Euro 2004 - all together now?
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
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
Certainly as a socialist it is
unpleasant to hear the national anthem being sung by thousands of
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
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
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning
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
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.