Being English: It’s Complicated

I’ve been wanting to write an article on my nationality and my relationship with it in the post-Brexit age of increased English nationalism for some time – and with England in the final of Euro 2020, the time has come.

There was a time when I’d watch every England game, hand on heart singing the national anthem. Nowadays, I start tournaments almost kind of begrudgingly though I quickly get into being an England fan once more as my negative associations with England as a country temporarily fade. Yet I still cannot help but feel that although I’m excited for the final, I would have been much more excited 10, 15, 20 years ago had we made a final then.

It could be my age. It could be that I’ve just had too much fun in my life. It could be that I’ve somewhat fallen out of love with football itself (though what a fantastic tournament Euro 2020 has been). Perhaps the fact that I’m as interested in the stock market as the transfer market takes some of the shine off too – there is so much more to my life and my interests than football nowadays.

But I cannot help thinking that it is my perception of England as a country that is the main impediment.

Brexit. Aha.

Let’s start with Brexit. Yes, that old chestnut – it isn’t going away. Before those of you that still somehow believe in Brexit get triggered, I do want to stress that this is my perception – this is my experience of how England (well, Britain) has been damaged in my eyes. It doesn’t invalidate your perception.

Before Brexit, I believed that Britain (yeah I’m conflating Britain and England at times, get over it) was an open, liberal, tolerant society. I knew from the likes of the EDL that there were still some residual pockets of racism, and from the UKIP vote that there were a fair-sized minority that were anti-immigration and seemed to prefer a closed, backwards, illiberal society.

I didn’t realise that those that wanted a closed, illiberal society, those that were against the metropolitan, cosmopolitan, welcoming country that I was proud of, were the majority. Delusion on my part? Probably.

Of course, Brexit meant different things to different people and I am having to generalise here. I know people who voted for Brexit who are almost as open and liberal as I am, I know people who voted for Brexit who are intolerant and would boo England players taking the knee, who are still dear to me. I know people who voted remain (or claim to) who I consider to be intolerant and backwards.

But the important point here is that my perception of Britain had changed. Other people apparently had got their country back. I’d lost my country – it was no longer what I believed it was. I was no longer proud to be British, or English. A few days later we got knocked out of Euro 2016 to Iceland. I thought it was funny, and deserved.

Nastiness

Of course, since then we’ve seen an increased division in society – partly, I think, spilling in from America – their culture wars slowly seeping into our post-Brexit divisions.

Examples of such include our government cutting foreign aid, which goes to some of the poorest people in the world – a callous act.

We have a home secretary (ironically a daughter of immigrants forced to leave Uganda) who is now making being an asylum seeker illegal. She suggested that England fans should boo the England team for taking a stance against racial injustice.

We also have a fascist hiding in a tree who I won’t name, who actively campaigns against the RNLI – because they might rescue refugees from drowning. What kind of country have we become?

Then we have the culture wars – both sides of which repel me. You have those who cling onto the idea that the British Empire was the greatest in history, and those who claim that all British history is the work of the devil. The reality is likely somewhere between, with both heinous crimes such as the Amritsar massacre, slave trade and the Boer concentration camps – juxtaposed to spreading ideas such as the rule of law and time, inventions such as the steam engine, world wide web and lawnmowers – and of course, the battle to condemn slavery to history.

Our history is complex and complicated – like my relationship with England itself, but it is being used as part of the culture wars both by the hard left, and also by the loathsome right-wing government of the day.

Speaking of which, we also have the most incompetent Prime Minister of my lifetime, the most corrupt government of my lifetime, and until recently the opposition to the government was a bunch of anti-Semitic communists. I’ve got to the point where I actually no longer care – I don’t care if Scotland becomes independent, I don’t care if Northern Ireland joins Ireland, hell I don’t even care if Labour form the next government. It’s that level of don’tgiveafuckness.

So how the hell am I supposed to be proud of my country?

Hey, Gareth

Step forward – Gareth Southgate and the England team.

I think the first shots were fired in the friendlies, and I don’t mean of the footballing variety. A minority of fans booed their own players for taking the knee – you know the kind, “keep politics out of football”…unless it involves singing songs about German bombers or the IRA, which of course is absolutely fine.

And as I mentioned earlier, Priti Patel defended “fans” booing players for doing such, certain right-wing people claimed that they would boycott the England football team because of this, and Boris Johnson refused to condemn the booing, though a few days later he did at least urge fans not to boo players for doing so.

Shortly after the booing incidents and the loathsome comments from certain right-wing politicians/commentators, Gareth Southgate wrote this most marvellous article entitled, Dear England – which had an eloquence that I can only dream of, and caused him to be labelled a tool of “deep woke” by unnamed elements in the government, because apparently anyone that can write well that isn’t from Eton must be suspicious.

The most important thing that I took from Gareth Southgate’s article was that you can be both a believer in social justice, in believing that you can reduce racism, in that you can support a more open and tolerant society, etc – and also be proud of your country.

Of course, on the pitch, the way that the team have been set out, the pragmatic almost German-like approach to winning games and ensuring that we are difficult to score against, yet have that quality up front, have made Gareth Southgate’s England team absorbing to follow if not Brazil-like.

But it is that extra side of things, you know, the side that certain people say should be kept out of football (and music or anything else that people tend to get famous for because you suddenly shouldn’t have political beliefs if you are popular) that have kind of married the two elements for me. We have a leader and a team that actively stands up for many of the values that I believe in – leaders that seem to have been so missing in English/British society in recent years yet are now centre of our attention.

Not only that Gareth Southgate and the England team are modern day representations of the England that I thought we were, they are leaders that are bringing together a very divided country.

Maybe it will only be temporary. Maybe we will immediately go back to being a divided society, the culture wars will enhance further, hatred and nastiness will deepen.

But at least I’ve seen that I can be proud of England once more. Sure, it is complicated but it has always been fucking complicated to be English. Yet it is a reminder that there are lots of wonderful, good people in the country – and maybe, despite some heinous government actions that I’m sure will continue, maybe, just maybe, society really is going in a direction that I and hopefully you can be proud of.

Maybe, England really still is the country that I thought it was prior to Brexit. Maybe, in more ways than one, it is actually coming home.

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