Dear England? Nationalism and “progressive patriotism” in sport

Issue: 174

Sue Caldwell

What has made sport so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings…is the ease with which even the least political or public individuals can identify with the nation as symbolised by young persons excelling at what practically every man wants, or at one time in his life has wanted, to be good at. The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people. The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of the nation himself.1

In the summer of 2021, the delayed men’s European Football Championship (known as Euro 2020 despite having been postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) took place, with England losing in the final to Italy.2 Throughout the tournament, the England players steadfastly took the knee before the start of each game in protest against racism. At first, this was met with loud booing from a section of the England supporters. When asked their opinion on this, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, refused to condemn the booing and his home secretary, Priti Patel, dismissed taking the knee as a “gesture”. As the tournament progressed and England kept winning, the applause started to outweigh the boos, and the final saw the English and Italian players take the knee together at the starting whistle. England manager Gareth Southgate repeatedly stressed the importance of his players making a stand against racism.

This was not the first time that Southgate had placed the behaviour of the team in a wider social, cultural and political context and recognised the potential for the team to represent a particular vision of the nation.3 Emphasising the youth and diversity of the England team during the 2018 World Cup, he told the Evening Standard: “In England we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity. Hopefully, people can connect with us”.4

This prompted Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore to declare, “Win or lose, the England team have helped us embrace the flag again”.5 Such enthusiasm for national flags and sports teams among commentators broadly associated with the left is far from new; it arose at the European Championship of 1996 and again during the London Olympics of 2012. However, the actions of the England football players in 2021, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, raised this enthusiasm for a modern, multiracial and multicultural English identity to a new level.

Socialist journalist Paul Mason was happy to tweet a selfie taken with St George’s flags on his cheek while celebrating victory with England fans. Musician and veteran campaigner Billy Bragg appeared proudly wearing his England shirt in a podcast hosted by left commentator Owen Jones on the eve of the final; he has long argued for reclaiming the flag in the name of “progressive patriotism”. Such images are not accidental; every serious socialist knows that the flag has a history and a meaning. If that history is not being embraced, then at the very least an attempt is being made to reinterpret the meaning of the flag and the nationalism that it represents.

This article responds to these events and the issues they raise about national identity and patriotism in sport. It is therefore very much written from an English and British perspective (the two are often conflated in sports writing, a confusion not helped by English athletes competing under different names such as “England” in international football and “Team GB” at the Olympics). As such it will be silent about oppressed nations as well as Welsh and Scottish attitudes towards England.

I will contend that socialists should grasp the opportunities that sport can provide to discuss the sort of society we want to live in. However, I will also argue that it is dangerous to paint patriotism in progressive colours. Socialists should resist the pull towards national identification that becomes so very forceful during major international events.

Sporting nationalism

Sporting events are important arenas for the display of national symbols and patriotic emotion. “Except in times of war”, writes Alan Bairner, “seldom is the communion between members of the nation, who might otherwise be classed as total strangers, as strongly felt as during major international events”.6 It is generally taken as given that citizens will support “their” national team or athletes and take pride in their achievements. This is often explained by some kind of existential yearning for belonging, even though nations themselves are relatively recent creations and cannot be defined by reference to shared characteristics of their citizens.7

The development of the nation-state is intimately connected to the evolution of capitalism. The Marxist theorist Chris Harman explained, “It is the connection between the rise of the nation-state and the rise of capitalism that enables us to understand the strength of the myths that lead people to slaughter each other”.8 In the case of the creation of the earliest nation-states such as England, the initial impetus arose spontaneously from the needs of the emerging merchant class for networks of trade and administration using a common language:

But if the creation of the national state began spontaneously, elements of consciousness were soon involved as well… Political economists elaborated the “mercantilism” doctrines, which identified the interests of the state with the accumulation of trade surpluses by its merchant class. Playwrights, poets and pamphleteers began for the first time to celebrate what would later be called “national” traditions.9

This process of “mass-producing traditions” accelerated greatly in the second half of the 19th century and continued into the 20th century, aided by the development of a mass media.10 Sport came to play an important role in cementing nationalist sentiment. It became a vehicle for promoting the supposedly superior characteristics of the British as they murderously subjugated people in the colonies. Subsequently sport became an opportunity for the display of flags, anthems and national emblems aimed at connecting the populace to its ruling class, particularly the monarchy.

