World Cup 2018: What do they know of England that only bullshit know?

It’s been great watching Gareth Southgate’s side succeed this World Cup. But have some journalists gone too far?

by Jon Mackenzie

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

I had intended not to write about England this World Cup. I tried my hardest. But I have been driven to this point by columnists in the Guardian and the New Statesman (Even David Goldblatt is at it). Imagine that. In a world in which the tabloid press exist and it’s the left-wing commentariat that drive me to fire up my laptop.

“Gareth Southgate and the new progressive Englishness,” blares (or should that be Blairs?) the New Statesman. The Guardian is even more parodic: “If this England team represents anyone, it’s the 48%: the remainers”. Geddit? The 48%? No. Fine, I’ll spell it out. B R E X I T.

Now, before I get told to ‘lighten up’ or ’embrace the optimism’ – the watchwords of those so unsure of their own opinions that they feel threatened by the very existence of a counterpoint – I should point out that I think there is plenty to celebrate about the current iteration of the England team.

For the first time in what feels like an age, England are playing a brand of football that is more exciting than listening to Glenn Hoddle commentate on it.

Add to this the fact that Gareth Southgate seems like a thoroughly decent bloke who has pretensions towards tactical subtlety and the result is far less unpleasant than the usual porridgey fare that England serve up at the World Cup.

But what can I do when my Twitter timeline starts filling up with pieces from those columnists who do not cover sports but have been writing about “culture” so-called for so long that they’ve completely forgotten the distinction between ‘the fact that someone might be happy to pay them to write on this or that topic’ and ‘the fact that this that doesn’t mean anyone wants to read them on this or that topic’? 

‘A new progressive England’

The New Statesman’s foray into football writing reads like a first-year undergraduate essay written a couple of hours before the deadline after an ill-conceived seventh-night-out-in-a-row during freshers’ week when the pangs of freshers’ flu have already kicked in.

Go big or go home is the mantra of the intro: “Gareth Southgate has not only led his young England team to a World Cup quarter-final, he has also revealed a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of what it means to be English in an age of upheaval.”

Wait wut? Gareth Southgate? The former Middlesbrough manager? You’re making him sound like Michel Foucault…

No, but wait until you hear what he said, though. There’s a quote and everything: “We have the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves,” the never-more-geography-teacher-sounding ‘Mr Southgate’ said. 

“We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represent modern England. In England, we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us.”

REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Right, so let’s get this straight. English identity is a tricky thing – that is true. But now that the national football team have won a game of football on penalties, they have offered us a divining rod through the thorny subject of self-identification? Really? What if they had lost the penalty shootout? Would we have continued to wander around zombie-like unawoken from our dogmatic slumbers, doomed to remain identitiless at least until the next international football competition?

And what has prompted this Damascus Road experience in the people of England? According to the author of the piece, it is the fact that England are a team with ‘diversity’ and ‘youth’. Is the New Statesman so naive to think that this is the first youthful and diverse team in England’s football history? Perhaps. What is more worrying is that they consider this to be “a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of what it means to be English in an age of upheaval.”

The piece concludes: “After the bitterness and divisions of the Brexit referendum, Mr Southgate, through his dignity and humility, has shown a different face to the world: what we might even call the beginnings of a new progressive Englishness.” 

If being overly cynical is bad what is the punishment for over-optimism, of which this must be the most egregious example?

The Impotence of Being Earnest

I’ll let you into a secret. Almost everyone who appeals to some kind of ‘Englishness’ is engaging in bullshit of some kind or another.

You know this. You’ve seen the rise of UKIP – ‘yer Nigel Farages and yer Paul Nutalls’. In their own unique way, both of these aspiring politicians – and I use the phrase advisedly – have weaponised ‘Englishness’ in a bid to win over the ‘white working classes’ who have been ‘left behind’ by the slow liberal march towards ‘political correctness’.

Of course, there is at least a hint of magnanimity in these attempts to reclaim the idea of ‘Englishness’ within the left-wing media. When the far right have developed such a breathtakingly toxic miasma in modern Britain, then it is hard to begrudge anyone trying to invert the logic and suggest that something like ‘inclusivity’ or ‘diversity’ is intrinsic to the idea of ‘Englishness’.

REUTERS/Alena Sevryukova

But there are problems. What does it mean to be English? It’s not even obvious what ‘Englishness’ might mean in a footballing sense let alone in a broader socio-cultural sense. Where do you begin?

England are playing in a 3-5-2 that relies on the tenets of Positional Play developed in Dutch and South American football. In the last decade, they have played 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 proper, 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, 4-3-3.

What about the sort of style that you expect from England? Well Gareth Southgate – as the memes have celebrated – is as far away from Sam Allardyce as you could get in an English manager. Then there’s polylingual Roy Hodgson with his continental streak. Schteve McLaren with his FC Twente-induced lisp. And between all these, you have European managers who, despite the fact you might label them ‘defensively minded’, were hardly synonymous. 

You can’t even fall back on the hackneyed ‘It’s England – we don’t win penalty shoot-outs’ anymore, for crying out loud…

Looking in all the wrong places

Much is being made of the youthfulness and diversity of this England side. 

The triumph of the English national team’s progressiveness, so the logic goes, would be to show the country that things can be different. As David Goldblatt puts it: “[England’s] quiet affirmation of agency, of youth, of the possibility of collective change, is surely something resonating in England. Certainly, I have never known the country so stuck, so frozen, so divided, and so unable to organise itself to address the pressing questions it faces and that it has brought down upon its own head; I have never known it in need of such inspiration.”

