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Why it's cool to support England

Duleep Allirajah is not worried about flag-waving nationalism any more

I am not a patriot, I wasn't born in Britain and I'm not white, but I'll be backing England in the World Cup. I am not particularly bothered about what happens to the 'reggae boyz' of Jamaica or the African or Asian teams. I'd really love to see England play Germany - and this time turn them over. It would appear that I've just passed the Tebbit test.

There was a time when I felt a bit uneasy about supporting England - a time when Norman Tebbit's brand of chauvinism carried some influence in society. When England played Argentina in the quarter-final in Mexico 1986 the still-fresh memory of Margaret Thatcher's Falklands War imbued the game with a greater significance (I still supported England, but discreetly). When Liverpool fans charged at Juventus supporters in the Heysel stadium, waving Union Jacks and chanting 'kill the wops', I couldn't help but feel sickened.

Times, however, have changed. Old-fashioned nationalism seems to have lost its grip along with most other Great British institutions like the monarchy, the church of England and the Tory Party. When I saw William Hague and Ffyon skanking at the Notting Hill carnival, it struck me how dated Norman Tebbit and his brand of jingoism appears now. I have never been one for singing 'Rule Britannia' and 'No surrender to the IRA' at football matches, but I can't get worked up about the few who do, especially today. The trappings of old-fashioned nationalism no longer mean very much outside a football stadium. Painting the cross of St George on your face no more signifies British nationalism than Chelsea fans wearing Ruud Gullit wigs was an expression of Rastafarianism.

Euro '96 illustrated how obsolete traditional fight-'em-on-the-beaches nationalism had become. The tabloid press indulged itself in a kind of cartoon chauvinism, a joke version of jingoism. Before England played Holland the Daily Mirror urged its readers to pull up their tulips, throw out their Edam cheese and clogs, and stay away from windmills. Before the quarter-final against Spain the Mirror announced 'You're done Juan!' and listed '10 nasties Spain's given Europe' - including syphilis, carpet-bombing, Franco and flamenco dancing. On the eve of the semi-final against Germany the Sun issued the battle cry 'Let's blitz Fritz!', while the Mirror, under the headline 'Achtung surrender!', declared 'soccer war' on Germany.

It is indicative of its decline that traditional foreigner-bashing can no longer be presented with a straight face. Some people, however, did not see the funny side. The opprobrium heaped on the tabloids was also a sign of changing times. Even the Daily Mail joined in the chorus of condemnation, declaring that 'England deserves better than this orgy of jingoism'. The national heritage select committee slammed the tabloid press for their 'xenophobic, chauvinistic and jingoistic gutter journalism'. Mirror editor Piers Morgan felt obliged to issue an immediate public apology saying, 'It was intended as a joke but anyone who was offended by it must have taken it seriously, and to those people I say sorry'. Displays of traditional nationalism, it seems, are now something to be ashamed of and avoided even in jest.

Tony Blair suggested that Euro '96 had restored a sense of national pride. However, unlike real nationalism this mood could never be susceptible to manipulation by politicians, precisely because it was based on nothing more than football. The euphoria dissipated almost as soon as Gareth Southgate missed That Penalty. Ironically, those who make a living out of patriotism were able to spot the difference between a nationalist revival and a fleeting collective feeling around a football tournament. As Chris Penman, proprietor of House of Flags (which experienced a surge in demand during Euro '96) explained, 'Last year, even with the VE-Day commemoration, we sold only about 1000 St George Flags. The English as a nation are not very patriotic. Until now a lot of people did not know what a St George flag looked like...Fans have suddenly woken up to the fact that it is St George for England'. And when the tournament was over, they forgot about it again; misguided attempts to build on the 'spirit of '96' and turn St George's day into a popular national festival have flopped in the past two years.

So I feel it is alright to support England today without worrying about whether I am encouraging nationalism or indulging racists. In fact, what worries me more than the remnants of old-fashioned nationalism is the attempt to replace it with a new politically correct form of patriotism which is better suited to New Britain. The components of this new patriotism were summed up well by Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland after Diana's death last year: 'New Britain is less formal and deferential. It's more open and personal. It's more tolerant and optimistic, less macho and miserable. It's more diverse - less straight and more black - and less centralised.'

In truth, this idealised notion of New Britain is just as mythical as John Major's romantic vision of old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist. Intolerance and deference, which characterised traditional nationalism, have not been abolished - just repackaged in a PC form.

Never mind the conformist Tebbit test, what about the Blair test? Those out-of-date nationalists who follow the England football team and who, according to football writer Jim White, 'clench their fists in fervent salutes during "God save the Queen"', are exactly the sort of people who fail the Blair test - a more insidious and intrusive demand for conformity than anything the old guard proposed. Norman Tebbit only wanted us to stand up while the national anthem was playing. The Blair test goes further and demands that we not only respect the national anthem of England's opponents, but that we behave ourselves throughout the entire game: no racist chants, no swearing in the family enclosure, and no taunting opposing fans with internationally recognised obscene gestures.

It seems to me that New Britain is no less elitist than the old version, except that elitism has been given a Blairite makeover. It is what a journalist like Matt Tench of the Independent expressed during Euro '96, describing his discomfort when he found himself on a tube train 'cocooned among a mob of Chelsea fans...and looking around all you could see were white males mostly between the ages of 16 and 30'. When the humourless new elitists of Blair's Britain attack the 'jingoism' of the tabloids, they are really attacking the racist scum which they take many tabloid-reading football fans to be.

To me, supporting England has nothing whatsoever to do with feeling British or English or anything else. I feel no more allegiance to New Britain than I did to old Britain. My allegiance is confined to the England team, players whose fortunes I follow throughout the season (although I would feel closer to them if a few Crystal Palace players made the squad). It's a football thing and nothing more.

I could not care less if England fans chant abuse at the opposition or boo foreign national anthems. Intimidating the opposition is what supporting your team is all about. I would be more worried if England fans applauded their opponents, took part in the Mexican waves and joined in songs of international friendship. As I see it, a football stadium is no place for this sort of behaviour.

Reproduced from LM issue 111, June 1998

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