I’ve been thinking a lot about Britain and, especially, England in the past week. The Brexit vote and the English national soccer team’s humiliating defeat to Iceland are not events that are actually linked, but they very much feel like they are. The “Leave” vote was a plaintive yelp of nationalist sentiment from an aging working class who long for an England that was victorious, happy and glorious. In his famous essay, “England Your England,” George Orwell captured the cultural essence of the nostalgia for this now long past England: “Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization … It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes.” In soccer, it is the spirit of 1966. In politics and society, it is a right/left mash-up of a toxic nostalgia for a more racially and ethnically homogeneous population combined with a desire to revive the collectivist spirit of 1945, the political vision that created a robust welfare state with good wages supported by nationalized industries and a well-funded national health service (a vision now advocated for mostly by the Scots).
In 2008, I wrote the excerpt of a blog post below. It strikes me now that its telling of Britain in the 1980s and early 1990s aptly describes so much of the social and political dynamics paved the way for the Brexit vote. But I concluded the post with naive optimism. At that time, I saw far more acceptance of second and third generation people of southeast Asian ethnicity and black British people. There was successful devolution in Scotland. A decline in soccer hooligan violence. Britain had moved three quarters of the labor force into the service industry, had one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, and less economic inequality than the U.S. In 2008, I imagined that the diversity and cosmopolitanism of London would be triumphant. This week’s Brexit told us “not yet.” “Leave” voters skewed old and the vote maybe the final vindictive act of a dying generation. But what I describe in the blog post about the socio-political dynamics of the 1970s-90s are still around today.
March 10, 2008
In the past year, I have read three books and seen a movie that deal with overlapping themes of tribalism in England. Two of the books — Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea and Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs — and the film, the near-perfect This is England, are set in 1980s England and address the severe issues of poverty, nationalism, racism during that time. The third book, Bill Bryson’s cheerful romp through the UK, Notes from a Small Island, depicts England in the mid-1990s, a period of increasing prosperity. At the heart of all four items was a struggle for the meaning of Englishness in a time of growing diversity and a shifting economy.
This is England begins in the early 80s. Unemployment is high, England is involved in a war in the Falkland Islands, and PM Margaret Thatcher is denying that society exists. A young boy, whose father recently died in the Falkland Islands, is picked on in school and joins a group of friendly, harmless punks. However, when an older punk is released from prison, he introduces the boys to a brand of racist, white nationalism. What is presented as standing up for England is thinly veiled racism against blacks, South Asian immigrants, and Jews. In a similar vein, Among the Thugs notes the recruiting of football hooligans to the white nationalist organization, the National Front. Theroux notes that much of the language of economic downturn is couched in racist language. He writes,
“It’s the blacks, see,” a respectable-looking man named Strawby told me. “We whites are the original inhabitants of this country, but they make all the laws in favor of the blacks. That’s why it’s all gone bad.” Mr. Strawby saw me making notes. He was not alarmed. He gave me a little lecture on racial characteristics and offered me tea.
All three sources tend to suggest that faced with the dual threats of massive unemployment and increasing immigrant populations, many white British people began to formulate a brand of reactionary white nationalism and tribalism. These feelings were acted out in several ways. Theroux notices grafittied swastikas on walls throughout the country. TIE depicts a National Front rally in which feelings of patriotism are quickly turned into anti-immigrant language. Buford describes how white people who feel little sense of a unique ethnic identity turn to country and football club to develop a identity. Some supporters of various football clubs — Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United — develop tribal identities and engage in often horrific violence toward other supporters*. In sum, England of the 80s and early 90s was a place of bigotry, violence, and incredible inequality.
By the mid-90s when Bryson toured England, things sound a bit better. With dramatic interventions by FIFA and FA, football violent was significantly reduced. New economic prosperity was developing with the high-tech and service industries replacing many of the manufacturing jobs that disappeared in the late 1970s and 1980s. Whereas Theroux complained about historical buildings being neglected and falling into disrepair, Bryson’s gripe is about how new (ugly) construction was quickly replacing historic buildings.
… I was struck by the similarities between 1980s England and 2000s U.S.: the reactionary anti-immigration attitudes, the economic difficulties (and disappearance of manufacturing), a war that the public doesn’t know how to react to, a right-wing administration trying to dismantle the social safety net, and so on.
*Buford rejects the idea that the violence of football supporters is rooted in economics, noting that hooligans come from a variety of class backgrounds. He claims that rather than passionately being pulled into a crowd by dramatic circumstances, football fans rationally seek out the violent encounters for the adrenaline rush it provides. These claims would tend to be supported by recent rational choice, social movements literature (e.g., resource mobilization), which reject older LeBonian theories of crowd behavior.