Empire and Entitlement
The alienation and post-imperial yearning behind Brexit have their parallels within football
As Britain staggers like a belligerent drunk towards Brexit, let’s try to see things from a future historian’s perspective.
Why, she or he will wonder, did one of world’s richest, most successful countries opt for political chaos? What turned a previously stable, mature, pragmatic and tolerant-seeming democracy towards xenophobia, unreason and economic self-harm?
Most of the scholar’s attention will no doubt focus on Britain’s reckless and dishonest politicians. Research into right wing media tycoons and their hate-promoting newspapers is sure to pay dividends, too.
But I hope the role of football isn’t overlooked.
For decades, the game incubated the angry entitlement that now provides underpinning for Brexit – a mainly English phenomenon based on emotion. Feelings about the game, especially around the England national team, helped normalise the discourse of delusion and contempt for foreigners.
Of course, other factors were at work, too. Many Leave voters saw the referendum as a way to register a protest about Britain’s inequalities. Others believed more money would go to the NHS. Leading Brexiters appear to have given no thought to football at all.
But the vote weaponised a sense of Englishness unsettled by cultural change and shaped by post-imperial status anxiety. The empire may be long gone, but the English continue to feel it the way amputees feel a vanished limb.
That this loss was experienced as traumatic is a subject rarely addressed directly in politics or even in the arts. Instead, dark feelings were acted out in the symbolic arena of sport. After all, football, in the words of Marina Hyde, provides “helpful cover for a range of repressed upsets, inchoate resentments and subclinical neuroses”.
These feelings are rooted in the late 19th century, the era of empire when the English were also the best at football, the sport they had just invented.
The two things – empire and football – always went together. It wasn’t merely that the British played the game. They also had to be better at it than anyone else. In the English mind, winning at sport demonstrated their superiority as a people and justified their global pre-eminence.
For most of the last 60 years, of course, despite the fantasy of James Bond, the country has rather obviously been neither the world’s foremost military or economic power, nor the best at football. Yet it remains hardwired to expect supremacy.
The British have a dewy-eyed view of their history. They’ve certainly never thought much (or even known) about repugnant aspects of empire such as the tens of thousands of Kikuyu tortured and killed in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, or the British-made famines that killed an estimated 35 million people in India.
Rather, what lingers in the English mind is the vague sense of having lost something precious, of having been somehow cheated of their right to be champions on and off the field.
English exceptionalism has proved exceptionally resilient. As the former Tory minister Alan Clark put it after England surprisingly beat the Netherlands 4-1 at Euro 96: "No amount of politically correct brainwashing will eradicate [the feeling] that we are better than anyone else, and that the more often we can demonstrate that the better… The people have got it very deep in their veins.” By the same measure, however, when the national side loses, especially to a team from a country Britain used to beat in wars, that defeat is regarded not as a sporting moment but as a national humiliation and source of shame.
In 1962, 17 years after Britain celebrated its victory over Hitler and 15 years after its withdrawal from India, Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State, observed that British had “lost an empire but not yet found a role”.
In fact, it’s now clear that the problem was worse. The Brits lost their empire and never really got over it. The syndrome is all the more powerful for having never been acknowledged.
One way to view the country’s post-imperial angst is through the lens of psychoanalytic theory: Britain acts as if trapped in a condition corresponding to Freud’s idea of a trauma “sunk into the id by repression”. The original pain may be decades old but the sufferer acts as if it has just occurred.
Even more darkly, the historian Nicholas Boyle has likened the syndrome to “Unfähigkeit zu trauern” – the inability to mourn – identified by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich in post-war Germany. Unable to acknowledge how much emotion they had invested in their love of the Führer, an entire generation of Germans was unable to mourn his passing and therefore struggled to escape his malign influence.
So, as Boyle put it in The New European, it is with “the English [who] have been unable to recognise how much of their society and its norms was constructed during the imperial period and in order to sustain empire, and have therefore been unable to mourn the empire’s passing or to escape from the compulsion to recreate it.”
Hence, after the 2016 referendum, the prominent TV historian David Starkey likened Brexit to Henry VIII's 16th century break from Rome and claimed the British people knew what they knew were doing. For a while, Whitehall officials tasked with building trade with Commonwealth countries described the plan as "Empire 2.0".
