As will be the case once again this summer, England began 2002’s summer international campaign in the wake of Jubilee celebrations back home. Ten years ago, Elizabeth II reached the fiftieth anniversary of her accession, and over 40,000 ‘toolkits’ were distributed throughout the UK so street parties could be held to mark the event. The festivities were well-attended, but they seem – at least retrospectively – to have been motivated less by deference to the institution than by a holistic sense of national wellbeing. Fostered by economic prosperity, an ecumenical spirit of generosity allowed the connotations of the monarchy to be forgotten: at Blairism’s height, the Royal Family could easily be integrated into a narrative about British dynamism and inclusiveness. Gazing benevolently out at a tech-savvy generation who worked, played and spent hard, Elizabeth must have known that it was her show in name only.
If ever a symbol existed of the worldview of mid-period New Labour, it was the team Sven Goran-Eriksson took to Japan for that summer’s World Cup. A core of players at the peak of their abilities were complemented not only by a scattering of canny veterans but by a generous crop of tyros whom many believed would bring England success for at least a decade. At their first international tournament, the likes of Ashley Cole, Joe Cole, Owen Hargreaves and Darius Vassell promised that Paul Scholes, Sol Campbell and the totemic David Beckham would be replaced seamlessly when the time came; for the time being, the youngsters simply gilded the qualities of their seniors. Beyond those who actually made the cut, the likes of Steven Gerrard (absent through injury), Frank Lampard, Jermaine Defoe and Gareth Barry remained in England to hint at a talent pool of unfathomable depth. Rumours had also begun to circulate about a teenager at Everton who combined Alan Shearer’s directness with the intuitive vision of Paul Gascoigne.
This vision of inexhaustibility matched almost precisely the one Blair had constructed to make it seem as if politics itself had been cancelled by financial robustness. Social liberalism could be underwritten by the well-meaning market: just as society had reigned in its unsightly -isms, capitalism had become caring. There was, therefore, no longer anything to fight about – at least on the domestic front. Eriksson, urbane in a fashion which would have seemed slightly put-on even if he hadn’t been the national coach, epitomised post-political slickness, while his team were the unwitting functionaries of that idea.
A decade on, the Diamond Jubilee has a very different set of meanings to its precursor. Instead of serving as an acclamation of the energy and inventiveness of Third Way ideology, it’s being presented as a guarantee of the immutability of more old-fashioned values amidst the chaos of economic collapse. Last year’s wedding demonstrated an upcurve in a certain demographic’s patriotic conviction just as a variety of shows of opposition from Occupy to the anti-cuts movement have been indicative of the increasing politicisation of the young. One of the most depressing outcomes of the current recession has undoubtedly been the recourse to a very limited and limiting vision of Englishness manifesting itself in everything from Our Boys militarism to faddish appropriations of prelapsarian, Keep Calm and Carry On iconography. This Jubilee seems an approving acknowledgement of some form of hierarchical order.
A hint of fatalism hangs about this which is mirrored in the resignation the media are displaying even before England have played their final friendly. The myth of a resource-rich footballing culture has been dispelled over the last couple of years, culminating in an attitude which holds that Roy Hodgson’s side will do well to progress beyond its group. Players whose vibrancy once threatened to radically alter the world’s understanding of the English game – Gerrard particularly, and to some extent even Wayne Rooney – have come down to earth, carrying themselves with the stoicism of the already-defeated. In this, they’re abetted by workaday colleagues like James Milner, Stewart Downing and Phil Jones, whose five minutes of coming across like a Lancastrian Lilian Thuram feel a lot longer than ten months ago.
In other words, this is a prosaic team which at times appears to have been tailored to the conservatism which has reasserted itself in English public life over the last few years. It’s as if the empty-handed return of Gerrard et al has already been scripted, and that the story’s an allegory for the (spurious) moral logic of austerity: just as the Golden Generation finally learned to live within its means, so should we.
Posted by Joe Kennedy