Prior to the First World War, sport was employed in support of the imperialist project aimed at both spreading British power overseas and binding the working class to its exploiters at home. Cricket became a means of introducing colonial subjects in the West Indies and India to the supposed British values of fair play, good manners and obeying the rules. As Mark Marqusee argues, “Cricket proved an ideal vehicle for the national-imperial ideology that crystallised at the end of the 19th century… As it spread through the empire it provided the English with a global image of themselves”.11 Subsequently, the West Indian cricket team proved itself capable of trouncing the English, and so did many other former colonies such as India and Pakistan. In doing so they faced horrific racism, which was recalled by former West Indies bowler and commentator Michael Holding in an impromptu emotional address on live television in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.12

In 1990, racist Tory MP Norman Tebbitt used support for the national cricket team as a test of loyalty to the British state. Campaigning against a bill that would allow some Hong Kong residents to settle in Britain after the transfer of the former colony to China, he cited the “split loyalties” of Asians and black immigrants who had already arrived. “Which side do they cheer for?”, he asked an American journalist, before going on to lament that too many immigrants had failed what he called the “cricket test” by supporting India, Pakistan or the West Indies when they played England. Asked about which side he would support in Tebbitt’s test, left-wing MP Dennis Skinner rightly replied: “Anyone but England”.13

Using cricket to reference quintessentially English virtues remained a habit of the ruling class long after the empire crumbled.14 On St George’s Day in 1993, then prime minister John Major offered a vision of “long shadows falling over the county ground, the warm beer, old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist” as solace to a group of disgruntled Tory MPs.15 As sports sociologist Ben Carrington later noted:

Such portrayals of Englishness were important in trying to construct a national identity—a nation at ease with itself—which inevitably precluded a vision of a multicultural, urban and modern Britain… Sport, and in this instance cricket, thus assumes a heightened political status in standing in for a particular image of the nation.16

Carrington highlights an important role that sport can play in representing an image of national identity. Major international sporting events, in particular the Olympics, the World Cup and the European Football Championship, reinforce this further through the overt use of signifiers such as flags and anthems. This makes them ideal arenas for the ruling class to encourage workers to identify with it on the basis of nationhood and thus discourage workers attacking it on the basis of class.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm credited the twin developments of international sport and a modern mass media with cementing nationalist sentiment in the inter-war period. This period saw the “evolution of the British royal family into a domestic as well as a public icon of national identification”. Meanwhile, international sport “became…an expression of national struggle, with sportsmen representing their nation or state…as primary expressions of their imagined communities”.17

Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat and educator, instigated the modern Olympics in 1896, motivated largely by a desire to promote physical health in the military following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Initially, competitors did not represent their countries. Nevertheless, national teams became the norm from 1920 onwards, despite the Olympic Charter stating that “the Games are competitions between athletes…and not between countries.”

The Olympic Games have since become an orgy of nationalism. They begin with great excitement over who will carry the flag at the opening ceremony and continue with pauses in the competitive action for medal ceremonies soundtracked by national anthems. Flags are swiftly handed to medal winners, who pose for photos that are instantaneously beamed to their home countries for mass distribution. A BBC feature on Olympic boxer Lauren Price finished with a clip of Prince William presenting her with a birthday cake ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. On the first Monday of those Games, BBC News at Ten headlined on a 14-minute feature on the achievements of British athletes, which was followed by five minutes on the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

Poor results, such as that of the Team GB rowers in Tokyo, are presented as a national crisis. US president Donald Trump took the opportunity to bolster his base by blaming the “radical group of leftist maniacs” in the United States women’s football team for failing to win gold because there were too few patriots in the team.

Hitler was an early exploiter of nationalism on the Olympic stage, using the 1936 Berlin Olympics to showcase Nazism’s organisational achievements and promote an ideal of the “superior Aryan race”. This latter aim was somewhat undermined by the black American sprinter Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals. Nonetheless, Hitler achieved more success with his objective of displaying Nazi organisational prowess and thus legitimating his dictatorship. One foreign correspondent wrote:

I’m afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the games on a lavish scale never before experienced… Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen.18

Of course, it is not only the Nazis who exploited their position as Olympic hosts, especially as the commercialisation of global sport and mass media coverage expanded in the post-war period. From the 1968 massacre of students in Tlatelolco days before the Mexico City Games to the clearance of slums in preparation for the 2016 Rio Games, hosts have been keen to show that they are united as a nation and open for business. Such is the cost and prestige of hosting the Games that, though delayed by a year, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics went ahead despite rising cases of Covid-19 and low levels of vaccination in Japan.

The London 2012 Olympics saw the ubiquitous branding of “Team GB” and wall-to-wall coverage replete with Union Jacks and renditions of God Save the Queen.19 Members of the royal family and the government spared no effort in getting in on the photo opportunities. This backfired spectacularly when chancellor George Osborne was roundly booed at the Paralympics medal ceremony due to his austerity measures and cuts to disability benefits. Nonetheless, that could not stop the Sunday Times from crowing about the “benevolent patriotism that has further united the nation”. Similarly, the Daily Telegraph celebrated a “wonderful advertisement for the glories of this country”.20


Doubtlessly to the chagrin of the likes of John Major, it is football rather than cricket that has become the most popular sport among the English working class.21 The fortunes of the men’s national team are followed by millions, and some 31 million watched the Euro 2020 final on television screens throughout Britain. A key accelerator of the popularity of football, and the process by which it became a focus for national identity, was England’s victory over Germany in the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley.22

