England and the World Cup: That sinking football feeling and how to bounce back

Viewed from Scotland, England's failure to win the world cup reveals a land that has lost itself, led by a political class of blaggards. But perhaps a different kind of bid for 2030 could show the way for a much better, more original and attractive country.
Gerry Hassan
6 December 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 of different nations.

The London political elite is losing the sense of history, tradition and values which once bounded us together across the UK. There is now a deepening void where once there was a collective language and set of memories that informed the elites and people of the UK who they all 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 supposedly designed to increase the fiscal autonomy of Scotland have been advanced by the UK Government and British political class. Both seem to have no real interest in different sets of arrangements across the UK, or where this might lead; instead they are acting in an ad hoc manner: there is no sense that have any belief in or desire for a lasting settlement or a vision of where they want to go.

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 offshore for tax reasons, while holding more than half the debt of all European clubs put together.

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

Seen from outside as Britain rather than England, in the space of a single generation the country 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: the sorry picture of ‘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 its media ferociousness. 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 country, more abrasive, harsh and self-seeking.

At the heart of this is a London elite that misunderstands the country. Increasingly, it has become part of a global class. The 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. More and more, Northern cities, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland just drop off 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 a political class that brought us New Labour, the Cameroons and ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems. Theirs is an unappealing, unattractive and unsustainable vision of Britain as a whole. Yet, it has provided 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, apparently the only solution on offer, offering more of the same.

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 for 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 asport the Scottish and English gave the world; the two nations that 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, in his introductory speech before announcing the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, gave a special mention to England and Scotland, acknowledging the role of both in establishing the game in the form of ‘association football’.

But it seems never to have occurred to either the English Association or the Scottish one, the two most ancient footballing nations, to work together and put forward a joint bid for a 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 to us, about who we are and what we want to be, and what a different kind of Britain we could become. It’s a sad fact that we would have to wait until 2030 to give ourselves the opportunity – as Scots and English perhaps we should start now – reimagining what it means to be the peoples of the UK.

Who knows we might even develop a joint story of these isles which people find attractive both here and across the world. Unlike the 2010 bid for the world cup, that would be exciting and unusual.

Based on Gerry Hassan's weekly column for the Saturday Scotsman

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