Why English patriotism?

After the win over Ukraine the other day, a friend of mine asked, “explain to me about this patriotism thing, then, because I don’t get it.” At the time, I garbled something fairly unintelligible, because I was full of alcohol and England had just won 4–0 in a European Championship quarter-final. So I thought I’d try again here.

Smart people (of which my friend is certainly one) tend to try to rationalise and intellectualise patriotism, but not everything operates at that level. Why does that particular song move you? Why do you enjoy that view? Why would you buy a Mothers’ Day card saying “Best Mum in the world” when that’s statistically probably not true? Some things — indeed, most of the things that make us human — can’t ultimately be boiled down to rational analysis. My affection for England is felt, not reasoned.

Smart political people (again, my friend is one) often view patriotism as a political assertion. Because their frame of reference is politics, a statement about patriotism is assumed to signify support for the current government, or that the patriot thinks that the Crusades, slavery or Empire were good things. None of this is the case.

Then I stopped and thought: my friend, you have just been cheering England on in a football match. You understand patriotism well enough!

Speak to any fan, and they’ll be able to reel off any number of England moments down the years. Humiliation by the USA and Hungary in the 1950s; winning the World Cup; Peter Bonetti and West Germany’s comeback in 1970; Jan Tomaszewski; the Hand of God; Platt’s volley against Belgium; Do I Not Like That; Southgate’s penalty; Beckham’s red card; Steve McLaren and his umbrella; Iceland, to name a few.

Note that certainly not all of these are happy memories. Some of them aren’t even my memories; the World Cup was won well before I was born. But we understand them as our history and our shared experiences, and what it means to be an England fan.

Alasdair MacIntyre talks about this idea of shared stories in his essay “Is Patriotism A Virtue?

I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic. A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.

Is there any reason that the shared experiences of being an England fan, that sense of togetherness, the wanting the team to do well and feeling of pride when they do, can’t be extended from the football team to the nation?

One of the most emotional times I can remember as an England fan was during the qualifiers for these Euros. When we played in Kosovo, during God Save The Queen, all the home supporters held up St George’s Crosses, to show their appreciation for what we did to help save them from Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in 1999.

I have been to Priština, and I’ve written a bit about it before. Kosovo is a young nation, keen to defend and define itself, perhaps unsurprising when countries such as Russia and China refuse to recognise it, and Serbia continues to see it as one of its provinces. They are invested in their national story. There are no qualms about waving the flag in Kosovo.

But then, nor are there in Wales or Scotland, or almost anywhere else. It is only England and Englishness which is so pathologised. Orwell saw this in 1941, and it remains true today.

England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save The King’ than of stealing from a poor box.

On Twitter, a ridiculous man says he is supporting Ukraine because he is sick of the xenophobia and bigotry. Putting aside the very real problems with far-right groups in Ukraine, look at this England team! A talented, young, diverse England team, who kneel against racism in the face of boos from the crowd. This is what you’re choosing to oppose?

Too much leftist, liberal reaction to the idea of England assumes, incredibly parochially, that England is the only country in the world which has a problem with racism, that almost everywhere else is more refined and more sensible than we are. The most tiresome people on the internet love to point out how nothing claimed as English can really be traced to here. St George? Turkish! Fish and chips? Portuguese! Just incredibly boring self-loathing.

As if excluding almost everything and everyone from Englishness and associating the St George’s Cross with the far-right is going to help matters? No. All you’re doing is advancing far-right arguments and calling them progressive. That flag belongs to all of us, the team represents all of us, and Southgate speaks to an open, tolerant England which we can all share.

My friend is a Sunderland supporter because his family are from Sunderland. His team are another shared story, his burden to bear is one passed on from father to son. He talked about Pickford and Henderson being Sunderland lads in the England team. Why, if we’re being rationalist about this, should that matter? On a purely rational basis, why do we care if players from our town go on to represent our country?

It isn’t rational. It’s about pride in who we are and where we come from. This England team represent us on the world stage. We support them because we are from England, we are all England, and we feel better about everything when they do their best and do us proud.

Anyone getting emotionally invested in England’s journey through this tournament is being patriotic. You care because you are English, you are part of this story, because this team and this generation of fans are adding their own tales to a wider and bigger history.

There is no reason for any of this to stop with football. We don’t stop being England or English next week. We still share in something bigger. We are still capable of so much. And it’s up to us to write the next part of the story of our nation.

I hope England win the European Championships.



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Rob Francis

I write blogs about the Labour Party, in an attempt to stop myself from screaming.