That Sinking Feeling: England against the World


Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, December 4th 2010

The backlash has now begun in earnest about England not getting the World Cup in 2018. This tells us much about our southern neighbours, how they see themselves and the world, and are in turn seen. And about how the new global order of the 21st century is evolving.

First things first. I had wanted England to win the right to host the World Cup because I recognise that England – like Scotland is a nation with deep footballing traditions. I also have impatience with knee jerk anti-Englishness in Scotland, and believe it is time to overcome our chip on the shoulder attitude towards the English which is really about us and our own insecurities.


One of the pivotal problems which England’s bid encountered and which is seldom commented upon is: what is England? This is a nation without a voice, national anthem, national leaders, Parliament and Government, unsure how it fits into the United Kingdom let alone the world.

Across the globe England stands out as a nation that does not understand itself; it is a ‘stateless nation’ par excellence much more than present day Scotland which is now suffering from its own kind of ‘democratic deficit’.

Thus, when England has to present itself to the world as a nation – very different from London presenting itself as a world city to win the Olympics – it encounters problems and confusion. Apart from David Beckham, it has no English icons or voices to fall back on.

This has become more acute because increasingly England does not understand or know the character of the UK. The political, business and media elites at the heart of the country increasingly view it as a unitary state, something the UK has never been, having always been a union state.

They increasingly have less of a grasp of the history, tradition and values which once bounded us together. There is now a deep void where once there was a collective language and set of memories which informed the elites and people of the UK who they were.

The gradual erosion of an over-arching British story is seen in numerous aspects of public life. One recent example has been the way the Calman Commission proposals have been advanced by the UK Government and British political classes. Both of these have no real interest in a different set of arrangements across the UK, or any idea of where all this might go; instead they are acting in an ad hoc manner because they feel they have to without any belief or desire in some kind of final settlement and vision.

Then there is how Britain comes across in the world. A problematic, complacent Football Association of England still sees itself as the centre of world football. The English Premiership more and more reassembles an offshore financial bubble with more than half the clubs foreign owned and based for tax reasons offshore, while holding more than half the football debt of all European football.

This is combined with a media which in places is virulently xenophobic and always looking for icons and institutions to question and tear down – sometimes rightly as in FIFA, and sometimes without any obvious reason.

In the space of a single generation Britain has shifted from one set of caricatures to another. Once Britain was seen as being old-fashioned, fusty and an ancient gentleman’s club, as being about tea, cricket, being reserved and good manners. No one would think that now.

A new set of stereotypes has arisen, of a land of spivs, spin doctors, and blaggards: a description which would sum up ‘the three lions’ of Beckham, Cameron and Prince William. And in place of a land of deference and order, Britain is now portrayed by its messy, fuzzy culture for both good and bad, its pop culture and creativity seen at its worst in ‘The X Factor’ and in the ferociousness of parts of the media. The old myths weren’t right then, nor are the new ones now, but the change from one to the other does capture the demise of one Britain and the rise of a new one which is more abrasive, harsh and self-seeking.

One of the problems we have is how British elites misunderstand the country. Increasingly, the global class and winners in our society who position themselves at the nexus of power and influence in the UK, see the rest of us as a bit of an afterthought. Northern cities, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland more and more just don’t appear in their version of the UK.

England as a nation just doesn’t register either compared to the pull of London the world city, a place where the super-rich and oligarchs reside and play, and which is the most unequal city anywhere in the entire developed world.

This is a narrow spectrum of Britain – of New Labour, the Cameroons and ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems. It is a fairly unappealing, unattractive and unsustainable vision of the UK. Yet, this is the dominant account of the country in the last decade or so, the received wisdom of those with voice and influence. Despite the debris this has inflicted upon us, this worldview still sails on relatively unchallenged with the only solution on offer the extension and escalation of it.

We have to encourage English voices to emerge and define their identity, and if they want to take their place as a nation. The emergence of a genuine, democratic English voice would be a momentous moment in the history of the UK. This would necessitate far-reaching, fundamental change, and point to the need for an all-British conversation which begins to explore an alternative to the current institutional arrangements in the UK and the possibilities of a more radical, decentralised state.

Football is but one expression of all of this. Football matters much more than some of the naysayers understand, telling us revealing facts about ourselves. Football is a sport the Scottish and English gave the world; the two nations have the two oldest football associations in the world, and have a deep, proud history and tradition.

A radical football solution is at least on offer: hinted at when Sepp Blatter, FIFA President, gave a special mention to England and Scotland, acknowledging their role in establishing the game in the form of ‘association football’.

One measure of England changing, the Scottish chip declining, and a different kind of Britain would be for the two most ancient footballing nations to work together and put forward a joint bid for a future World Cup.

It may well be that this is now too late – as the World Cup chases the avarice of new markets and money, but at least a Scottish-English joint bid would say something refreshing, new and powerful about who we are and what we want to be. We might even develop a story of the people and nations of these isles which people find attractive both here and across the world. Wouldn’t that be an exciting and unusual prospect?

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.
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