Whilst it is true that this England team is more youthful and more diverse than previous teams – although I haven’t investigated this in any kind of detail – the particular logic behind these appeals seems to be that the current problems within English society can be traced – via Brexit predictably enough – to some sort of cultural problem in which the racism or xenophobia of older, more parochial individuals within the country have ruined the prospects of the Millenial generation.

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Now while, there is no doubt that this narrative correctly identifies the sufferers of England’s current predicament – there is no doubt Millenials have been thrown under the bus by their parents’ generation – I would suggest that it misidentifies the cause.

The cause of the underlying problems in modern England are not, however you swing it, the result of xenophobia or racism (although these are inextricably tied up with the cause) but the economic decision by successive governments to pursue an agenda that could be broadly described as neo-liberal, one which has lead to wage stagnation, the slow decline of the NHS, the privatisation of public services and the erosion of the welfare state.

As such, the progressiveness of this England team is hardly the solution to the problem. Where are we going to be left on July 15th? With Gareth Southgate shouting ‘Let them eat the World Cup!’?

Narratives of exclusion 

While these sorts of appeals to ‘an alternative nation’ promoted by Gareth Southgate’s England side are relatively harmless on the face of it, there can be a more sinister side to appeals to ‘Englishness’.

One such side is the tendency for such appeals to slip into a narrative mode which emphasises oppositions and, therefore, exclusion.

Look beneath the line on any article on a tabloid news website (or non-tabloid news website for that matter) and you’ll come across the usual enemies of the state: immigrants, benefit ‘scroungers’, left-wing elites, traitors. In this sense, Englishness is defined against what it is not, suggesting that to adopt the idea of ‘Englishness’ is to be oppressed in some sense. 

REUTERS/John Sibley

Weirdly, the same sort of narrative exclusion has slipped into the conversation of England fans. I, for my sins, am a Scotland supporter when it comes to international football. On the whole, I consider myself roughly neutral to England’s fortunes, although this World Cup has seen something of a shift from the norm and it’s been nice to see Southgate’s team doing well.

On football Twitter, however, this attitude has been somewhat roundly dismissed. I’ve been told to ‘let it go’ when making comments about how the political press have jumped on the World Cup bandwagon, been asked why I hate England and told to ‘just embrace the optimism’ more times than I care to remember. It appears that failing to support England is considered grounds for exclusion.

Which is not to complain: being white, cis and male, my recent experiences on Twitter are nothing compared to what minorities experience on social media every day. But these lines are not coming from ‘the usual suspects’. They’re coming from generally liberal-minded, well-educated and, in the main, pro-European individuals.

Whatever the motivation, then, for an appeal to ‘Englishness’, it is interesting to see how easily it can slip into a narrative of exclusion – the very idea that we are being told Gareth Southgate’s modern England stands squarely against. 

All hail the Authentocracy!

Why should this matter? At the end of the day, as the cliche goes, it’s just a game. Who cares if people are problematic when they talk about football.

Well, quite. But here’s the thing: that’s the way that societal manipulation happens. That’s the way that we ended up with the idea that Britain might be broken in the first place. That’s why we’re even having this conversation about Gareth Southgate’s progressive England – because of innocent ideas becoming the norm which have subsequently been accepted as the status quo.

There’s more too. In his recent book Authentocrats, Joe Kennedy has shown how governments have used ideas such as ‘Englishness’ as overt propaganda so they can continue to peddle their own agendas in the face of their own abject failure.

Take Brexit. As we have suggested, Britain’s decision to leave the EU has been squarely laid at the feet of a supposed class of people – ‘gammons’ as they have been named on social media – who are essentially racist and see themselves as the final vanguard of WW2-fighting Britain (despite not being born until after the war). 

REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

However you look at the data, though, this sort of narrative is hardly convincing. Britain’s problems, as we have said, are more correctly diagnosed as the end point of a succession of governments who made specific economic decisions which have categorically failed.

But here’s the thing: these governments are now using these false narratives about ‘Englishness’ and the people that use them as a way to continue in their pursuit of problematic economics under the guise of their own failure!

As a result, we are told that the problem with Britain is that we ignored the concerns of a particular class of people for whom ‘Englishness’ is important and who feel culturally marginalised in an increasingly multi-cultural age. But as they offer this narrative, governments continue to push their inequality-inducing ideas upon their unsuspecting subjects. 

Whenever appeals to ‘Englishness’ occur in modern Britain, then, they often come with the baggage of a very specific political attempt to manipulate the populace.

What do they know of football?

‘But what does this have to do with football?’ you might ask.

Well, everything when the left-wing press are jumping on the bandwagon and announcing a new and glorious age of Englishness.

In these moments, it is always important to be able to differentiate. The World Cup can be simultaneously good and bad. The celebration of football from around the world is a wonderful thing to experience. But the World Cup is also a vehicle for corruption and soft power amongst states.

In addition, there is no better feeling than watching your country’s football team do well at a major tournament: that shared sense of camaraderie with your friends, family and neighbours; that feeling that everything is great, from the weather to the long weekends which stretch out before you like an eternity. But there is also a spike in domestic violence in your country when your national team lose.

So why can’t we watch England without having to engage in the persistence of these narratives about ‘Englishness’ which offer our government a means to wriggle out of trouble? 

Of course, it’s fine to support your national football team. It doesn’t mean you’re on a slippery slope towards the EDL. But forgive me when the language segues towards ideas of ‘Englishness’ if I peace out at that point.

After all, what do they know of England that only bullshit know?

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Jon Mackenzie

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