Engerland: the dialectic's point of change?

Did the left, the team and the progressive majority just pull off a major piece of cultural politics? Or was it all a dream?

When you watch a mass cultural event build, take place, reach a critical crescendo - and then re-stabilise, into a new and scratchy disequilibrium - you need a specific language to describe it. 

Since most of the British press have never read Hegel their ability to grasp what just happened is reduced to a series of garbled exclamations.

So thank f**k for the dialectic. What's happened was a classic example of what the antifascist poet John Cornford once called "the dialectic's point of change" - the sudden shattering of a political glacier, under severe geomorphic forces.

It was tragic, it was glorious, it ended with drunken bonehead sticking a lighted flare up his backside (see above) and then the ignominious failure of a Tory stratagem.

Over the past five weeks we saw the Conservative government seize on a collective decision by the England football team to 'take the knee' as an opportunity to mobilise their reactionary voting base against "woke".

As I wrote on 8 June: the subtext was a straight read-off from the thought architecture of modern fascism. The knee is to English football what Critical Race Theory is to academia: a foreign and alien ideology, imported - and read, subtextually "polluting" - our national football culture in which the ageing and unfit male football fan is the avatar of white supremacy, while the average player is a millionaire racist gambling addict.

But, due to the players' articulacy, intransigence, exemplary personal moderation - and a rare run of success on the field - the Tory strategy backfired.


Fans, as expected, booed their own players for taking the knee. Asked whether the fans were right, both Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel refused to condemn them. It's their choice, they said. This dog-whistle support for in-crowd racism was backed up by other gestures - such as when Tory MP Lee Anderson declared he would not watch the games if the gesture politics continued.

But as England carried on winning (as I predicted here) every goal and every result - and every pint of lager downed in celebration - would become the living refutation of the Conservative stance.

Even by the time they took the field for the final against Italy, the England players, their manager Gareth Southgate and the FA management had won a moral victory for anti-racism in sport.

They had begun to do what no cultural figure or movement has so far done: reclaim English national consciousness from the reactionary right. It was not just Southgate's "Letter to England" that advanced this cause, but Raheem Sterling's moving autobiographical account of his childhood journey into football.

What nobody could have scripted was the way it ended. But before we get to that, I want to describe the local atmosphere just before the game, on Sunday night. 

I live in Lambeth, South London, a 40% non-white area with big communities from places like Colombia, the Caribbean, Somalia and Nigeria. The white population is a mixture a the "old" Sarflondon working class but mainly young salaried workers with progressive, socially liberal attitudes.

So normally, an England game here is no big thing. But this was different. From mid-afternoon, there were large numbers of young men, in groups, wearing flags and football shirts, wandering the streets getting progressively drunk. I saw people from all ethnic minority groups join in - and large contingents of young working-class women also.

It was pretty clear they had internalised the general vibe, that supporting England was now a cool thing to do, and were unembarassed about the flag (historically associated with the far right), and other English iconography.

But it was still double edged. First, for an activist my age, the sheer number of national flags on the street raised this, justified fear: what if we've only partially reclaimed the nationalist iconography? What if, having legitimised and popularised flag waving, the right can make a second-half comeback and counter-hegemonise the moment.

To be honest, some of the behaviour I saw was borderline. People - mainly young and drunk - had come out of their estates to stand on road junctions demanding everyone going past should "hoot for England". I got a sense that this was the first expression of power at street level they had ever experienced. And it still wasn't clear what it meant to them. All they knew is that the flags gave them social power, and status, and licence to have a big party, whose rules they would get to determine.

At Wembley, at the same moment, groups of fans stormed the entrances, or bribed guards to let them in, or took weapons and drugs into the stadium - and then fought each other and racially abused others.

The Wembley riot (that’s what it was) shows that no matter what the team had achieved in the mass, mainstream public consciousness, the hardcore plebeian right - and the cocaine-based, white criminal underworld it overlaps with - are not going away quietly. 

