years old, Inglaterra played an infamous, ill-fated World Cup qualifier against Poland at Wembley. Watching on television, I had a rather strange take on the biggest football match I had ever seen. Schooled in anti-establishment shtick by my older brother, and in awe of his 16-year-old dinner-table deconstructions of Britain’s postimperial delusions, I found myself supporting the underdog Poles.
When Jan Domarski broke away to score the goal that would put Inglaterra out of the competition, I danced on the sofa in jubilation. I seem to recall my brother looking at me as if I was out of my mind.
It seems safe to say that 1960s radicalism and its legacy had less impact on the England manager, Gareth Southgate, who would have been three at the time of that national footballing humiliation. As his remarkable open letter, Dear England, confirmed this week, a thread of continuity instead links Southgate’s values and way of viewing the world back to the 1950s, and a one-nation ethos that dominated Britain’s politics in the aftermath of war.
In the letter, written to defend the decision of his players to continue “taking the knee” during the Euro 2020 partidos, Southgate mentions the enormous influence of his grandfather, Arthur Toll, a Royal Marine and second world war veteran. The inherited values he highlights are those of serving the nation and of loyalty to “Queen and country”.
The army is celebrated as an institution in which special bonds of solidarity are inculcated. Before the 2018 World Cup, Southgate took the England team to a military training camp to cultivate a sense of “the importance of the person next to you”, and an ethos of mutual dependency. His is a worldview that is small-c conservative, with its moral focus on the wider community, its symbols and its history.
Not the kind of stuff, luego, that normally sets the pulses of the liberal left racing. But Southgate’s letter quickly went viral, and has been justly acclaimed as a towering contribution to an angry and divisive debate. Labor, and the left more generally, can learn a lot from it.
Instinctively, Southgate bypasses progressive discomfort with the idea of Englishness per se and makes an unashamedly patriotic case for a more inclusive country. The themes of time, nationhood, pride and collective experience – rather than an abstract assertion of universal rights – are the channels through which his argument flows, linking the postwar generations. From memories of his grandfather to recollections of watching the England football team as a boy, to the journeys of his own players from often humble beginnings, the letter chronicles the interweaving of individual biographies with the bigger national story over time.
It is this sensitivity to the past that allows the traditionalist Southgate to be so persuasive and radical when he talks about the future. In the most striking lines of his intervention he writes: “For many of [la] younger generation, your notion of Englishness is quite different from my own. I understand that, también. I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”
Esto, seguramente, is the heart of the matter. A multi-ethnic, diverse England requires new patriotic stories for a generation that has come into its own. En We Are England, a BBC documentary broadcast this week, the two south London rappers Krept and Konan are seen grappling with the responsibility of producing this summer’s tournament song for the national team. “What will appeal to the audience you’re seeking is different [to the past],” Southgate tells them, “so do what you believe represents the team now.”
But the musicians are equally concerned to reach beyond London and a purely urban sensibility to other Englands, less familiar to them; to make something that the people who live in them are “going to understand”. And like Southgate, Krept (Casyo Johnson) is also preoccupied by time, identity and the past. In a moving scene with his baby daughter, Nala, he reflects on the passage of the generations in his family: “My grandparents were fully Jamaican, had Jamaican accents," él dice, “whereas my parents didn’t … so now Nala’s parents and grandparents don’t have Jamaican accents, so the familiarity isn’t going to be there as much. Obviously she’s English, but it’s also just not forgetting where you’re from, and kind of balancing the two.”
In their recent libro, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, the academics Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones conclude that “England and Englishness stand as the high-walled keep at the centre of concentric circles of belonging.” Beyond England there is Britain, and then an “outer wall” of the old Dominions and the United States. The metaphor conveys a defensive, exclusive and overwhelmingly white worldview, shadowed by memories of empire and comforting versions of what the imperial era signified.
This was the vision my brother loved to debunk back in the early 1970s. Pero, as Southgate has intuited, the current England team, proud of its diversity and possessing an impressive degree of political courage, is helping to define and project a different, more contemporary country from within the old ramparts. en un encuesta for the British Future thinktank this week, Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and co were found to be a more popular emblem of the nation than St George’s day. As British Future’s director, Sunder Katwala, points out: “It is common sense in our country now that you don’t have to be white to be English.”
In an urbanised country with many large, diverse cities and towns, that should perhaps come as no surprise. But the hugely valuable service Gareth Southgate has performed is to find the right way to speak about and celebrate that reality.
In a flattering but fascinating portrait of Boris Johnson published in this month’s Atlantic magazine, the prime minister is quoted as saying: “People live by narrative. Human beings are creatures of the imagination.” This is an insight with romantic philosophical roots that the left, prone to rationalist abstraction, needs to relearn. But while Johnson’s use of language is imaginative, his vision of England is not. Es, bastante, deeply repetitive, relying on his favoured Churchillian tropes and brushing the dust off the old stories, rather than allowing space for new ones.
Southgate’s letter, by acknowledging the claims of the future as well as the past on English identity, offers a resonant counter-narrative. Por supuesto, if this gifted England team manages to fulfil its potential in a tournament that now has an unavoidable political dimension, Johnson will attempt to bask in the limelight. But it will be the other, newer England “wot won it”. That country is a work in progress. Its dimensions, hopes and desires are more vividly in our minds as Euro 2020 finally begins, thanks to Southgate’s humility and understanding.