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Euro 2004 - all together now?

Andy Newman


A characteristic feature of modern football tournaments is the re-release of old pop-songs with a tenuous football connection. For Euro 2004 the FA has commissioned a reworked version of the 1990 hit "All Together Now" from the Farm. A more appropriate song would surely have been the Sex Pistols "God Save the Queen", with its chorus ending "No future, No future in England's dreaming".

A common view on the left is that the enthusiasm for supporting England and the ubiquity of the St George's flags is an uncomplicated reflection of right wing politics. At its most extreme some socialists argue that as a matter of principle we should call for the defeat of our home team. As Mark Steel has pointed out elsewhere this seems to be a tortured misreading of Lenin, who allegedly argued for "turning the European Championship into a civil war".

Now as a simple matter of correction we should emphasise that success of a national football team does not necessarily weaken the combatively of the working class. The fact that Hungary won the Olympic gold medal in 1952, and were narrowly defeated in the world cup final in 1554 did not prevent Budapest factory workers from forming workers' councils in 1956. Nor were the Hungarian government able to use the popular footballers as symbols to rebuild national unity after the revolution was defeated, because at the first opportunity Ferenc Puskas and the other Budapest Honvad stars defected to Spain while there to play an international club friendly.

When Alf Ramsey dropped Jimmy Greaves in favour of Geoff Hurst for the 1966 finals, this was entirely unconnected with attempts by the engineering employers to abolish piece work in favour of Measured Day Work. Somehow strong workplace organisation managed to survive the hammer blow of England winning the world cup, and despite the relatively high level of class struggle in 1970, the revolutionary defeatism of the left did not lead to the overthrow of the British state following England's exit after extra time in the quarter final.

Certainly as a socialist it is unpleasant to hear the national anthem being sung by thousands of working class men as a provocative challenge to opposing fans. Certainly we cannot identify with the myth of national unity.

However, we need to understand that situation is much more multi-facetted than a simple resurgence of chauvinism. One of the reasons that these championships are so popular is because people just like Football. Tens of thousands play the game in Sunday leagues and informal 5-a-side tournaments. Tens of thousands more attend league matches as spectators and millions watch it on TV. Enjoyment of the big tournaments is independent of England's participation. There were huge television audiences for the USA 1994 world cup for which England failed to qualify.

Ironically, realising that football fans from Africa or Korea are very much similar to fans from Milton Keynes or Bolton undermines national stereotypes and makes it easier to understand that working people are pretty much the same all over the world.

The England factor is clearly important. Now partly this is whipped up by the press, but partly it is because most working class lives are unfulfilling and stressful, as we are trapped in dead-end jobs with money worries, and no end in sight. So the media fuelled illusion that winning a major championship would be something extraordinary is an appealing fantasy to indulge ourselves in. One of the saddest aspects of the England hysteria is that it is so corporate and conformist, with millions of factory made flags and expensive replica shirts. You can dream on your own, but to be really part of the collective mood you must buy the merchandise.

The media frenzy also blows out of all proportion the drunkenness and violence. The fact that there is some highly unpleasant chauvinist violence linked to the football is deplorable, but is no worse than the drunken loutishness and fighting we see in working class town centres every Friday and Saturday night, or every night in Ibiza or Faliraki during the summer months.

So do the far-right benefit? Well the first thing that struck me about the England v France game was how multi-racial both teams were. This has caused problems for the fascists in both countries, and in the 2002 World cup the BNP advocated supporting all-white Denmark, rather than "mongrel" England. In Nick Lowles fascinating book about Combat 18 he describes the trouble that British fascists have had in building out of football hooliganism. C18 gained some acceptance as a slightly eccentric "England Firm", in the same way that the Head-hunters are a Chelsea "firm" of hooligans. But nowadays there are quite a lot of black football hooligans, and even racist thugs often have more loyalty to a black member of their own firm than to supporters of other teams who are white. The close association of C18 with Chelsea and a handful of other clubs also meant they were unable to overcome the tribal divisions of the different clubs to build anything permanent and national.

The other thing worth remarking upon is that what is being celebrated is English and not British nationalism, and this has been a development of really just the last 15 years. This is a complex phenomenon that needs separate examination; however it is my view that English nationalism is not necessarily more reactionary than Welsh or Scottish nationalism. Certainly the myth that England supporters are more right-wing than Scottish ones needs to be punctured, I have heard Scottish fans chanting "there's only one Bomber Harris" at the Germans.

English nationalism is arguably a less virulent strain than British nationalism, and perhaps is more racially inclusive. I have been surprised to see so many young Asian men wearing England replica shirts this year. England as a concept is also strangely linked to football, rather than the imperial legacy or pre-industrial myths about Robin Hood and the "Norman Yoke". I am making no claim that it is progressive, but it is a new development that needs more than a knee-jerk reaction. Many of the people displaying England flags will be opposed to the war in Iraq, and anti-racist.

So if you like sport, enjoy the tournament. If you find the excessive show of nationalism oppressive, welcome to the club! - But it is not the return of the third Reich.

In another age, when Jerusalem was a metaphor for social justice, we were given a different image of England's future. If we can forgive Blake his religious frame of reference it is still a vision worth struggling for:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.


 

 

June 2004

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