England and the St George’s Cross: Writing English Identity On The Flag

This is the vision of England the English are supposed to have embraced: a multicultural patriotism.

The question, though, is whether that vision of the England national football team as representative of multicultural patriotic English identity is anything more than a very effective piece of marketing by England’s sponsor, Umbro. For what is England, aside from a football team?

The problem with England, of course, is it doesn’t really exist: now, we might say that about most nation-states (invented traditions, imagined communities), but England’s problem is more acute than that shared by its fellow constituent parts of Great Britain. Scotland and Wales at least boast a national parliament and a national assembly respectively since devolution in the 1990s. England lacks even these devolved powers, let alone the status of a sovereign state, even if the ultimate authority for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland lies in London.

Britishness and Englishness are overlapping cultural identities that don’t make sense either together or apart; Englishness is bordered by Welsh and Scottish identities more clearly separated from Britishness; England is tied ever closer to continental Europe and the world, yet is still in a post-imperial haze struggling to process the mass migration patterns it’s necessarily a part of; what England is remains unclear, as is who the English are.

Perhaps, though, the national English football team is part of solving that riddle. In the past fifteen years, England’s football team has come to be overwhelmingly represented by the St George’s Cross, the flag of England, rather than the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom. It, of course, makes more literal sense for England fans to fly the St George’s flag, as it represents England alone. But it also speaks to a new meaning that has been attached to supporting England and to the St George’s Cross as a symbol of Englishness, one that just might be providing a more inclusiveness meaning to the identity of England than we might ever have expected from the England football team, one long tied to nastier currents of racism, nationalism and violence.

England, Manchester

In many ways, this starts with the commercialisation of English identity that comes from football, itself now almost entirely commercialised: Team England is Brand England, as this Carlsberg ad shows:

11 Englishmen against the rest of the world . . . Men of England . . . If Carlsberg did team talks.

As Laurie Penny recently wrote, this branding of English identity to the England football team is a convenient money-maker from a marketing standpoint.

Britain itself is a shuffling, gloriously dissipated nation that also includes many people from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. By contrast, the kitsch, horn-honking vision of English identity associated with World Cup-EnglandTM is too easily co-opted by big business in an effort to get us to spend money on booze, branded sportswear and chocolate bars emblazoned with the England flag. B&Q, which expects to make a loss over the season, has even released a range of garden gnomes wearing the England strip, which rather sums up the twee consumer desperation of World Cup season.

Figures aren’t in yet for the 2010 World Cup, but we are talking seriously big business here: according to this Guardian article by David Conn shortly after the 2006 World Cup, “27% of adults bought a flag in June, equating to 10.5m crosses of St George flying at the high point of expectation.”

But does this commercialised Brand England run close to the nastier side of nationalism, as Penny goes on to say?

Marketing strategists clearly envision the people of England drinking and shopping the summer away, safe in the knowledge that national pride is being guarded by a regiment of xenophobic pottery goblins. This cheery commoditised nationalism runs unnervingly close to the uglier face of engineered “English pride”.

That idea of “English pride” has certainly long had seriously ugly overtones tied closely to the flag of St George. In that 2006 Guardian piece from Conn mentioned above, there’s a pertinent explanation of the ambiguity that still surrounds the concept of multicultural patriotism and the uniquitious flag of St George around the England team:

That ubiquity might appear to seal the process of reclaiming the flag from where it was before Euro ’96: tied round the wrist of the British National Party or borne by England football followers looking for trouble. “The flag of St George has lost all racist connotations,” concludes Kevin Miles, the Football Supporters’ Federation’s international coordinator. “It is now seen as the England flag.”

There are, though, reasons still to be cautious about what vision of England flies with the flag. Angela Foster, a journalist with New Nation, wrote in this newspaper about being racially abused when she went to support England at the Greenwich big screening of the group match against Trinidad & Tobago. She feels she had become complacent, seduced by the idea that supporting England now embraces everybody in our rainbow nation.

She is at pains not to generalise; support for England did attract black and Asian fans and, clearly, more women and girls than ever before. In New Nation’s poll before the World Cup only 50% of the paper’s black readers said they would be supporting England, but this was mostly because they were backing T&T or an African team representing their country of origin rather than because they felt excluded from supporting England.

About the flag, though, Foster and the poll tell a different story. Most black people interviewed said they felt alienated by the flag of St George and still associated it with the BNP. “It doesn’t really show unity, does it?” said one respondent, a woman aged 17. “It’s a bit white.”

This association of the flag with whiteness hasn’t entirely gone away. The violent, racist far right English Defense League, founded in 2009, notably uses the St George’s cross at the centre of its identity.

Yet one could argue that the commercialisation of the flag, its very mass-market status, makes it increasingly useless as an identifying symbol of the far right with each passing major tournament. The St George’s flag is now indelibly linked with the England team; no longer is it associated in the mass media’s eye with hooliganism and the far right; the more the flag is flown, the more it is juxtaposed to a more positive reality.

England, Flags, World Cup

A brilliant essay from a few weeks ago by Gary Younge at the New Statesman illustrates this change on a personal level. Growing up black in 1970s England, an antipathy to the country’s national team came naturally toYounge:

When I was growing up in Stevenage in Hertfordshire during the 1970s, the question of who to support in the World Cup never posed much of a dilemma for my family. We backed Brazil. Nearby Hitchin may have been where I was born and, with the exception of a six-week family trip to Barbados to see relatives, England may have been the only country I knew. But when it came to my footballing allegiance, I got my kicks from a country I knew nothing about and with which I had absolutely no connection. At the time, this seemed entirely logical.