A decade earlier it would have been rare to see football on the front pages of newspapers. Such was the arrogance of the British Football Associations that, although the World Cup was initiated in 1930, none of their teams participated until 1950 and it was not taken seriously until 1958. Historian Richard Weight suggests that England’s drubbing at the hands of Hungary at Wembley in 1953 was a catalyst in the change in attitude.23 The Times football correspondent reported that England had been “beaten by the foreign invader on English soil… Here, indeed, did we attend—all 100,000 of us—the twilight of the gods”.24

Analogies with war peppered coverage of the 1966 World Cup, especially the final against Germany. The Daily Mail wrote, “If Germany beat us at Wembley this afternoon at our national sport, we can always point out to them that we have recently beaten them twice at theirs”.25 Following England’s victory, the crowd broke into rousing choruses of Rule Britannia, and the Queen handed the captain, Bobby Moore, the trophy. Victory celebrations were regularly compared to VE Day, and the chant “two world wars and one world cup” became a staple feature of future matches between England and Germany. The Sun declared that the trophy had come home to the “motherland of football”.

Prime minister Harold Wilson joined in the post-match celebrations, and his sports minister, Dennis Howell, declared it to be “the best half a million pounds the government has ever spent.” In its review of the victory, the English Football Association expressed its hope for an economic revival on the back of the success and contrasted the attitude of the players with a lack of patriotism from militant trade unionists and students: “The players have set an example of devotion and loyalty to the country that many others would do well to follow”.26

The next major football tournament to be held in England was the European Championship of 1996 (branded “Euro 96”), which also saw the promotion of the St George’s flag on a mass scale as countless images of people with white faces adorned with a red cross were beamed into living rooms. This flag is traditionally associated with the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries, appearing on the uniforms of English soldiers throughout the Middle Ages. After the Reformation of the 16th century, it was often raised alongside the royal standard. It continued to be used as a maritime flag after 1606, when it was combined with the Scottish flag of St Andrew to form the Union Jack, but rapidly fell into disuse other than at ceremonial events and St George’s Day celebrations.

Its revival in the mid-1990s is largely attributable to a response to the rising popularity of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, aided by some intense marketing. During the 2006 World Cup, the Guardian reported that 20 per cent of adults in England had bought a St George’s flag. The red cross was raised outside the prime minister’s home in Downing Street by David Cameron for the 2010 World Cup, by which time it had been adopted by the fascists and racists in the English Defence League (EDL) street movement. The EDL went on to briefly grow after the demise of the Union Jack-waving British National Party (BNP) and included ex-BNP members in its ranks.27

The St George’s flag is also used by English cricket fans, especially the self-styled Barmy Army, which organises tickets and touring parties for fans to support the team overseas. It dropped the flag from its official logo in 2018 as part of a rebranding strategy that aimed to “encourage more families, women and younger supporters to get involved” amid concerns about its association with “lager louts”. This was a marketing strategy rather than a political statement, and the flag continues to feature prominently at international matches.28

Carrington describes England reaching “nationalistic fervour” during Euro 96: “English nationalism, much to the delight of the right, and many on the left, reared its head again, but this time it was a supposedly inclusive, non-xenophobic sense of Englishness”.29 This last point was clearly lost on the small but significant groups of English fans who went on the rampage against foreigners after England lost to Germany. It also bypassed the tabloid writers who continued to utilise wartime references, with headlines such as “Let’s Blitz Fritz” and “Achtung Surrender”.30 Furthermore, as Carrington points out, the imagery surrounding the tournament—from television broadcasts to the video that accompanied the song Three Lions, written for the tournament by comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner (with the help of the Lightning Seeds)—presented this new Englishness as essentially white and male.31

The Three Lions song has a catchy chorus of “football’s coming home”, reminiscent of the Sun headline 30 years earlier. This slogan not only erases the contribution of Scotland to the creation of modern football, but also harks back nostalgically to a time when Britain’s place in the world enabled the spread of regulated sports over which the British elite felt a sense of ownership.32 Cricket was eventually taken up enthusiastically by the people of the West Indies, India and Pakistan—scenes of some of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the British Empire. Football took root in Latin America and Europe largely through the “expatriate elites that staffed the economic and educational outposts of the informal empire”.33 It is difficult in this context to see anything progressive about celebrating football “coming home”. Carrington explains:

Mirroring the discourse of British colonialism, “football’s coming home” works by seeing England “educating” the world through sport. Unfortunately, in this narrative, England lost its way, and its world position, but now, after “30 years of hurt”, it is coming back to its rightful place, back home, where football belongs.34

Tony Blair’s New Labour was quick to utilise the appeal of the song, with Blair declaring in his party conference speech just before the 1997 general election that Labour was “coming home, after 17 years of hurt”. Blair continued to capitalise on football’s popularity, and its growth among the middle classes, engaging stars such as David Beckham to promote “a re-imagined Britain, embracing the glamour, glitz and gated luxury of a so-called Cool Britannia”.35

“Football’s coming home” continued to be chanted by England fans throughout Euro 2020. St George’s flags adorned faces once more, and references to the war re-surfaced. As always, the royal family was keen to get in on the act, with a joyous Prince George shown celebrating with his father when England beat Germany and looking miserable when England lost to Italy. Here they were, sharing the highs and lows just like the rest of us, while those singing the national anthem declared their desire to remain ruled over by little George’s great-grandma for a very long time. Bands from the armed forces provided pre-match entertainment.

