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England’s dreaming

Monday 12 July 2021

We have a hooligan class of politicians – and a national football team composed of gentlemen. Let the heroic performance of Southgate’s squad be an inspiration to this feckless government


“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” So says Galileo to his pupil Andrea in Brecht’s great play on the life of the astronomer. And maybe that is so. But sometimes that need must be answered, as it has been, with great valour and dignity, by the England team in the past month.

There are moments when a country is in a jam, or in a state of nerve-shredded paralysis, or irreconcilably divided, when heroes are exactly what it requires. In what turned out to be a truly fantastic tournament, the 26 young men of Gareth Southgate’s squad fought and fought – defying the odds and, occasionally, sporting logic – to get to England’s first such international final for 55 years.

Heroes, of course, do not always triumph, which is a distinction that a mature society needs to understand and absorb. Infantilised by populism, polarised by Brexit and traumatised by Covid, we yearned for something big, simple and wonderful to happen last night. And it didn’t. Not quite; not this time.

Yet this time also feels different. It is easy to dismiss England’s defeat by Italy – a better, stronger, more brutal side – as just another chapter in the national team’s long and punishing struggle with the psychic ordeal of penalties; so often scenting glory but never quite tasting it.

And there is no doubt that the image of Southgate consoling Bukayo Saka last night after his decisive penalty miss was poignantly reminiscent of Terry Venables comforting Southgate himself at Euro 96. It is tempting to imagine England doomed to an endless cycle of inflated expectations, dashed hopes, and the footballing equivalent of the curse of Sisyphus.

Tempting, but (I think) incorrect. Southgate has built a squad that is not only young and still gaining in strength and experience, but – to use the term popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – “antifragile,” learning how to transform setbacks into greater toughness and vigour.

Though England lost last night, the tournament as a whole enabled the team to achieve escape velocity from the “55 years of hurt” narrative: the notion, etched into the nation’s soul by Skinner and Baddiel’s mighty ‘Three Lions’ anthem, that we are still awaiting a moment of collective emancipation from a long saga of disappointment.

Odd as it may be to say on a day of such heartache, I think England had already escaped the captivity of that narrative before last night’s final. In scaling such heights, they had broken the curse – even though the night ended in such a devastating fashion. We are emphatically not back at square one, in need of a new line-up, a new manager, a new way of playing. Already, Southgate will be planning his pathway to the World Cup in Qatar, 16 months hence.

No less striking is the broader impact made by this tournament, and by England’s part in it. Of course, politics and football have always been entangled. As Denis Healey revealed in his memoirs, Harold Wilson was concerned about going to the country in June 1970 in case “the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day” – as, indeed, they were by West Germany in the World Cup quarter finals, four days before Edward Heath turfed Wilson out of Number 10.

New Labour’s appropriation of England’s comparative success in Euro 96 (beaten by the Germans in the semi-finals) was quite brazen – culminating in the refrain “Labour’s coming home,” deployed by Tony Blair in his party conference speech that year.

In a plethora of toe-curling tweets, Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues have tried the same stunt in the past month, awkwardly pulling England tops over their work clothes, gormlessly spraying the hashtag #ItsComingHome across social media, and expecting us to forget their earlier equivocations over the fans that booed England taking the knee. How grotesque it has been to watch a government that has so shamelessly blown the dog whistle over immigration and refugees claiming suddenly to be foursquare behind a squad half of whose members could have chosen to play for another country.

Yet the embarrassment runs deeper. On this occasion, the politicians have not simply made fools of themselves trying to annex sporting success. They have been found sorely wanting by comparison with the sportsmen themselves. Gary Neville was absolutely right last week to observe that “the standard of leaders in this country over the last couple of years has been poor, but looking at that man there [Southgate] he is everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine.” 

Though Marcus Rashford must surely be agonising today over his missed penalty, that misfortune does not diminish in the slightest his formidable achievement in extracting concessions from the government over child poverty when he was still only 22. Harry Kane wore a rainbow-coloured armband to mark Pride month in the match against Germany. Raheem Sterling was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work promoting racial equality in sport.

Footballers are not saints: young men with sudden riches will always fall out of nightclubs, drive too fast, and deck themselves in bling. But this cohort, under Southgate’s guidance, seem to have intuited and come to represent an open, generous and inclusive patriotism that has been sadly lacking in the political discourse of recent years.

They have succumbed neither to mean-spirited nativism nor to performative loathing of their country. Instead, and in provisional form, they offered a glimpse of what a post-populist patriotism might look like: full of feeling, of course, but also progressive energy and social responsibility. As world-class athletes under extraordinary pressure, they showed that it is possible to be successful, dynamic and ambitious; but also generous, decent and compassionate.

It is a shame that this needs to be pointed out, and in so dramatic a fashion. But such is the political culture of our time. To declare the compatibility of competitiveness and inclusiveness is now a radical position, contrary to the shrunken sense of nationhood bequeathed by Brexit, and so very far from the spirit of international confidence that was celebrated, say, in the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.

Most notably: Southgate’s players seemed to grasp instinctively that taking the knee is not, as the Conservative MP Lee Anderson and others seem to think, a means of signalling uncompromising allegiance to cultural Marxism and critical race theory. It symbolises no more or less than a shared commitment to fighting racial injustice.

As any student of the Victorian era knows, the English have a genius for adopting and inventing traditions. And taking the knee is fast acquiring the power of a tradition; a mark of respect and fidelity to a principle. The notion that it is subversive is the opposite of the truth. It is the neanderthal racists who attacked Rashford, Saka and Jadon Sancho on social media last night that seek to undermine social cohesion in this country and oppose the diverse nature of 21st-century society.

Buried in all this is the germ of an even greater idea, which has something to do with the meaning of “home” – the place toward which “it” (meaning football) was coming, as we all sang, until the Italians inconsiderately parked a Ferrari and blocked the way. Not a “homeland” in the debased blood-and-soil sense beloved by nativists, but a home where citizens can feel at ease, less divided, less insecure.

For forty years, political rhetoric has been dominated by talk of “aspiration” – and aspiration is a fine thing. But no society can survive if it accords status and dignity only to those who “escape” the circumstances into which they were born and flee their origins.

As David Skelton argues in his recently published book, The New Snobbery, we are increasingly bedevilled by the “secession of the successful” – a phrase usually attributed to J.K. Galbraith but now more relevant than ever. Millions now live on the breadline, a precariat stranded in the gig economy with no prospect of anything approaching stability or security.

As Rashford would be the first to point out, ten per cent of children in the UK are affected by what is known euphemistically as “severe food insecurity”. This is not economic dynamism in action; it is a recipe for social collapse.

The deeper question bequeathed by this tournament is not where football will go next, but what we mean by “home” in 2021. Do the slogans “building back better” and “levelling up” have any sinew and muscle? Or are they as meaningless as the claim that the test and trace system was “world beating”?

The only constant in contemporary politics is the speed with which the rules are being rewritten. We have a prime minister who poses like an idiot, thumbs up, on a huge St George’s flag in Downing Street; and an England manager who writes an eloquent letter to the nation on the nature of Englishness. We have a hooligan governing class and a national football squad composed of philanthropic gentlemen.

The inspiration offered by England’s players in the past month has been admirable, a landmark in our national sporting history. But the fact that they have had to fill the space vacated by feckless and narcissistic politicians should also be a matter of national shame.

On and off the pitch, they have provided a masterclass in youthful statesmanship. That achievement is a trophy of a different kind, and one to be cherished. Let it also be an admonition to the political class that, in its vanity and posturing, has so recklessly and selfishly taken its eye off the ball.