As Dele Alli arrives at the far post to convert Jesse Lingard’s cross, thousands of plastic cups of beer are lobbed into the air throughout England. The nation’s young, multicultural and diverse team are 2-0 up against Sweden in the World Cup. England are heading to the semi-finals for the first time since 1990. Before the final whistle the England band in the stadium cycles through their extensive back catalogue, which includes The Great Escape, Rule Britannia and God Save The Queen.
Has there ever been a more severe case of ‘postcolonial melancholia?’
Conveniently for some, England’s passage to the last four of this summer’s World Cup in Russia fell on the same weekend as the Prime Minister brought her cabinet together at Chequers. The only subject on the agenda: a blueprint for Brexit. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union on the 23rd June 2016 was in part a backlash to immigration and a desire to return to an imagined past. At the time of writing, our Prime Minister is Theresa May: a politician who presided over the infamous 'hostile environment' at the Home Office, which led to British Citizens from the Caribbean being wrongly deported in quite harrowing circumstances. As Prime Minister, she has doubled down on her efforts to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands in the name of social cohesion. The question poses itself - would the Prime Minister have allowed the parents of Lingard (Saint Vincent) and Alli (Nigeria) into the country in the first place. Worse still, would England even have ended their penalty shoot-out hoodoo. The decisive spot-kick in the quarter-final was scored by Eric Dier, who had his football upbringing in Portugal after his mother moved there for work. Is freedom of movement for aspiring footballers one of Prime Minister May’s red lines in negotiations?
'The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.' Eric Hobsbawm’s pithy phrase always reappears during a World Cup summer. While Brexit and the Scottish referendum have seen some discussion of English identity and even an English parliament, England seems to emerge fully formed every four years (as long as we qualify for the World Cup).
If you have ever had the opportunity to follow the Three Lions to a World Cup, you have undoubtedly heard a loud minority of England fans chanting 'Two World Wars and One World Cup, doo dah.' The normal reaction from the majority of England fans in the stands is to steadfastly pretend it is not happening, i.e. as typical an English reaction as you can find. At times, it can seem that some in England have a pathological inability to discuss football without mentioning World War II. 'Don't mention the VAR' was trending on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of Germany's early exit from this year's tournament.
In postcolonial England, the Second World War is presented as the country’s finest hour: its last stand before its extended decline as the Empire was dismantled. The identification with sport and war has not been unique to England at this World Cup. Switzerland and Serbia seemed to play a Kosovo derby match at the Kaliningrad Stadium earlier in the tournament. While modern Balkan politics probably deserve a library of its own, let alone a blog post, honest appraisals of the British Empire have rarely been carried out in mainstream discourse. A now infamous YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59% of the British public felt that the Empire is 'more something to be proud of rather than ashamed of.' A third of the public also said they would like it if Britain still had an Empire. These attitudes are in line with this government’s post Brexit trade aspirations, which have been disparagingly dubbed 'Empire 2.0.' Imperial nostalgia has not quite left these shores yet.
As some England fans join in the chants of Rule Britannia high in the stands, below a thoroughly post-imperial England team plays. Yet England is also a place where the loyalty of people of colour is constantly questioned. In the past year, The Daily Mail has accused the writer Afua Hirsch and the rapper Stormzy of failing to show enough gratitude to Britain (articles here and here respectively): a charge that seems less likely to be applied to a white Briton. For those whose roots lie in the New Commonwealth, their ability to be loyal to the nation has long been doubted. Where The Daily Mail leads, the modern Conservative party follows; in the run up to the EU referendum, Boris Johnson implied that Barack Obama’s 'part-Kenyan ancestry' made him less able to comment on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU. This was all refracted through the alleged slight of Obama moving a bust of Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office. Johnson is also a man who referred to those in the New Commonwealth as 'grinning picanninies...with watermelon smiles.' Does the same apply to some players in the England football team? Does Raheem Sterling’s Jamaican birth make him less able to represent England? The treatment of Sterling by sections of the UK press seems to have already answered these questions. A few months after his comments, Johnson became Foreign Secretary in Theresa May’s cabinet. It is a mark of the chaos currently enveloping British politics, that his departure from the front bench earlier today is a cause for concern.
This is not solely an English 'problem'. Belgium, France and Germany have all had their own variations on this debate in the last decade. These debates have also coincided with their team winning World Cups or at least setting new benchmarks in the case of Belgium. France’s 'Black, Blanc, Beur' team of 1998 won the World Cup on home soil; this was swiftly forgotten when riots broke out in the suburbs of Paris in 2005. These were seen as a failure of assimilation. Likewise Belgium’s run to the semi-finals comes just over a year after the district of Molenbeek was presented as a no-go area. England in 2018 is a country where we can celebrate the achievements of a diverse and multicultural team, while also deporting their grandparents. England is two countries at the same time. While we struggle to understand plural and flexible identities in the aftermath of Empire, it is (fittingly) worth looking towards Germany for some guidance. While the country goes through its own debates about integration, the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has shown admirable political leadership. After meeting with Mesut Özil and İlkay Gündoğan, Steinmeier posted on social media: ‘Heimat gibt es auch im Plural.’
Homeland also exists in the plural.