Three Lions, Fat Les and the Far Right: How the England Team Affects National Identity

The BNP would struggle with its message on the terraces today, because the story of British football is the story of mass migration.

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16 June 2016, 10:00am

England fans and police in Lille city centre (Photo by: Niall Carson / PA Wire)

It didn't take long after the first piece of garden furniture was thrown across the street in the old port area of Marseille last week for the media to start referring to" The English Disease" – the supposedly unique English phenomenon of football violence. The slightest sign of public disorder involving someone in a bucket hat whistling "Ten German Bombers" simply must, as one Guardian headline suggested, be the same "old enemy" rearing "its ugly head".

In reality, while England fans were hardly innocent, between Russian ultras, aggressive riot police, and a scarred country stuck in a seemingly permanent state of emergency, they certainly weren't the only ones to blame.

Where does this stigma come from? To a large extent it's about class – England fans and football fans are often vilified as thugs, yobs and racists and treated as criminals purely on the basis of attending a match. But there is, of course, a historical basis as well. Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s racism was pervasive in English football and violent, far-right groups like the National Front, the British National Party and Combat 18 all had a visible present on the terraces. At first this was at local clubs.

"What they were mainly tapping into was local racial antagonisms," says David Goldblatt, author of The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain. " Football fans were a good place to recruit heavies to fight street battles with local ethnic minority youth, given the culture of macho violence that already existed."

After the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels, when 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death following crowd disorder involving Liverpool supporters, attention shifted to the national team. English clubs were banned by UEFA from travelling around Europe but fans of the national team – including far-right supporters from across the country – were free to move. The outbreaks of violence that followed throughout the 1980s and 1990s can't be reduced to the far-right or even simply to "hooligans", but supporters with explicitly nationalist politics were often implicated in one way or another.

How much support the far-right actually enjoyed among England fans during this period is up for debate. For Goldblatt, "30 blokes from Combat 18 in 1995 at Lansdowne Road in Ireland chucking wood and singing 'No Surrender to the IRA'," was probably the biggest impact they had. "They didn't make a lot of progress," he says. "If you compare the degree to which the organised far-right has a presence in Italian, Croatian or Serbian football, it's completely Mickey Mouse here."

But supporting England certainly wasn't easy for many minority ethnic football fans during this period. "The racial exclusion I experienced as a child found its most complete expression on the English football terraces," the journalist Gary Younge wrote in the New Statesman during the World Cup six years ago. "In those early and not so early years, this relationship to English football was not merely ambivalent, it was antagonistic," he added. "It wasn't just that I did not support the national team, I actively wanted it to lose."

Over time things did change. The introduction of the Premier League in 1992 and the rise of televised football changed the demographic of football supporters and worked against the far-right. A shift from terraces to all-seater stadiums after the Taylor Report made it much harder for hooligans to organise within grounds, while new legislation from football banning orders preventing foreign travel for troublemakers to domestic stadium bans all had their effect.

(Photo by Will Coutts)

Perhaps most importantly, the teams became more diverse as foreign players flocked to the Premier League and black players represented the national team in increasing numbers. "The cry of 'British jobs for British workers' has been drowned out by chants for players whose names the fans can barely pronounce," Younge said. "The BNP would struggle with its message on the terraces today, because the story of British football is the story of mass migration."

By the time Euro 96 arrived, some argued that a more progressive English nationalism was beginning to emerge around the national team. Proposals to devolve political power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were forcing people to think about English and British identity as something separate. Without any symbols or institutions of its own – parliament, the monarchy and the national anthem are all, for example, British – the national team was, according to Goldblatt, "the number one public manifestation of a distinctive Englishness".

The sea of St George's Cross flags seen at Wembley during '96 (previously England fans had used Union Jacks) was given as evidence of this. And while that symbol was hardly free of racist connotations, many felt it was a different kind of patriotism to what had come before. "I think having such a self-deprecating tone to the whole Three-Lions-On-The-Shirt-Thing meant that it didn't start of with the usual aggressive, occupying kind of Englishness but a more reflexive, slightly quirky Englishness," Goldblatt says. "I though in that respect it was fucking good news, and opened up the field to other ways of being English". This narrative continued with Fat Les' "Vindaloo", a well behaved set of fans during World Cup 2002 in Japan and record sales of St George's Cross flags in 2006 – part of an increasingly commercialised, defanged "Brand England".

People holding EDL flags (Photo by Henry Langston)

Of course not everybody was comfortable with it, and the rise of the English Defence League in 2009 would certainly challenge the idea that the St George's Cross had been reclaimed. According to research by the think tank British Futures, just under a quarter of English people still think it's a racist symbol while the possibility of a meaningful English identity emerging outside of football that isn't ethnically rooted remains as contested as ever.

Back in today's game, struggles against racism and the far-right continue – just look at the Casuals United or the attack on antifascists in Thamesmead last year. But the culture of organised violence upon which the far-right drew certainly seems to have disappeared, at least from the top tiers of the game. When Russians fans charged England supporters inside the Stade Velodrome and on the streets of Marseille last week they were, Goldblatt says, presumably "expecting something else". "It's almost like they have a fantasy of what English hooligans are like," he adds, "based on something that's 25 years out of date".

@pkleinfeld

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