First of all, Brazil were an exciting team to watch. They played with flair and an elegant conviction. They were also brilliant. At the time of the first World Cup that I can vaguely remember, in 1974 – my mother bought our first colour TV for the occasion – Brazil had won three of the previous four tournaments. England, on the other hand, did not qualify in 1974 and would not qualify again until 1982. My elder brother, a talented footballer, was nicknamed Pelé. The notion that he might be imagined as a great English footballer never occurred to anyone, and that included us.

In those early and not so early years, this relationship to English football was not merely ambivalent, it was antagonistic. It wasn’t just that I did not support the national team, I actively wanted it to lose. And not just in football either. In everything from It’s a Knockout to the Eurovision Song Contest, England’s loss perversely became my gain.

This propensity to apostasy in sporting matters had much more to do with what was going on off the field than on it. It was about flags, anthems, war, migration, race, racism, colonialism, patriotism, nationalism, fascism and family – to name but a few things. But the nature in which these different forces interact is in constant flux. I am not the person I was in the 1970s and Britain is not the country it was, either.

Younge explains the changes to Britain, to football and to himself since then that has allowed him to cheer for England.

Most importantly, to begin with, has been the eradication of the pervasive racism on the terraces he found in the 1970s:

The racial exclusion I experienced as a child found its most complete expression on the English football terraces, which hosted some of the most nihilistic violence in the country. That was where the National Front would recruit. So if you were looking to try on your English identity, a bit like trying on a suit gifted to you by an elderly relative, a football stadium would not be the fitting room of choice.

In the past thirty years, though, these terraces changed, just as England changed that eventually found benign reflection in Fat Les’s Vindaloo.

The fault lines of our national identity shifted from colour to culture – from race to religion, language and ethnicity. For anyone under the age of 30, it is impossible to imagine Britain as an exclusively white country.

The English relationship to football became more playful and inclusive rather than desperate and melancholic. For me, this was summed up in Fat Les’s “Vindaloo” song and video for the 1998 World Cup in France. Marching through London in fancy dress and chanting with, among others, a black pearly king and queen in tow, singing: “Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/We’re off to Waterloo/ Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/And a bucket of vindaloo.” It’s difficult to think of another country that could celebrate its hybridity like that. The French had to win the World Cup in 1998 before they would acknowledge, let alone embrace, the diversity of their squad.

This transformation in the connotations of supporting England, and of flying the St George’s Cross, first became evident en masse at the 1996 European Championship held in England. Drawn with Scotland in the group stage, and with “Britain” no longer as interchangeable with “England” in a post-imperial era that saw the other constitutive parts of the country closing in on devolution, Wembley Stadium was suddenly flooded by the flag of St George during the tournament.

England, flags, St George's Cross

By the 2002 World Cup, the Guardian (like many newspapers, but more tongue-in-cheek) handily provided a” cut-out-and-keep new improved flag of St. George with no ugly connotations.”

As noted in an excellent academic article on the flag’s newfound pervasiveness, the Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey rooted the repositioning of the meaning attached to the St George’s Cross with a new inclusiveness that fits Younge’s schema:

Every country has its crosses to bear and England’s is St. George’s. Never in the field of English history, or at least not since the Crusades or Agincourt, have so many red-crossed flags been waved by so many for so many. The revival of the English Cross of St. George might have something to do with devolution, the English taking a leaf from the book of patriotism as practised by an increasingly proud and defiant Celtic fringe. It might simply be a striking and memorable pattern or logo that, unlike the union flag, even an idiot can paint across their face. . . . This red-cross flag of In-ger-land has, by happy accident, been saved from being tarred with a blunt nationalist brush this summer because, almost unimaginably, it has become an emblem that embraces fans of every class, creed and colour.

The England football team and the identity now attached to it through the St George’s Cross is perhaps such a mass-market success simply because it has become the one arena that defines Englishness so sharply, as opposed to Britishness, yet one that has become attached to inclusiveness — unlike the uglier rise of the exclusivist and violent far-right embodied by the English Defense League. It is England against the world, but it is not an England tied to racism and violence as the country’s football support was in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, England’s travelling support is channeled in more positive fashions for English identity.

In 2004, Amelia Hill wrote a long, thoughtful essay on what Englishness meant, one of the dozens of such efforts in recent years. Again, the England team appeared as a rare cultural marker of a positive development in defining English identity. She talked to Mark Perryman, head of an England fan’s gorup, in Portugal for Euro 2004:

Today in Portugal, Mark Perryman is doing his best to create his own definition of Englishness by handing out postcards to local people of the St George’s flag with words ‘Friendly Fans’ translated into Portuguese written across it. ‘We want to reclaim the flag and the associations of Englishness; make them into symbols and bywords for friendliness,’ he says.

Such an act is, according to Julian Baggini, editor of the Philosophers’ Magazine, a sign that the English might finally be ready to stand on their own: ‘The craving for certainty in any part of life is childish and misguided. We have to get over that need if we are to mature as an English nation, comfortable with its own uncertainty and ambiguity’

Handing out postcards in Portugal, Perryman believes the English are in a position of unique power and opportunity. ‘There is a great deal of clear space on the flag of St George. It’s all bare for us to write our identity on it as we stand today and wish to stand in the future.’

The vast whiteness present on the flag of St George now ever-present at England games is perhaps, then, a space in which English identity is being partially written: one anything but simply white, whatever it exactly is.

Photo credits: markhassize11feet, Stephen Iliffe and evissa via the Pitch Invasion Photo Pool.

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