Suddenly, expressions of patriotism by the English are again permissible. The displaying of the national flag is not met with curled lips or scorn. Pride in one’s own Englishness is even deemed rational. The English are free to exhibit their allegiance to nation without fear of being accused of “exceptionalism” or “chauvinism” or worse. For now, at least.
It has — as usual — taken a football tournament to achieve this momentary tolerance, and there is no guarantee that it will hold. It hasn’t previously. But, while we may, let us enjoy it. Let us, against the background of not only this gruesome past 15 months but the bitter polarisation that has gripped our country over the past few years, appreciate the uplifting sense of solidarity and belonging that have emerged with the successful march of the England football team to the final of Euro 2020. Such sentiments, as most of us have always known, may be harnessed as positive forces if only the liberal establishment and assorted high-minded progressives were to abandon their own longstanding prejudices against them.
That we lost the final in the most cruel manner will not dampen the fervour. Not yet, at any rate. The feelgood factor generated by England’s advance through the tournament, as well as the admiration the players and manager have drawn for the impeccable manner in which they have conducted themselves, have given rise to unabashed displays of English national pride — the kind which, outside of a sporting context, are usually resisted and discouraged by those who know better.
St George’s flags affixed to cars and adorning houses; outpourings of support for “our boys”; the massed ranks of fans belting out “Football’s Coming Home”; the invocation of a history and culture that, by and large, has been a force for good; the spirit of openness that says that, irrespective of whence and when you came, you may be part of all this if you wish to be: these are not the divisive manifestations of a hostile or exclusionary nationalism or sense of superiority, but instead the benign and unifying expressions of national consciousness, born of a recognition that we are part of something greater than ourselves.
Everything we have seen in recent weeks has been the best of what it means to be patriotic: a spirit of reciprocity, common values and identity, the nurturing of associative bonds that give meaning to life and transcend cold economic calculus. When communities which would normally live parallel existences unite in pursuit of the same desire – on this occasion to see a team of eleven young men win some silverware on behalf of the nation – we all have cause for celebration. That’s what football has the capacity to achieve, and no politician dare mock it.
Only the truly cynical would have sneered at the unbridled joy displayed by students at an Islamic school in Blackburn when Harry Kane scored the winner against Denmark in the semi-final, or the Bhangra flash mob dancing through the streets of Wolverhampton to their own version of the Three Lions anthem. Who could have failed to identify with exactly how these groups felt at those moments? What separated them from the residents of the Bermondsey housing estate which was festooned in St George’s flags for the entirety of the tournament? During the past few short weeks, not much at all. For all the incessant and patronising establishment lectures force-feeding us a diet of “diversity” and “tolerance”, it often takes the simplest things to break down barriers.
I predict, however, that it won’t be long before we are back to normal. Those members of our political and cultural elites who are instinctively hostile to any overt demonstration of Englishness — seeing it as an inherently reactionary and destructive force — will regroup and seek to ensure that the phenomenon does not take firm root. Not for nothing did George Orwell say that England was perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals were ashamed of their own nationality.
The sense of English national dispossession which has been in evidence since the advent of devolution and has intensified in more recent years, coming to a head over the issue of Brexit, will continue to be ignored — but it won’t go away. Those living in our post-industrial and neglected coastal towns, where a heightened sense of Englishness exists — not by coincidence, but because it is in those types of places that citizens are most likely to feel a disconnect with an ‘unEnglish’ liberal establishment — will continue to see national identity as a tool of resistance. The sentiment will remain inchoate and uncoordinated, but it will not abate. And it will continue to develop outside of normal political structures, not least because none of the major parties has any serious plan for giving the English a dedicated voice in the institutions of our democracy, nor for addressing the democratic imbalances created by devolution.
This patriotic sentiment will continue to be misunderstood by many of our cultural influencers. It is dismissed as the fruits of unenlightened and nativist English mentality which refuses to be persuaded of the merits of a global cosmopolitan liberalism – almost certainly synonymous with white superiority and a longing for the age of Empire. It was this patronising attitude — a refusal to recognise the legitimate grievances of England beyond the cities, or to understand the motivation behind an instinctive affinity for country that is considered normal in most other nations — that has created so many of the faultlines in our recent politics.
It has taken a team of 11 multiracial young men to show these people why they are so wrong. Let us savour the moment.