The World Cup fever that hits England was encapsulated in the picture of the Bermondsey estate that was entirely laden in English flags stretching across every house. Yet it feels like the exception rather than the rule that the country is swept up in an excited frenzy about the World Cup. Newspaper excitement has been bubbling but less animatedly, a reflection of the country’s own excited yet cautious engagement with the tournament.
On the one hand you could attribute this to belated dose of realism setting in over the country after years of false dawns. We know we just aren’t good enough. The excitement is there, just less brazenly. The last few years have indicated a shift away from the national team towards club football. Whether it’s just an isolated case of Wembley’s cosmopolitan-based fans or something else (a recent game in Leeds brought about a raucous atmosphere of frenzied patriotism), a dulling apathy has often wrapped itself around the national team. The Champions League is the rage. It’s tempting to see this as symptom of globalisation where borders are less distinguishable and relevant, and identities don’t rely as much on flags.
The pushback against this cultural dilatation certainly exists in the rampaging far-right movements but they, it seems, are fighting against a doomed cause. That’s why the World Cup has at times recently felt like a celebrated of an outdated concept in nationalism. It’s an ugly form of politics and one that as an internationalist leftist, I find abhorring. And certainly, the ugly parts of this have surfaced in the World Cup. England fans are never far away from controversy and reports of Nazi salutes in Russia are only a further mark of shame. How ironic that these so-called patriots espouse their rebellious anti-PC love for England by doing salutes belonging to the enemy that nearly destroyed Britain.
On the other hand the World Cup has also brought out the better, unifying powers of patriotism, something which is perceptibly different. Videos of England fans jubilantly celebrating the last-gasp victory over Tunisia in warm and social manner is another indication of the pulling power patriotism has in bringing people together over something to bond on. Politicians understand the power of that too, in how the creation of an external threat can ramp up national unity and briefly airbrush out of reality internal discord. In the wake of Brexit it is powerful in tying people together and reminding them that there is a shared identity that acts as the connective tissue between them. The World Cup has done this. In the days, weeks and months following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a liberal disdain for the English identity became clear. After all it was English nationalism that fuelled Brexit and has paved way for what feels only like looming economic chaos if a decent deal isn’t secured with the European Union. But the Royal Wedding and now the World Cup has shown that, barring the deliberately contrarian progressives who will support England’s opponents at the World Cup, people can come together for a moment. That sense of community and togetherness, frayed by capitalism’s atomisation of society, is a powerful thing.
For those on the left grasping this psychological yearning for a cultural and national identity is difficult because it leads to possible xenophobia, jingoism and clashes with our own liberal view of immigration and borderless solidarity. Communion decided within borders rather than between is not where the world should be going to.
But patriotism need only be worrying when it morphs into nationalism, an ugly brand of politics that is rather different. A patriot can celebrate the things in the country if it isn’t then used to project supremacy over others. British people are patriotic about the Royal Family, Wimbledon, Wembley, the BBC and the NHS. These are things that we identify as definitively British and there should be immense pride in them. Nationalism is something else, when pride and love becomes a hatred of others and a refusal to acknowledge that with every cultural history comes the darker moments that we would rather blot out. A patriot acknowledges that the Empire happened and with it uncountable atrocities. They love Britain but do not use it to demonise immigrants or those who don’t look like them. A nationalist does all of these things and more.
Terminology also can be a little confusing here. Nationalism on the left isn’t always reviled. When it’s done by the Kurds, Palestinians, Catalans and Scots it’s usually cheered. But it is vehemently rejected when espoused by Americans, the English or others. This might feel like selective outrage but there is a point that nationalism can sometimes simply be the basic elements of constructing an identity as a unifying mark of resistance in some sort of struggle as it is with the Kurds and others. But in other cases it’s used to project absolute supremacy and bigotry, as we see sometimes here or in places like India where Hindu nationalism persecutes other minorities or in America where nationalism has created a hatred of Mexicans and other immigrants.
We should be careful with patriotism and never let it veer into prejudice and sneering bigotry towards others. But a quiet pride and love of one’s country, reaffirmed by the World Cup, should never be a bad thing. This tournament has shown the good and bad of nationalism, but for most part shown us that in times of political turbulence and instability, we sometimes just need something we all share and love in common to bring us together for one moment.