Nonetheless, these matches took place against the backdrop of the huge Black Lives Matter protests against institutional racism, ignited by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020. There had been protests using the Black Lives Matter slogan and hashtag in America from the early 2010s, following high profile killings by police including Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the National Football League’s (NFL) San Francisco 49ers, sat during the playing of the US national anthem before the start of the game, explaining, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” In subsequent matches, he continued his protest by going down on one knee, an action known as “taking the knee”.36 Following George Floyd’s murder, Black Lives Matter protests exploded not just in the US but across the globe, with many protests including a symbolic taking of the knee.37 Kaepernick had been relatively isolated and then was effectively ousted from the NFL in 2016, but taking the knee at matches now took off nationally, even as Trump urged NFL bosses to sack any players who did so.38

Amid the ensuing conversation about institutional racism, athletes from other sports and other countries wanted to show their commitment to rooting out racism in their own national leagues and institutions, including the English football team. The decision to take the knee at the starting whistle of every game at Euro 2020, and to defend the action against criticism from the government, raised Southgate’s team to the stature of ambassadors against racism. Simultaneously, it raised hopes that “a more progressive, tolerant and forward-looking nationalism” could emerge from “a team not only at ease with diversity but actively anti-racist”.39

Progressive patriotism?

Southgate himself was keenly aware of this responsibility, penning a letter, “Dear England”, that included his thoughts on his team’s commitment to wider society: “It is their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate”.40

This, together with the commitment to take the knee, opened up a welcome discussion about the sort of society people want to feel part of, and what steps might be taken to get there.41 It is a reminder that despite the attempts of governments and institutions such as the media to inculcate racism and nationalism among us, people never simply accept those ideas unquestioningly.

One important consequence of the Euro 2020 tournament was a commitment from all 20 clubs in the Premier League to take the knee at the starting whistle throughout the 2021-2 season. This has had a fantastic effect and pushed racists onto the back foot. The three black players who missed penalties in the shoot-out that lost England the final did face a torrent of abuse on social media, but thousands of ordinary fans reacted with displays of solidarity. This reflected the confidence of anti-racists, spurred by the Black Lives Matter protests, and the resolve of the England team members. It is vital that this moment in sport is built upon, and that, as racing driver Lewis Hamilton put it, “we work towards a society that doesn’t require black players to prove their value or place in society only through victory”.

A second consequence is the reopening of discussions about Englishness, Britishness and sport that has been developing on the left for some time. These debates began around Euro 96 and revived during the London 2012 Olympics, when images of Mo Farah, a refugee from Somalia, leading the field for Team GB in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres finals dominated television screens. The “progressive” credentials of those Games were established at the opening ceremony, produced by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle. Alongside the Queen—putting in a guest appearance in a James Bond skit—we were treated to tributes to the NHS, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the arrival of the Empire Windrush and multiracial families. What was not mentioned was the British Empire. Neither were the facts that the NHS was being savaged by austerity measures, trade unions were under attack and black Londoners were suffering under a crackdown following the 2011 riots sparked by the police murder of Mark Duggan.

Sports minister Sebastian Coe announced that he had “never been so proud to be British” and Cameron declared that the Olympics had “brought the country together”.42 This should serve as a warning that presenting even progressive traditions in national rather than class terms lets the ruling class off the hook. Of course, it is important to promote radical traditions and progressive values, but these are international values that represent the best of working-class traditions around the world. Workers in different countries have their unique histories and customs, often intertwined with traditions designed to bind them to the ruling class such as royal pageantry, worship of the flag, religious rituals and celebrations of “national heroes”.43 However, all workers share a common class position that pushes them into conflict with capitalism, so that resistance, solidarity and breaking down divisions within the class also become part of their history and cultural practices. This is an international phenomenon, not a national one.

