Gareth Southgate defined a notion of English, both traditional and radical | Julien coman
In 1973, when I was eight, England play an infamous and unfortunate World Cup qualifying match against Poland at Wembley. Watching on TV I had a rather strange vision of the greatest football game I have ever seen. Schooled in the anti-establishment shtick by my older brother, and in awe of his 16 year old son Deconstructing Britain’s post-imperial illusions at the table, I found myself supporting the oppressed Poles.
When Jan Domarski pulled away to score the goal that would put England out of the competition, I danced on the couch in jubilation. It seems to me that my brother looked at me as if I had lost my mind.
It seems safe to say that the radicalism of the 1960s and its legacy had less of an impact on England manager Gareth Southgate, who would have been three at the time of this humiliation of domestic football. Like its remarkable opening letter, Dear England, confirmed this week, a thread of continuity instead connects the values and way of seeing the world of Southgate to the 1950s, and a philosophy of a nation that dominated British politics in the aftermath of the war.
In the letter, written to defend his players’ decision to continue to ‘kneel down’ during Euro 2020 matches, Southgate mentions the enormous influence of his grandfather, Arthur Toll, a Royal Marine and veteran of the second world war. The inherited values he puts forward are those of service to the nation and loyalty to “the queen and the fatherland”.
The army is celebrated as an institution in which special bonds of solidarity are instilled. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, Southgate took the England team at a military training camp to cultivate a sense of “the importance of the person next to you” and an ethic of mutual dependence. It is a worldview that is petite-c conservative, with its moral focus on the wider community, its symbols and its history.
Not the kind of stuff, then, that normally gives the pulse of the liberal left race. But Southgate’s letter quickly went viral and was rightly acclaimed as a major contribution to an angry and divisive debate. Labor, and the left more generally, can learn a lot.
Instinctively, Southgate sidesteps the progressive discomfort with the idea of English per se and unabashedly pleads for a more inclusive country. Themes of time, nationality, pride and collective experience – rather than an abstract assertion of universal rights – are the channels through which his argument flows, connecting the postwar generations. From memories of his grandfather, to memories of watching the England football team as a boy, to the travels of his own players from often humble beginnings, the letter chronicles the interweaving of individual biographies with the greater national history over time.
It is this sensitivity to the past that allows the traditionalist Southgate to be so persuasive and radical when talking about the future. In the most striking lines of his intervention he wrote: “For many [the] young generation, your notion of English is quite different from mine. I understand that too. I understand that on this island we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but it should not come at the expense of introspection and progress.
This is certainly the crux of the matter. A multiethnic and diverse England requires new patriotic stories for a generation that has emerged. In We are england, a BBC documentary airing this week, the two South London rappers Krept and Konan grapple with the responsibility of producing this summer’s tournament song for the national team. “What will appeal to the audience you are looking for is different [to the past]”Southgate told them,” so do what you think the team represents now. “
But the musicians are also anxious to go beyond London and a purely urban sensibility to other England, which are less familiar to them; do something that the people who live there “will understand”. And like Southgate, Krept (Casyo Johnson) is also preoccupied with time, identity and the past. In a moving scene with his granddaughter, Nala, he looks back on the passage of generations in his family: “My grandparents were entirely Jamaican, had Jamaican accents,” he says, “while my parents didn’t. not done… so now Nala’s parents and grandparents don’t have Jamaican accents, so the familiarity won’t be there as much. Obviously she’s English, but it’s also just about not forgetting where you’re from and balancing the two.
In their recent delivered, Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain, academics Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones conclude that “England and English are the high wall dungeon in the center of concentric circles of belonging.” Beyond England, there is Great Britain, then an “outer wall” of the old Dominations and the United States. The metaphor conveys a defensive, exclusive and predominantly white worldview, shadowed by empire memories and heartwarming versions of what the Imperial Era meant.
This was the vision my brother loved to debunk in the early 1970s. But, as Southgate guessed, the current England team, proud of their diversity and possessing an impressive degree of political courage, helps define and project a different country, more contemporary from the old ramparts. In one investigation For think tank British Future this week, Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and his colleagues have proven to be a more popular emblem of the nation than St. George’s. As British Future Director Sunder Katwala points out: “It makes good sense in our country now that you don’t have to be white to be English.
In an urbanized country with many diverse large towns and villages, this should perhaps come as no surprise. But the extremely valuable service Gareth Southgate has rendered is finding the right way to speak and celebrate this reality.
In a flattering but fascinating setting portrait of Boris Johnson published in Atlantic magazine this month, the Prime Minister reportedly said: “People live by story. Human beings are creatures of the imagination. It is an insight with romantic philosophical roots that the left, inclined to rationalist abstraction, must relearn. But while Johnson’s use of language is imaginative, his view of England is not. It’s rather deeply repetitive, drawing on his favorite Churchillian tropes and dusting off old stories, rather than making room for new ones.
Southgate’s letter, acknowledging the claims of the future and the past on English identity, offers a sonorous counter-narrative. Of course, if this gifted England team manages to realize their potential in a tournament that now has an inescapable political dimension, Johnson will try to bask in the limelight. But it will be the other, the most recent England “who won it”. This country is a work in progress. His dimensions, hopes and desires are more present in our minds as Euro 2020 finally begins, thanks to Southgate’s humility and understanding.