The new fantasy, vigorously asserted in the face of all objective evidence to the contrary, was that, freed from the yoke of the EU, “global Britain” would resume its rightful place as a world power.
The old English football fantasy, vigorously asserted despite decades of results, is that the national team should win the World Cup.
In politics, the idea that Britain should adapt to reality and find other measures of success more appropriate to a mid-sized nation is dismissed as unpatriotic defeatism. In football, the idea that the country’s second-rank status is a natural consequence of having a relatively small talent pool and few great players has proved equally hard to acknowledge.
In both arenas the nation’s supposedly fallen condition had to be someone’s fault. Scapegoats, both foreign and domestic, had to be identified and attacked.
Brexiters now blame Brussels for Britain’s ills and vilify “Remoaners” who are “talking Britain down”. The businesswoman Gina Miller, who took the government to court to determine that it needed parliamentary approval to enact Brexit, faces death threats. The Daily Mail brands judges “enemies of the people” and sees pro-Europeans as “saboteurs” to be “crushed”. The Daily Telegraph calls pro-EU Tory MPs “mutineers”.
But this is merely the application of principles established in football for decades.
Foreigners like Karl-Josef Assenmacher, the German referee who failed to send off Ronald Koeman in 1993, were always easy targets. More revealing is the English tendency to turn on their own when things go wrong.
Players who made mistakes in big matches (thereby “letting down” the nation) have been grotesquely abused, especially if their errors could be cast in terms of “character” or lack of patriotic “pride”, “passion”, or “commitment”. David Beckham was hanged in effigy, subjected to terrace abuse and excoriated by the tabloids for being sent off against Argentina in 1998. Wayne Rooney was hounded for alleged immaturity after he got a red card against Portugal in 2006 (then abused in 2010 and 2014 for supposed lack of passion). Peter Bonetti is said still to get people telling him “you lost the World Cup” because he didn’t save a shot from Franz Beckenbauer in 1970.
England managers are insulted so often we barely notice any more. Even Sir Alf Ramsey, victor of the 1966 World Cup, found himself condemned and shunned in the early 1970s. After Euro 88 the Daily Mirror screamed at Bobby Robson, “In The Name of God Go”. But the victim of the most extreme example of the syndrome remains Graham Taylor. The hounding of Taylor verged on the pathological.
Last month, as I spooled through microfilm copies of the tabloid newspapers’ coverage of his unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, it struck me with force: the English didn’t just lose their minds during and after the referendum. The same vicious, delusional nationalism that produced Brexit has burned around the England team for decades.
The most poisonous paper at the time was the Sun. “NORSE MANURE” was its notorious headline on England’s “greatest humiliation” after the team lost a crucial match in Norway. Yes, I’d remembered that. I also remembered the paper waged a personal campaign against Taylor, regularly depicting him as a turnip.
The only time I ever met Graham Taylor was when I ran into him at an Arsenal game a couple of years ago. He surprised me by telling me he was reading one of my books, then began to talk with still-raw feeling about how tabloid persecution during his time as England manager had hurt his family. When he died suddenly in 2017, those who knew him well described him as a kind and decent man whose media treatment had been a scandal.
And now I was staring at one of the nastiest instances: a full page of the Sun given over to picture of Taylor’s head, disembodied and with a turnip superimposed on his forehead, on top of a pile of steaming horse turds.
The Daily Mirror that week also used the “Norse Manure” line and bemoaned a “night of shame for English football”. The paper’s back page had a picture of “stinker Taylor” and a big headline telling him to “GET OUT”. But it was an article in the Daily Mail that really made me rub my eyes in astonishment. Back in 1993 the Mail was still considered a proper newspaper.
Under the headline “England’s Boss Deserves The Bullet”, one of their most popular sports writers, Jeff Powell, likened Graham Taylor to a World War One commander whose tactical blunders would have led to execution. Actually, British officers weren’t shot for mistakes in World War One.
But Powell was tapping into something deep, and his military imagery reminded me of a picture I saw on a pro-Brexit twitter feed before the referendum: an indomitable English soldier in a Great War uniform standing on the white cliffs of Dover with a Union Jack behind him and a Lee-Enfield rifle in his hand, defending Britain from the evil EU.
