“Watching England’s young Lions fall agonisingly short against Italy in the Euro 2020 final, it was hard not to admire the irony of it all. In a time when people have questioned what Englishness means, and doubts over its connection to ancestry have persisted in some unreflective corners, there was the sense of this being a very English way of losing: the heartbreak of a penalty shootout.
Some will wonder how long this will last. It’s also worth highlighting that the English team of the 2000s had a high number of black players too, but the racism both in society and football lingered. This was illustrated in how John Terry’s England career never suffered an early ending for his racism. Moreover, national symbols such as the football team are not sustainable methods of antiracist campaigning. This remains a grassroots struggle, but the current English team delivered a powerful riposte to those on the right who, subtly or openly, push the idea that ethnic minorities aren’t as English as their white peers, and those on the progressive left unable look beyond associations with the Empire and racism.
The meaning and view of Englishness has been transformed because simply put, the country has become a significantly more liberal and tolerant society to live in. The director of Runnymede Trust, Halima Begum, illustrated this during a talk with Bright Blue. She compared growing up in London’s East End and seeing the English flag as the preserve of white locals who were hostile to immigration, to today where it isn’t flown with ethnonationalist intent but simply the celebration of England. This is an England where now 90% no longer believe that ancestry is significant in determining someone’s Englishness. There are still racism problems, but it feels churlish to deny that the country has also come far on this problem from where it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
There is a significantly kinder and more pluralistic England out there than right-wingers want us to believe. When a mural of Rashford was desecrated, the local community and from beyond came forward with an outpour of love, solidarity and compassion to help a young man clearly devastated by the events of the penalty shootout. When a minority booed the knee, the rest vociferously drowned them out. Those of us on the left should be heartened by this.
To accept the progress has been made is not to deny that there are still challenges ahead of us. Would Rashford and Sterling’s patriotism have been doubted if England had gone out of the group stages? If someone wishes to speak on the historical injustices of the Empire, or why Churchill was indeed a white supremacist responsible for the deaths of millions of Bengalis, are they no longer patriotic? At times, discourse leads us to believe that to criticise the past of England is to hate England. Yet most ethnic minorities feel a strong sense of attachment to Britain but are also critical of the Empire.
To reflect personally for a moment, I adore England. It is home and nothing evokes a sense of comfort, familiarity and ease than when a plane is touching down in London telling me I’m home. While I acknowledge that Churchill was a wartime hero and on that merit, deserves to be remembered with a statue. I also cannot accept any refusal to acknowledge the evils of the British Empire, the disastrous consequences of Churchill’s racism or ignore the treatment undocumented migrants and refugees today.
When the nation reaches a place where someone of a different skin colour can confidently express these notions without having their sense of citizenship and belonging questioned, we will know that we have truly arrived in an England of racial equality. Right now, we are on the way, but simply that.
There are also lessons for those on the left to take into account regarding Englishness. It’s time to stop being so uncomfortable with the country we call home. Those who argue for a politics of solidarity and community tend to overlook the importance of community and national identity in everyday life. People aren’t going to come together simply from a shared belief in paying more for the NHS. They require, instead, a shared identity, and there is nothing determining that this will necessarily be shaped by the right and not by the left. The mid 2010s saw the likes of Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson toxically portray it as one that tapped into the worst prejudices. Ironically, post-Brexit Britain has seen the rise of a far more progressive one, inspired by people like Rashford and Sterling.
The English football team has helped push the conversation in a favourable path for all of us at the detriment of the Tories. It’s now upon us to not let the right-wingers wrestle ownership away once more.