Much was made of the English team at Euro 2020 being “young”, “talented” and “diverse”. Being young cannot seriously be thought of as a source of English pride, and it would be downright racist to suggest that other national teams lack talent. The diversity of the England team is of course a good thing, and it is absolutely right for anti-racists to expose how depleted the team would have been without immigration. Nevertheless, this is hardly unique to England. A conservative estimate of players with dual or multiple nationality at Euro 2020 shows France at the top of the list with 17 players, followed by Switzerland with 16 and then England with 15—owing much to several players with Irish, Scottish and Welsh heritage.44 Germany had nine, following a tradition of fielding players such as the Turkish immigrant Mesut Özil. In the 2014 World Cup, Özil was joined by Sami Khedira (of Tunisian heritage), Jérôme Boateng (Ghanaian), Shkodran Mustafi (Albanian), and Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose (both Polish). The hero of the French team that won the World Cup in 1998, Zinedine Zidane, was the son of Algerian immigrants. That team was captained by Ghanaian-born Marcus Desailly and relied heavily on immigrants from North and West Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Armenia and the Basque country. To suggest that England has particularly embraced diversity is to ignore the fact that other countries have welcomed many more immigrants.45 This allows the government to proclaim Britain a tolerant country, even while ramming through the racist Nationality and Borders Bill that targets desperate refugees.

Although the anti-racist stances of the England team have been rightly celebrated, it would be wrong to suggest that athletes from other countries are less progressive. Arguably the Italian team that took the knee in the final against England risked far more wrath back home, where fascists sit in parliament. The Colombian gymnast Luciano Alvarado completed her floor routine in Tokyo by taking the knee and raising her fist in the air. In a warm-up game before the start of the Olympics, the German men’s football team walked off the pitch when one of their players was racially abused. The American shot-putter Raven Saunders raised her arms in a cross on the podium to “represent the intersection where all oppressed people meet”. This was the only direct challenge to the International Olympic Committee’s stipulation that there should be no political gestures on the podium.

Such actions can and should be supported, but there is no need to link them to any national consciousness. Normally this would be unproblematic for socialists, but when it comes to sport however, the pull away from internationalism is particularly strong. Paul Mason writes that the Euro 2020 England team “began to do what no cultural figure or movement has so far done: reclaim English national consciousness from the reactionary right”.46 Billy Bragg argued:

Progressive people need to start standing up for the values our country claims to live up to—tolerance, the rule of law and fairness…and put forward an engaging idea of a progressive Englishness… The men’s football team is a good place to start.47

A few months before Euro 2020 started, journalist Julian Coman wrote:

Half a century on from that World Cup triumph against West Germany, Gareth Southgate has championed the “modern England” that his diverse, talented team embodies… Parts of the left have an unattractive blind spot to the importance of collective attachment to an inherited landscape, both physical and emotional. That landscape is not immutable but it shapes a sense of belonging and context.48

Far from being blind to “collective attachment” or “national consciousness”, the revolutionary left has consistently warned of the ways in which nationalism is employed by the ruling class. “Aggressive bourgeois nationalism”, wrote Lenin in 1913, “drugs the minds of the workers, stultifing and disuniting them in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them by the halter”.49 Our aim is to bring to light the false notion of the “imagined community of millions” and fight for the real community and consciousness of the international working class. By contrast, “the place of those who advocate the slogan of national culture is among the nationalist petty bourgeois, not among the Marxists”.50

It does not matter if some patriotic values can be given a progressive gloss; many calls to war, for example, are made in the name of defending democracy, fighting fascism and liberating women. Similarly, the scapegoating of refugees in general and Muslims in particular rests on fears that these groups will undermine “British values”. Such notions should be rejected, along with the flags under which bloody massacres have been executed in the name of the supposed British values of tolerance, fairness and the rule of law. Refugees are welcome here whatever their values and culture.

A look across to France should serve as a warning. Over a million people chanted Zinedine Zidane’s name in the Champs-Élysées after the 1998 World Cup Final. French newspaper Le Monde called the team a “symbol of the diversity and of the unity of the country”. Yet, within four years the leader of the fascist Front National (National Front), Jean-Marie Le Pen, had made it through to the second round of the presidential elections, taking nearly 18 percent of the vote. Today, his daughter Marine Le Pen, now leader of the renamed but still fascist Rassemblement National (National Rally), is making a serious challenge for the presidency, as is the racist and Islamophobe Éric Zemmour.

The 1998 celebrations clearly represented a mood on which a solid anti-racist base could be built. Jean-Marie Le Pen had declared that the team were “not really French”. French socialists and anti-racists rightly insisted that all the “Black, Blanc, Beur” (“black, white, arab”, a chant raised by fans of the French national team) were indeed French, and this struck a popular chord. The failure to build a united front against the fascists reflects a long-standing process of conceding ideological ground to the far right on the question of national identity and values.

This stretches back beyond 1998, but the wider consequences of allowing the pull of nationalism during sporting events to trump class were exposed when airline pilots went on strike during the World Cup. Ex-Socialist Party minister Michel Charasse attacked the strikers, labelling them “egotists who do not love their country”. The pilots were accused by the government and press of damaging the World Cup. Some on the left repeated these claims, and a leading member of the Communist Party, Robert Hue, said they “tarnished the image of France”.