Powell claimed that as he watched the Norway game on TV his “guts” had “churned” as the England players “ran up the white flag” of “surrender”. Complaining that Taylor had criticised his players after the match, he wrote, “There can be few sights more nauseating than watching honest troops, however uninspired, being sent aimlessly into battle while knowing only too well that the inevitable retreat will be met by bitter recriminations from the Field Marshall waiting back in his bunker… was it really any wonder that they were unwilling to die for him?”
Powell demanded a non-lethal “modern-day equivalent of the Somme Solution” to get rid of Taylor before he inflicted “further damage on the morale of the national game.”
Other nations don’t talk about their football like this. So why do we? The short answer is: history.
Everyone in British football knows the heroic, tragic story of the First World War infantrymen who climbed from their trenches and walked slowly towards German machine guns – and began their attack by kicking footballs into no man’s land.
But the fusion of football and war goes back much earlier, to the game’s founding era when it was developed in the country’s elite private schools. The process culminated in the creation of the Football Association in 1863. By no coincidence, this was also the era of peak British military and economic power – and the birth of the ideology of imperialism.
JA Mangan explains the development in his great book Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School: The Emergence and Consolidation of an Educational Ideology. Schools like Eton and Harrow raised boys for a life of military and imperial command and service and explicitly used football and other sports to instil increasingly fanatical “muscular Christian” warrior virtues such as courage, loyalty, “manliness” and team spirit.
Most of the values and assumptions that underpinned and sustained Britain’s empire, including a belief in innate British superiority over foreigners, were thus encoded into the very DNA of the game. Crucially, these values were never later challenged or rejected, certainly not when football was successfully evangelised to the working class, nor even when it was mythologised as the ‘people’s game’ by left-wing writers.
After the Second World War, as British geopolitical power ebbed and the empire disintegrated, football supremacy ended. But English game’s imperial-era assumptions never went away. The Victorian and Edwardian ethos even survived the late-twentieth-century social and sexual revolution, watered down but never destroyed even by profound change in cultural mores.
It’s worth noting that feelings about football also reflect wider national confidence and sense of economic well-being. In good times, authentic football embarrassments register less. At times of uncertainty, they feel apocalyptic.
The 1993 match in Norway, for example, came at a time of political uncertainty because, nine months earlier, the UK had crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, precursor of the Euro. But genuinely significant shock defeats by the USA in 1950 and Hungary in 1953, when Britain still basked in its post-war glow, produced indifference in the first instance and a wave of affection for the Hungarians in the second.
But the most significant and revealing English rivalry in football is with the Germans.
Fifteen years ago, Michael Naumann, Germany’s culture minister, observed that the Second World War remained the “spiritual core” of Britain's national identity. In part it still is. Last year, thanks to the film Dunkirk, Brexiters have were invoking “the spirit of Dunkirk” in relation to EU exit negotiations, as if the EU embodies Nazism reborn and Britain must again “stand alone”. By no coincidence, Brexiters have also adopted the song football fans have been singing about Germany for years referring to England’s victory in “two World Wars and one World Cup”
A nostalgia cult has grown up around 1966. But an even more significant date may be 14 June 1970. “What happened on 14 June 1970?” asks Bob Ferris in an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? broadcast in 1973. “What happened??”, says his friend Terry Collier, “I would have thought that date was printed indelibly in the mind of every Englishman worthy of the name. England TWO! West Germany THREE!! That’s what happened!”
England had led 2-0 with 21 minutes to go and Terry says the turnaround wrecked his marriage to the German woman with whose family he watched the game. What he says next in Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement’s script reflects the English habit of viewing sport through the distorting vision of the past, though I’ve never been sure if the attitude was being satirised or celebrated: “The shame! The humiliation! To have them all leaping up and down, eyes glazed with national socialist fervour! It was the old Deutschland über alles all over again. The old jackboots! I thought they were going to rush out and invade Poland.”
The next big match between the two nations, at Wembley in the first leg of the 1972 European Championship quarter final, made it clear the football balance of power had changed.
England, stuck in an outmoded style, lost 3-1 to technically superior opponents playing in a fluid, thoroughly modern manner. The sight of Günter Netzer rampaging through England’s midfield seemed to parallel the West German economy’s new superiority over the British one.
Since then, the Germans have reached 12 major tournament finals, winning six, while the best England have managed is two semi-finals (losing on both occasions to the Germans).
