The prospect that England might win a major football tournament for the first time in 55 years will transfix the country over the coming week. Over 26m people, almost half the population of England, tuned in to watch the win against Ukraine on Saturday. Hysteria is building steadily ahead of a semi-final on Wednesday and a possible final at the weekend.
For the Johnson government the symbolism of an England triumph, just six months after Brexit, would be delightful. The prime minister has so far resisted the temptation to make the connection, but some of his allies have been less restrained. After England beat Germany, Lord Moylan, a former Johnson aide, crowed: “Poor Germans, this wasn’t the Brexit narrative fed them by their press, was it?”
But any effort to fit the England team into a narrative of post-Brexit national resurgence faces a significant problem. Gareth Southgate, the team’s manager, seems to be playing for the other side in England’s culture war.
Southgate is pretty clearly a Remainer. In a TV documentary in 2018, he spoke about the “racial undertones” that he felt surrounded the Brexit campaign. Around the same time, he argued that Brexit had divided the country between young people who identified with Europe and “want to travel the world”; and an older generation “pining for something that isn’t there any more”.
These low-key political interventions are not accidental. Unusually for a football coach, Southgate’s preparation for Euro 2020 included writing a long essay on the nature of patriotism. The article, published earlier this month, was entitled — “Dear England”.
In it, Southgate gently distanced the England team from the chauvinism of some of its supporters. Tommy Robinson, a prominent far-right activist, was arrested at an England game in Portugal last year. England fans regularly sing songs about the second world war. (I heard fans belt out “Ten German bombers” in the bars at Wembley Stadium before England games last week). Southgate noted that his own grandfather was a “fierce patriot and a proud military man who served during World War Two”. He stressed his own pride in Queen and country. But he then added: “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.”
In the run-up to the tournament, the England team was booed by some of its own fans for “taking the knee” ahead of games as a protest against racial injustice. Lee Anderson, a Tory MP, claimed to be so annoyed by the gesture that he would stop watching the England team in protest. (One wonders if his resolution is wavering as England progress through the tournament?) Priti Patel, the home secretary, accused the players of indulging in gesture politics.
Southgate has not only supported his team’s decision to take the knee. In his patriotism essay, he went further and argued that “it’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice”.
Even before the England team began to win games in the European championships, the significance of Southgate’s stances had struck the political class. Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, retweeted Southgate’s essay on patriotism, adding: “This is England”. Some Labour sympathisers grumbled that the England manager had managed to produce a more articulate statement of “progressive patriotism” than Starmer himself ever had.
Conservatives and Johnson supporters are less ecstatic. Some seem to believe that Southgate is becoming a tool of deep Woke — with one Tory strategist telling me that the England manager’s patriotism essay was “suspiciously well-written”.
If England actually win the tournament later this week, Southgate and his players will become national heroes — comfortably more popular than Boris Johnson. The England team and its manager will be in a powerful political position and have already shown a willingness to embrace their platform. Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United striker (who has so far mainly been a reserve during this tournament), led campaigns against child hunger over the past year that forced changes in government policy. Raheem Sterling, the team’s star, has highlighted racism in the media. Harry Kane, the captain, wore a rainbow armband to mark pride month.
But, before anybody gets too excited about England’s woke winners, a reality check is in order. There is no doubt that sporting success creates shared national memories. But its ability to effect lasting political change is more dubious. After France won the World Cup in 1998, with a multiracial side described as “Black, blanc, beur”, some theorised that the country would now embrace its multiracial identity. But in subsequent years the far-right has grown in strength. When the opening ceremony for the London Olympics celebrated immigration and the NHS, the British left lauded the moment as a symbol of the country’s new progressive identity. Four years later, Britain voted for Brexit.
The truth is that sport is wonderful at creating fleeting moments of euphoria. Lasting social or political change is a much bigger ask.