Within the French left, so-called national values of secularism and republicanism have provided a cover for concessions to Islamophobia. For example, in order to justify the forced removal of so-called “burkinis”—full length swimsuits worn by Muslim women—then Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls argued that this item of clothing was not compatible with the values of the French Republic, and that it represented “a political project…based on the enslavement of women”. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (Left Party) backed up these arguments, referencing “feminist convictions”.51

During the 2017 presidential elections, Mélenchon invoked the traditions of the 1789 Great French Revolution, mass strikes and welcoming immigration in order to persuade “a significant section of the left…to campaign under the banner of the tricolore and La Marseillaise”.52 For those of Arab or African descent, these are symbols of colonial oppression. Indeed, in 2001, barely three years after the World Cup victory and in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the US, young French-born supporters of Algeria angrily booed La Marseillaise at their first international against France since winning independence in 1962. The potential to build a serious anti-racist front against the “War on Terror”, and now against Le Pen, has been undermined by an adherence to “national values” dressed in progressive colours, which in the end only serves to legitimise the far right.

There are of course socialists in France who oppose Mélenchon’s brand of “progressive patriotism”, and the situation is much more complex than can be outlined by focusing on sport. Nonetheless, it should be clear that there is no simple journey from supporting a multiracial national team to stopping the far right. That process requires a politics that consistently puts class before nation.

It would be absurd to suggest that anyone who supports England is some kind of proto-fascist. Many of those waving St George’s flags have been part of anti-racist demonstrations, and many more can be won to the causes of anti-racism and anti-fascism. The Anti Nazi League, Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism have campaigned alongside football supporters’ organisations and outside football grounds against fascist and far-right groups such as the National Front, the British National Party, the English Defence League and the Football Lads’ Alliance.

However, it would be equally absurd for Marxists to ignore that cheering on one’s national team is a concession to nationalism that cuts across class. For most people, most of the time, this is not seen as a problem. The ruling class invests a lot of time and effort telling us that there are particular values that “we” all share and need to defend. It would be surprising if these ideas were not seen as natural and harmless by many. Southgate reflects this in his “Dear England” letter. There, while insisting on his players’ duty to speak out on issues of equality, he also writes:

For me, personally, my sense of identity and values is closely tied to my family and particularly my granddad. He was a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during the Second World War. The idea of representing “Queen and country” has always been important to me. We do pageantry so well in Britain, and, growing up, things like the Queen’s silver jubilee and royal weddings had an impact on me.53

Labour leader Keir Starmer took time out from formulating his own justification for wrapping himself in the Union Jack to tweet the contents of Southgate’s letter, accompanied by the comment, “This is England.” According to one commentator at the Financial Times, “Some Labour sympathisers grumbled that the England manager had managed to produce a more articulate statement of ‘progressive patriotism’ than Starmer himself ever had”.54

Starmer stands in a long tradition of prominent Labour figures who have embraced the Union Jack. These include Jack Straw, once thought of as a left winger, who went on to become Tony Blair’s foreign secretary during the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. In 1995, while shadow home secretary, he said that he was “reclaiming the flag” from “the grotesque caricature of England that is the National Front… We should stop apologising for being English. Feeling pride in one’s country should not make one into a jingo”.55

The Labour Party has always represented a synthesis of class and nation. Its right wing has no qualms about sacrificing class interests in the name of the “national interest”, but its left is also hampered by a strategy based on improving the lot of the working class within the confines of the nation-state. Slogans such as Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” and Starmer’s appeal for “national unity” in the face of the pandemic need to be met with a consistent internationalism, challenging the notion that British workers can ever have any common interest with their bosses. Such internationalism lies at the heart of revolutionary politics, which sees the nation-state as an instrument of class rule. However, it is deeply problematic for reformism, which attempts to straddle the class-nation divide.56

Whatever the intention of those doing so, any attempt to paint patriotism in progressive colours opens the door to those who aim to further racist agendas by presenting themselves as the “true” patriots. It is a mistake to think that this is a favourable terrain for the left to fight on. Indeed, Mason contemplates the dangers of his own position, writing:

For any 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 waving the flag, the right can make a second-half comeback and counter-hegemonise the moment.57

Mason is right to be worried. The left has never even partially hegemonised the waving of the national flags of England and Britain. More importantly, the project of attempting to do so only strengthens and legitimises the right. Racism and fascism will be beaten back, as they have been in the past, by mass mobilisations on a class basis, not by adopting the language and emblems of nationalism. Of course, in a debate about the values we would like to see promoted in the country where we happen to live, we should be on the side of those promoting anti-racism and solidarity. At all times socialists should stress that such values are international; the flag of the workers’ movement is red, and our anthem is the Internationale. In the words of Chris Harman: “Socialists are not proud of their nationality. They are proud of the denial of their nationality”.58

