England's Existential Crisis Hinges on Tonight's Game
Is this the summer of our lives or a national meltdown?
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It’s the summer of 2018 and life in the United Kingdom is ripe for a bludgeoning state-of-the-nation novel or landmark TV series in which every character is called Steve Brexit or Lionel Asbo.
It's the summer of 2018 and heat fills the air. Fires flare across northern moorland. A Russian nerve agent afflicts a city once known for its medieval cathedral. In Westminster, sharpened daggers slide into suited backs. The large men of the Conservative party resign from office and plot their next move. Protesters stalk the streets in defence of Tommy Robinson, the former EDL leader imprisoned for contempt of court, having been on a suspended sentence for the exact same offence.
Across the Atlantic, a tyrant president prepares to visit the islands his mother left almost a century before. The Queen lies unwell. The Queen lies pretending to be unwell, in order not to meet the president. No one cares about Wimbledon. The heatwave looks set to have us sweating into our mattresses again at any minute. In the east, on black Russian soil, England's football players await their destiny. Is it coming home?
Britain is in the grip of a procedural crisis and England is in an existential crisis. It can’t seem to work out what it wants. It screams and it shouts and then it goes to sleep, exhausted by the weight of having to come up with some kind of direction for itself. Over seven decades since the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the end of the empire, Britain still doesn’t know quite what clothes to wear, still comes to the party, makes charming small talk, gets too drunk, threatens to knock everyone out, steals the drugs, shouts about how shit everything is and then hides in a bedroom crying.
It’s the summer of 2018 and this could be the best summer. It could be the worst summer. We could see the end of a hated and incompetent government, or we could see that government shift form once again and cling to power, taking the country further down a road that has no signs. We could see football come home or we could see it remain in exile, take up residence in Zagreb and start a popular festival, or move to Paris to smoke cigarettes and shrug its shoulders.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. It was meant to be the World Cup of realism. For too long, England had the wrong managers who picked the wrong players who played the wrong way. Talent died in the Three Lions shirt. Big players with big egos failed to play together and were made to look disjointed by opposition teams that could. The ghosts of England sides gone by and the vitriolic demands of the tabloid press only made things worse.
This year, dour realism has turned to pleasant surprise, and pleasant surprise has turned to full-on it’s coming home we’re going to party till the sun crashes into the North Sea orchestral madness. This is now the summer of hope unshackled, the summer of possibility, the summer of chaos, the summer the Thai boys went into a cave and then came back out again, the summer of avoiding all the best teams in the competition until the semi-final and then just having a big old go at it because fuck it, it’s just two games and anything could happen, and Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on, you can make me whole again.
While the World Cup brings England together in ecstatic union, politics continues to tear it apart. Back in the misty days of 2016, when Donald Trump was rising, Nigel Farage was smiling and legends of culture were dying at a rate of one per week, a line of Antonio Gramsci’s drifted back into the discourse: "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born."
In that year, the idea that politics in a place like the United Kingdom would resemble, almost always, the sight of a fat adult baby yowling indecipherably as it rolled around in a paddling pool seemed entirely new. Back in 2016, it seemed as though the chaos of 2016 was the anomaly. It’s not the anomaly anymore. For too long, too many people have been too badly served by a political and economic system that serves too few. That truth is out of the bag now. But what can or might address it is stuck in utero, writhing this way and that, unable to see the light of day.
This week in Westminster only reminds us of that. The country is hostage to the ceaseless psychodrama playing out in the Conservative party. Brexit voters aren’t happy. Remain voters aren’t happy. Their political representatives in government aren’t happy. They are concerned for their careers and for their pockets. No one knows what Brexit will look like or how it will be achieved. The great mass of the establishment doesn’t really want it to happen, but has been charged with the task anyway.
The Conservative party might be too monstrously addicted to power to finally cave in and let someone else take over the reins. Rather than letting the new be born, it might simply sink the whole country, cast the British Isles to the bottom of the northern seas in the name of keeping the honourable member for Eton and the City of London in charge. It has become the fox in Antichrist, looking up at Willem Defoe and telling him: "Chaos reigns."
It’s the summer of 2018 and national newspapers report that environmental catastrophe and royal weddings are getting Britain’s economy back on track. It’s the summer of 2018 and Boris Johnson has resigned as foreign secretary. A man who once said that the continent of Africa’s problem was not that it had been colonised but that those colonisers left, Johnson has said that the UK is in danger of turning into a "colony" of the European Union. It is reported that the only thing that might end the heatwave once and for all is a hurricane from the US. Right on cue, Donald Trump is touching down for a whirlwind visit.
But there is the football. There is the World Cup. There is Gareth Southgate, a leader who seems almost egoless, a thoughtful man who isn’t going to start throwing some big dick energy around the dressing room. There is a team playing together. They probably won’t win it. But they might. Britain might burn to the ground. It might go sinking giggling into the sea. But it might not. Out of an unbearable situation, something hopeful might emerge.