In toxic times, England’s exit must not bring an end to this sense of unity

David Conn on 12 July 2018

When England make it to a World Cup in normal times there is never too much need to agonise over the significance of it all beyond the football itself; the coherence of midfield, confidence on the ball, the astonishingly fine margins between progress and exit. But these are abnormal times – with the UK divided by the toxic, anti-immigration Brexit campaign – so, understandably, people have agonised.

Looking for optimistic signs, many people have seen a warmer-hearted version of England being encouraged by the extended exposure to the inclusive values of Gareth Southgate and his diverse, likable group of players. In a tweet just after England’s elimination by Croatia, Kyle Walker channelled the spirit and nearly the exact words of the Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by an English fascist just before the referendum: “We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.”

We can all hope for a lasting legacy of unity from England’s surprisingly extended and heartening journey to the semi-final, but there is a queue of cautionary notes. The first is that it is not clear whether or how this message particularly communicates itself to the millions of people supporting England, whether in an ecstatic, pint-chucking city square crowd or at home on the couch with a brew.

For some the participation in England’s squad of 11 sons of immigrants may be absorbed, notable and a source of pride – including Southgate himself no doubt, given his comments about wanting to heal the country’s divisions. For others it may not be; if England had actually triumphed, perhaps for some the lesson would have been that the country is superior, we can stand alone, that the Brexit decision was somehow vindicated.

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The memory lingers of fans at the European Championship just before the 2016 referendum chanting in a French square: “Fuck off Europe, we’re all voting out.”

Perhaps there is no unity to the perception of the England team and what it all means; maybe it is split 48%-52%. Maybe not; but if Southgate’s statement of values and his team’s amiability did show the country a better vision for itself, what now?

We have a previous experience of this, the 2012 London Olympics, and the legacy was not long-lasting. Then, the whole United Kingdom was treated to the stellar achievements and unrestrained patriotism of a Great Britain team including many black and mixed-race athletes. Few corners of the country were left unaware of Mo Farah’s inspiring story, that he came to London as a refugee from war-torn Somalia, and here he was with his cockney accent and smile as bright as a floodlight, running round the track with a gold medal, wrapped in the union jack. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was hailed around the world for its celebration of modern, multicultural Britain, showcasing the NHS and the Windrush Caribbean immigrants who helped to build it.

England fans look distraught after the semi-final in Moscow.
England fans look distraught after the semi-final in Moscow. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/Guardian

Now we know too well what happened, despite that summer when the country was being told that old divisions and resentments had been overcome. At the very same time Theresa May, then the home secretary, was implementing her policy to make the UK a “hostile environment” for “illegal” immigrants, many of whom are simply asylum seekers, like Farah was, whose claims the Home Office does not accept. We know what the results of that policy scandalously were for so many distinguished members of the Windrush generation whose contribution had been celebrated at the opening ceremony. They have been hounded for impossible proof of their existence in the country, lost jobs, been denied health treatment, detained, deported. May did all this because she believed years in which asylum seekers and immigrants were negatively portrayed in the media meant the public wanted a “hostile environment”, and perhaps she was right.

The warm vision for Britain presented by Boyle was a memory four years later when the referendum campaign got going. Then the media was dominated not by positive stories of immigrants’ lives and achievements but relentless caricature and scare headlines, Nigel Farage standing in front of that Leave.EU poster of refugees with its blood-curdling warning: Breaking Point.

It feels tragically late to be hoping Southgate and his men have undone some of that damage by playing football and conducting themselves better than people expected. Even as they were trying to write their history, their country was plunging into further political meltdown caused by the Brexit vote. If there is a wider lesson to be drawn from the benevolent vision of a diverse country seen all over the media in the past four weeks, it is that we need much more of it, that it must not end with England coming home.

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