Does this mean abandoning the field to the right wing, as was argued by Bragg and reiterated by Mason in the wake of Euro 2020? A similar argument was put forward recently in relation to Italy by Jacopo Custodi in an article for Jacobin, which praises the “long tradition of ‘left-wing patriotism’” within the Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party; PCI). Custodi describes this as “not a harsh nationalism but a combination of love of homeland with the imperative need for friendship among all peoples”.59 Custodi goes on to argue that “rejecting Italian identity en bloc…ends up legitimising our enemies’ discourse”; he praises Communist partisans for organising as Patriotic Action Groups (Gruppi di Azione Patriottica) during the Second World War. However, the PCI actually provides a good lesson of the dire consequences of promoting “national interest” above class interests. In 1976, following years of huge popular mobilisations, strikes and factory occupations, they entered into a cross-class alliance with the governing Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democracy; DC). In the run up to this “historic compromise”, PCI senator Ugo Pecchioli declared: “We are not interested in electoral rivalry with the DC, but rather in finding meeting points for resolving the problems of the country”.60 Solving the problems of the country inevitably meant siding with the state to quell strikes and student protests. By the 1980s, the DC were able to turn on the Communists, who drew the conclusion that they had not gone far enough in their compromise with capitalism and went on to dissolve themselves into the explicitly reformist Sinistra Democratica (Democratic Left).

Attempting to fight on the nationalists’ terrain is underpinned by lack of confidence in a class-based alternative. According to Bragg, “It is a broadly accepted fact that, over the past 50 years, Britain has become a classless society”.61 Today’s left apologists for flag waving often contrast a positivity around the England team to a pessimism around Brexit that effectively writes off sections of the working class. Socialists should instead be confident about putting forward a class alternative in the face of nationalist jingoism. It is the politics of the united front, not a popular front, that can successfully undermine the far right, as has been consistently argued in this journal.62

Patriotic sentiment and “national values” not only cut across class; they are the weak spots through which racism enters. Protecting “our” values requires someone else with different values to defend against or subjugate—usually refugees, migrants and Muslims. These are harder arguments to take on than defending England’s black footballers. The anti-racist push back from Euro 2020 gives a great platform to build on, but suggesting that the English or British all have something unique in common, from the top of society to the bottom, weakens our efforts to do that. If revolutionaries are to win those inspired by the English footballers’ actions towards a truly internationalist struggle for a better society, it is necessary to break them from nationalism and any identification with the British ruling class.

There is no analogy here between supporting England and the struggle for reforms within capitalism. Striking for higher wages, for example, has the potential to raise class consciousness and lead workers to challenge the society that produces wage slavery. It is a collective struggle of our class against theirs. Waving flags, shouting for England and discussing how “we” can beat the rest of the world are not actions that strengthen class consciousness. Instead, they reinforce the very values that workers need to break from.


So, how should socialists assert their internationalism as patriotic fervour sweeps the country, as it surely will again when the World Cup starts in Qatar in 2022? Clearly, ripping flags out of the hands of England supporters would be counterproductive; that said, if national flags must be displayed, arguing for a display of different countries’ flags in schools and so on would be a good thing. We should also, as veterans in the US have done, oppose the promotion of the military at sporting events. This has increased significantly in the US after the 11 September attacks and in Britain following concern about low public support for the armed forces in the wake of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.63

For example, in 2008, the Royal British Legion began what has become an annual tradition of asking the Football Associations in England and Scotland to encourage member clubs to display the poppy on matchday shirts to coincide with remembrance events. The prime minister at the time, Theresa May, defended the Legion against accusations of politicising sport by stating, with no apparent sense of irony: “We continue to believe that footballers and fans should be able to very clearly show their support for all that our armed forces do”.64 Note that remembrance was here linked with continuing support for military action.

Similarly, Help for Heroes, the charity launched in 2007 to support injured veterans and their families or dependants, has utilised sport to support continuing armed conflict. On a 2014 campaign poster with the slogan “Different Duties, Same Pride”, British military personnel were shown alongside English footballers, led by ex-captain John Terry, running out onto what could either be a football pitch or a battlefield. International sport may not have quite become, as George Orwell labelled it, “war minus the shooting”, but the ruling class and the military are keen to seize on opportunities to use sport to boost support for armed conflict in defence of so-called British values.

Thus, when the Coldstream Guards are sent in for the pre-match entertainment and God Save the Queen rings around the ground, a good internationalist reaction is to support the other team and thereby refuse to line up behind our own ruling class. Why not support Germany in a football match? Or any other team in any other event for that matter? That should not stop anyone from enjoying sport and supporting progressive actions taken by athletes and fans of any nationality.