The question of playing style I mentioned just now is also important, for it prefigures one of the issues at the heart of Brexit: should the English adapt to the modern world or retreat to the past?
The English take a sentimental view of history, and football history. They feel justly proud of their contribution to defeating Hitler (while tending to underplay the contributions of the Soviet Union and the USA). And the collective pride in ancient football triumphs is also justified.
The vigorous, “manly” English football style developed in the 19th century remained effective deep into the 20th. Much as British armies equipped with rapid-fire rifles and Maxim guns easily routed natives armed with spears and swords in the imperial era, so fit, powerful and competent English footballers dominated foreign opponents. The first game the Brazil national team ever played, for example, in 1914, was against the English. But it wasn’t the England national team. That would have been a one-sided mismatch. Instead, Brazil played Exeter City and were amazed and delighted to beat them 2-0.
From the 1950s onwards, however, England were at a disadvantage. Foreigners, often taught by exiled Brits like Fred Pentland or Jimmy Hogan, had found new and better ways to play. In 1953, the Hungary of Puskás and Hidegkuti crushed England 6-3 at Wembley. Yet just over a decade later, thanks to a disciplined variation on their tough old hard-running game (and home advantage and generous refereeing), England won the World Cup. To English eyes, the natural order had been restored.
The Italian Job, made in 1969 and featuring plucky Brits pulling off a daring bullion heist under cover of an Italy-England match in Turin, caught the era’s swaggering English mood. The Italians in the film are all caricatures (sinister mafiosi, wildly gesticulating officials, excitable locals) who are easily outwitted by superior British fighting spirit and panache.
The song accompanying the film’s famous car chase (red, white and blue Mini Coopers easily outperform swarms of dun-coloured Fiats) was later adopted as an anthem by England fans. As the film’s producer Michael Deeley explained, “The whole point of the movie was us against them. It was the first Eurosceptic movie. It was us showing the Italians a thing or two. It was our lads against their lads, us being terrific and them being silly.”
The film’s two British heroes are played by Michael Caine (now a supporter of Brexit) and Noël Coward. Coward, a film director, composer and singer as well as actor, is remembered as the most flamboyant of 20th-century English wits. He was also an ardent imperialist. As he wrote in his diary at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956 (until Brexit, Britain’s greatest diplomatic humiliation): “Good old imperialism was a bloody sight wiser and healthier than all this woolly-headed, muddled, ‘all men are equal’ humanitarianism which has lost us so much pride and dignity and prestige in the modern world.”
Only in the 1970s did it become apparent that 1966 was a blip and English football really had been left behind. Humiliating defeats by, among others, West Germany (in 1972), Poland (1973), Italy (1976) and Holland (1977) left the English resentful, confused and prone to self-loathing.
An entire genre of bitter self-mocking English humour developed in response, exemplified by the long-running ‘Neasden’ column in Private Eye. This featured the grotesques of a fictional London team who always lost and whose useless players, deluded manager, hooligan fans and dodgy owners stood in both for football and the nation as a whole .
Club football followed a delayed but similar trajectory. English teams dominated Europe in the late 1970s and early 80s, but their best players (like Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness or Steve Heighway at Liverpool, or John Robertson and Kenny Burns of Nottingham Forest) tended to be Scottish or Irish. In the late 1980s and 1990s the club teams fell away, in large part because of the blight of hooliganism. English clubs were banned from European competition for six years after Liverpool fans accidentally caused the deaths of 39 people at Heysel in 1985.
Cut off from Europe for more than five years, a muscular, regressive long ball game exemplified by Wimbledon’s John ‘Fash the Bash’ Fashanu, dominated tactics. Hooliganism, falling attendances and the disasters of Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough came close to destroying the game. Then came the Taylor Report, the Premier League and the globalising, pro-EU governments of John Major and Tony Blair.
The top clubs began to grow rich on satellite TV money, and turned to “the continent” for new stars like Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola. These exotic Europeans with superior skills defined the era. Top foreign coaches brought even deeper change. Arsène Wenger at Arsenal was the pivotal figure, junking the old English playing style for a more effective technical game of possession, creativity and movement. The revolution at Arsenal paved the way for foreign, mostly European, domination throughout top-level English club football.
