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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 04:32 GMT
Football - shaping a new England?
By James Clarke
BBC News, England

Black, white and Asian English football fans celebrate a victory during the World Cup
Billy Bragg says football helps unite English people of different races
For decades English football fans were widely considered the worst kind of patriots, famous for going to foreign countries where their team were playing and causing chaos.

But now the England football team is a key part of a new "progressive patriotism", helping to reclaim the St George's Cross from racists and provide the English people, regardless of their colour, with something to unite behind.

That is the view of musician and author Billy Bragg, whose book, The Progressive Patriot - A Search for Belonging, looks at what it means to be English, British or patriotic in modern society.

Speaking at a meeting in north London, Bragg spoke of multi-cultural modern Britain, the rising popularity of the St George's Cross and the contrasting natures of national pride for the English, Scots and Welsh.

'Cling to'

Bragg says the British, but most particularly the English, went through a period of collective guilt after World War II, which continued for decades, stopping pride in being English being considered acceptable.

Billy Bragg
Nobody ever makes the assumption that a white van with the Welsh dragon on the back bumper must be driven by a racist
Billy Bragg

He said: "There's a vacuum where our Englishness should be, compared with the Scots and Welsh. That's why the team becomes important, it provides something to cling to."

The past few major international football tournaments - World Cups and European Championships - have seen England covered in St George's Cross flags.

Bragg admits when this trend started it caused anxiety for those who had thought of the flag as a racist symbol, loved by the far right.

But as he points out: "Nobody ever makes the assumption that a white van with the Welsh dragon on the back bumper must be driven by a racist.

"No-one gets called a Little Scotlander.

"There is a simple reason why so many ordinary people have recently turned to the St George's Cross. It's the only thing we English have that belongs to us alone.

'Lack self-confidence'

"Of the 32 countries that competed for the 2006 World Cup, there was only one which didn't have its own parliament or passports or national anthem - England.

"England's continued attachment to the British anthem smacks of a lack of self-confidence.

"The message sent out every time we sing God Save The Queen is one of ambiguity: 'Hello, we're the English, but we're not really sure what that means'."

England flags at a stadium during the World Cup
The St George's Cross has grown in prominence at football stadiums

Bragg's wife was born in Trinidad to white British parents and he claims her support for that country in the World Cup, when the Bragg family flew a Trinidad and Tobago flag from their balcony, gave their son Jack "a new dimension to his identity".

He also told the tale of a black friend, born in England of Jamaican parents, who was asked in a shop on the day England played Jamaica if he wanted to buy a St George's Cross flag - and reacted by texting him: "I think the flag has been reclaimed from the thugs, Bill".

Bragg is not alone in thinking support for the England football team has helped break down racial barriers.

At the same meeting, historian Richard Weight, author of Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940-2000, said: "Watching the World Cup in south east London, what struck me was that when Rio Ferdinand got the ball, the black British people and the white British people started shouting 'Peckham boy!'.

Why would anybody want to think that football should define in any way at all the new English sensibilities?
Bea Campbell

"I saw a man wearing an England shirt and a Nigeria shirt stitched together. I looked around and thought 'that's not a New Labour press release, that's actually happening'."

Kevin Morris, a photographer with a Pakistani and an English parent, said as a football fan he has encountered both racism and people embarrassed about being English.

He said: "People used to look at me and think 'what right have you got to be there?'

"But I've got a lot of white friends who have a problem with wearing the St George's Cross - and I don't."

'No political focus'

Of course, not everyone agrees football is a force for good in a modern England.

Bea Campbell, feminist academic and author, said: "By aligning football with national identity you are ignoring the fact that some people don't like football and forgetting that football has been connected with some of the worst things in English history.

Newspapers telling stories of English football hooliganism
English football supporters have had a bad reputation in the past

"It's a mistake to think that national culture is defined by football.

"What is it about the insecurities of masculinity? Why would anybody want to think that football should define in any way at all the new English sensibilities?"

But Mark Perryman, author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation, and the co-founder of the Philosophy Football T-shirt company, which organised the event, agrees with Bragg that the flag and the football team are among the few things English people have to illustrate their national identity.

He said: "Gordon Brown has very much focused on Britishness but there are very few people in the political process who will talk about Englishness.

"Next year is the 400th anniversary of the union and there is a no sense of an English political voice.

"There's a sense that English patriots can listen to songs, read books and wear T-shirts but where is this going politically?

"The difference for the Scots is that they have got a political focus for this."



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