But it was the unforeseen ending of the game that settled all the questions about what the mobilised, flag-wearing young precariat actually wanted.


The final went to penalties, England lost, and the three players who missed the goal were all black - including Marcus Rashford. Rashford had barely played in the tournament, but had carved out a major political profile for himself by pressuring the Tories to provide free school meals to poor kids during the school holidays, during the 2020 lockdown.

There was an immediate outpouring of online racism and vilification against the three players, which even the most pro-Tory journalists could see had been triggered, in part, by the Conservative strategy of hostility to anti-racism, and stigmatising black players like Rashford, who had engaged in politics.

In turn, there was geniune widespread revulsion - and solidarity with the players. Except among certain iconic influencers and mouthpieces of the right. The Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke messaged other lawmakers:

“They lost, would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics.”

You don’t have to be trained in semiotics to understand the subtext of her use of the word “they”.

Amid the outrage, Home Secretary Priti Patel tweeted that she was "disgusted that the England players have been subject to vile racist abuse". To which the black England player Tyrone Mings replied:

“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

That was the slam dunk, the "dialectic's point of change".

The moment the players - and key football voices like commentator Gary Neville - came out swinging verbally against the Tory politicians who had stoked the racism, was the signal for a major political retreat.

The Tory MP Johnny Mercer, an armed forces veteran, and normally on the right of the party, responded to Mings scathing words by tweeting:

“The painful truth is that this guy is completely right. Very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into. Do I fight it or stay silent? Modern Conservatism was always so much more to me. We must not lose our way.”

Albie Amankona, head of the Conservative Party's antiracism group, wrote an open letter to Tory MPs complaining:

"I fear that the way some of us have spoken out against taking the knee laid the foundations for the actions of some England fans after the football game both on social media and in real life, and I bitterly regret this".

In a final, farcial denoument, the former Johnson spin-doctor and right wing commentator Guto Hari went on the newly minted anti-woke TV channel GBNews, whose entire business model is to be a Fox News look alike, and took the knee, to howls of derision from its audience. In response, the channel’s pro-Brexit millionaire backers labeled the gesture “an unacceptable breach of our standards”.

In the 48 hours after the match, a petition organised by the "Three Hijabis" - a group of muslim women led by Oxford Labour councillor Shaista Aziz - collected a million signatures. It called for the government to ban those guilting of online racism from all football grounds for life. Aziz toured national TV studios explaining how, unless the atmosphere changes permanently, English football will remain an unsafe space for women like her.

And by Wednesday, Johnson was forced accede to her demands. 

Today, faced with uncharacteristically tough questioning from lobby journalists, Johnson was forced into the blatant lie that he had "always condemned the booing of England players".

The moral collapse of the anti-woke offensive was now complete.

What Southgate, the team, the fans and - yes, the Labour front bench - pulled off during Euro2020 was a classic piece of counter-hegemonic politics. None of it could have happened without the will and dedication of the players - and it had global resonance, as the matches were beamed live to the USA, across Europe and in the global South. But it was an improvised mini social movement and it worked.

Where does it leave the British culture war? Too soon to tell - but it leaves the anti-wokeness offensive, so carefully co-ordinated between the tabloids, the Tories, their racist supporters and their American far-right intelocutors, in disarray.

It remains to be seen whether English national consciousness can be a reliable host for progressive politics. The rowdyness, violence and open racism in Wembley can be read as a cry of pain, as what WEB Du Bois described as "ownership of the earth forever" evaporates before the eyes of these man-babies.

But the fact remains: the English national story was, until it merged with the story of the British Empire, one of subjugating the three neighbouring Celtic nations and fighting the French. 

Sure, the English story also includes the left-wing Levellers in the Civil War. But their martyrdom narrative, embodied in the memorial at Burford Church, revolves around resistance to the incipient colonialism of Cromwell's armies in Ireland.

If we’re trying to craft a progressive, cosmopolitan national consciousness out of Englishness, you're doing it with very unpromising materials. But, with the material basis of Britishness evaporating, I suppose we’ll have to try.

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