Although supporting those who want to highlight the best traditions and culture within “our own” country, we should equally highlight the best in other countries. It was in this spirit that Lenin wrote:

In advancing the slogan of the “international culture of democracy and of the worldwide working-class movement”, we take from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements; we take them only and absolutely in opposition to the bourgeois culture and bourgeois nationalism of each nation.65

As the next World Cup approaches, and the British establishment start lauding the credentials of the young, diverse England football team—which is yet to field a player with Asian heritage or an openly gay player—we should remind them that their “British values” constantly throw obstacles in the faces of young and diverse people. We should celebrate not only those who resist at home, but also all those abroad who have resisted and contributed to “the international culture of democracy and the worldwide working-class movement”. We stand for “the integration of all that is best in every culture into a new, cosmopolitan, human culture”.66

In the summer of 2021, the England football team, on the back of the Black Lives Matter protests, had an impact in shaping conversations about the society we would like to live in. It is important to defend the actions of the team and to engage with similar conversations that will no doubt continue to arise in the world of sport. We can and must do so without promoting the language and symbols of nationalism. “Workers of the world unite” means exactly that: unity with each other, not with “our” ruling class.

Sue Caldwell is a retired teacher and long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). She is a contributor to Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People and Play (Bookmarks, 2013).


1 Hobsbawm, 1990, p143. Eric Hobsbawm seems to have been unaware of sportswomen and female fans, although, of course, the sports world was overwhelmingly male in the period he was discussing. The term “imagined community” is a reference to Anderson, 2016.

2 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Judy Cox, Richard Donnelly, Tom Hickey, Christian Høgsbjerg and Sheila McGregor for comments on drafts of this article. I am also grateful to John Mullen for his guidance on the sections about France.

3 Clavane and Long, 2021.

4 Quoted in Clavane and Long, 2021.

5 Moore, 2018.

6 Bairner, 2001, p17.

7 Hobsbawm, 1990.

8 Harman, 1992.

9 Harman, 1992.

10 Hobsbawm and Ranger, 2020.

11 Marqusee, 2005, p278.

12 See also Holding, 2021.

13 Marqusee, 2005, p275.

14 The hollowness of any claim that cricket represents the epitome of fair play was exposed recently by the testimony of Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq. Lifting the lid on racism towards Asian players at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Rafiq’s revelations have wide implications across the whole of the cricket establishment, which has a long history of racism and elitism.

15 Marqusee, 2005, p25.

16 Carrington, 1998.

17 Hobsbawm, 1990, p142.

19 Carrington, 2013, p109.

20 Quoted in Perryman, 2013, p47.

21 Ironically, this is partially due to the lack of cricket facilities at state schools as a result of government cuts to education budgets.

22 Weight, 2002, p462.

23 Weight, 2002, p259.

24 Quoted in Weight, 2002, p259.

25 Quoted in Weight, 2002, p459.

26 Weight, 2002, p462.

27 For a discussion of the mobilisations against the BNP and EDL, see Thomas, 2019.

28 Morshead, 2018.

29 Carrington, 1998, p115.

30 Vincent and Hill, 2011.

31 Carrington, 1998.

32 Goldblatt, 2007, p115.

33 Goldblatt, 2007, p115.

34 Carrington, 1998, p113.

35 Clavane and Long, 2021, p61.

36 The American Civil Rights movement also saw protesters kneeling, often in prayer, following police brutality. An iconic photograph shows Martin Luther King on one knee in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

37 An added significance to the action was that police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds as he died.

38 For more on Kaepernick, and for other sports commentary from a US socialist perspective, see Dave Zirrin’s Edge of Sports blog—

39 Carrington, 2021.

40 Southgate, 2021.

41 As well as speaking out against racism, England forward Marcus Rashford forced a U-turn on the Tories over lunch vouchers for poorer school students during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Teammate Raheem Sterling has launched a foundation in order to help poor families. Both have spoken out about the lack of opportunities for low-income families, reflecting a growing trend for celebrities to fill the vacuum created by the absence of serious parliamentary opposition.

42 Glaser, 2013.

43 See Hobsbawm and Ranger, 2020—especially chapter 4—for an account of the development of ritual and pageantry surrounding the British monarchy.

44 Delaney, 2021.

45 The bar is admittedly low, whether we consider sheer numbers allowed to settle or the degree of “welcoming”; I am not defending the records of the German and French governments on either measure.

46 Mason, 2021.

48 Coman, 2021.

49 Lenin, 1977.

50 Lenin, 1977.

51 Wolfreys, 2018, p88.

52 Wolfreys, 2018, p12.

53 Southgate, 2021.

54 Rachman, 2021.

55 Quoted in Cliff, Gluckstein and Kimber, 2018, p394.

56 For a fuller discussion of this with reference to the British Labour Party, see Cliff, Gluckstein and Kimber, 2018.

57 Mason, 2021.

58 Harman, 1992.

59 Custodi, 2021.

60 Quoted in Birchall, 1986, p145.

61 Bragg, 2006, p240.

62 See, for instance, Callinicos, 2021.

63 Bryant, 2018.

64 Kelly, 2020.

65 Lenin, 1997, p18.

66 Harman, 1992.


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