Paralleling the increasing cosmopolitanism of British cities, especially the power and dynamism of a globalised London, English clubs came increasingly to be owned by foreigners, with teams staffed by foreign players, with foreign coaches. The Premier League now attracts some of the best coaches and players in the world.
But not everyone welcomed these changes and something of a nativist backlash began to grow. Former players moaned that foreign players had brought a culture of cheating to the English game. Even at Arsenal there were complaints that the team featured few if any Englishmen.
There was even a nostalgic yearning for the old muddy pitches and uncomplicated tactics. Old bruisers like Stuart Pearce and Duncan Ferguson became cult figures. Issues off the pitch fuelled the grass-roots movement whose slogan is “Against Modern Football”. In so far as Brexit can be seen as a protest against “elitism”, football offers precursors and antecedents. Many fans feel excluded by high ticket prices, bland new stadiums, gentrification and the destruction of the old male working-class culture on and off the terraces.
Meanwhile, tactical and philosophical changes in club football eventually filtered through to the England team itself. Under Roy Hodgson, a manager who had followed a once-unthinkable career path in Sweden and Italy, the England team began to ditch the old ‘thud and blunder’ style and play something closer to the modern European way.
But old patterns and habits of thought were hard to erase – and Euro 2016 happened to coincide with the Brexit referendum campaign. Back home, Brexit demagogues promised a return to old glories outside the EU. On the pitch, match by match, the England team’s new European-style passing game began to disintegrate.
Four days after the referendum, England played Iceland and, apparently stricken by the identity crisis that had overwhelmed the nation, reverted to a parody version of kick and rush. Normally proficient players became inept, bewildered and panicky. England lost 2-1 and commentators denounced the performance as the most terrible national humiliation and shame ever.
The tournament also saw a return of xenophobic hooliganism. English fans fought with Russians, chanted for Brexit and bellowed contempt for the French. Last April, Leicester City fans trashed the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, fought running battles with police and chanted “fuck you Spanish, Gibraltar is ours” (a reference to former Conservative Party leader Michel Howard’s hint of war with Spain over the rock).
During the peak years of English football hooliganism the worst outrages were committed against foreigners across in Europe. This was no accident. As Bill Buford wrote in his 1992 book Among the Thugs, English supporters “did not like the stranger… the foreigner was the one they really hated.” Boozed-up nationalistic fans travelled abroad specifically to cause mayhem. Irrespective of whether they followed a club team or the national side, hooligans saw themselves as fighting for a wider cause. “They wanted a war,” Buford explained, “They wanted a nation to belong to and fight for.”
This malevolent xenophobic nationalism now infects the nation. The pro-Brexit newspapers print anti-European propaganda relentlessly. EU nationals find themselves vilified, insulted in the street. The Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy threatens EU citizens living legally in Britain for decades with deportation.
For 500 years English foreign policy towards Europe had one central aim: to avoid the entire continent uniting against them. The combination of arrogance, belligerence and ineptitude that has characterised the UK’s stance in negotiations with the EU has brought this about.
At the time of writing, Britain is divided, its politics venomous. In football, strangely, a degree of pre-Brexit normality seems to have reasserted itself. Foreign coaches and players continue to dominate the Premier League. Paul Merson and Sam Allardyce may complain there are too few British managers or that the Premier League “is a foreign league in England now”. But most fans just want their team to win.
There’s a whiff of Brexit-esque contempt accompanying the hatred many Arsenal fans feel for Wenger. He is no longer the “professor” who brought European sophistication to the club. But Arsenal fans who hate Wenger do so mainly because he he’s not Pep Guardiola. After Allardyce’s brief reign, the national team under Gareth Southgate has resumed its search for a modern, European-style passing style.
The old toxins, though, flow without inhibition in politics. Theresa May, who once defined an inflexibly hardline nationalistic Brexit, seems increasingly pragmatic and willing to compromise. EU leaders are said to be desperate for her remain as Prime Minister for fear of someone worse. Remainers remain weak and leaderless while the neo-imperialist nationalists continue to make the running.
Indeed, it’s men like John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith who now best embody the spirit of the old Europhobe hooligans. They may see themselves as exemplars of the buccaneering ethos that built the empire. But their drive for hard Brexit whatever the consequences is closer in spirit to the old Millwall chant, “No-one likes us, we don’t care.”