Englishness is a hot topic right now. It’s the new grey, Ed Miliband’s lisp-littered soundbite du jour, the 2010s’ answer to that marvelous “post-punk revival” everyone got so endlessly aroused about ten years ago. Now that independence for Scotland and Wales is a real possibility, the English establishment is being forced to consider what nationhood might be like without those mountainous left-wing peripheries it has typically relied on for providing cheap holidays and cheap labour. At the moment the best it seems to be able to come up with is a sort of ersatz consumer trend for cake-baking, monarchism, and – somewhat confusingly – Union Jack flags (surely the antithesis of a devolved English identity?). But have a heart. As everyone knows, the English are a slow, conservative race lacking in imagination and inimical to the merest whiff of modernist innovation. At least they’re trying, god love them.
Of course, weirdly, devolved Englishness has always been the norm in football. But is the national team really a positive model of how English separatism might pan out? On the one hand, you’d have to say that football comes closer than anything else to offering a blueprint for a culture of popular Englishness, one with at least a fighting chance of transcending the class system. On the other hand, you’d also have to say that there are some serious gaps in the putative reach of the English footballing polity. Women, obviously, are often excluded from the party (though in the long-term there’s no reason why this should continue to be the case). The Cameronite upper-middle-classes, too, would probably not feel comfortable in the Three Lions utopia (though I don’t think too many people would be overly concerned about this).
Then there’s the question of regionalism. I’m not knowledgeable or old enough to be able to summarise the history of regional attitudes to the national team right here and now. But my own experience as a native of the north-east has been that enthusiasm for the England team has been depreciating quite rapidly in recent years in the top right-hand corner of the country. Largely, I think this is the result of the fact that the once strong north-east presence in the national team (cf. the 1990 Geordie backbone of Bobby and Bryan Robson, Beardsley, Waddle, Gazza) has been replaced in the twenty-first century with what we might call the Mersey-Thames Estuary Axis (Owen, Rooney, Carragher, Gerrard; Beckham, Terry, Lampard, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole).
The reduction of the English national game to a cabal of players able to live in either London or Cheshire seems to reflect wider socio-economic trends. In the neoliberal economy, wealth has been concentrated in the capital and a few prize-winning pockets of the “regenerated” North. In practical terms, this has meant that places on the periphery have tended to lose out. In truth, aside from the relegation of both Boro and Newcastle in the annus horribilis of 2009, the north-east has at least managed to put up a decent fight in the face of London-Manchester-Liverpool hegemony. The real loser has been Yorkshire. Too far from the capital in commuting terms, and without a nouveau riche enclave in the Chessex mould to appeal to players’ avarice, the near-north-east has gone from being one of the country’s football powerhouses to a total backwater in the space of a few years. (In 1992, on the eve of the Premier League, Leeds were the League champions, Sheffield Wednesday had just finished 3rd, Sheffield United 9th ; in 2011-12, the last two of those teams were in League One.)
What’s the significance of all this? The problem is that the national game has morphed during the neoliberal/Premier League period from being a demotic alternative to the elitism and mock-Tudor parochialism of traditional Home Counties English culture into exactly that: a vortex of privilege and petty-bourgeois aspiration that has severed its ties with the areas of the country unable to keep up with the pace of cowboy capitalism. There’s probably no way that this situation can be reversed until neoliberalism itself collapses (and fortunately this seems an increasingly imminent event). But one hopeful way of looking at Euro 2012 is to see it as the beginning of the end for the “Golden Generation” that was in fact the dregs of the Thatcherite culture that sought to return England back to the dark ages of hierarchy and geographically-oriented wealth-fantasy. As Seb has already pointed out, Andy Carroll is going to be a key player in this tournament. But aside from his on-pitch potential, Carroll – a Geordie of Irish traveler descent – might also represent a shift back to a kind of English football culture that is more Bobby Robson than David Cameron. That’s the only kind of Englishness I–and I should imagine most people on the fringes of this country–will ever recognise.
Posted by Alex Niven