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Offside, 26 April

A Blairite think-tank wants to rescue St George's day from racist football fans. How about rescuing football from Blairite think-tanks?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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A new report from the Blairite think-tank Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) proposes that St George’s Day should be turned into a multicultural football festival to reclaim the English flag from its racist associations (1).

‘No BNP or National Front march is complete without the St George flag. Almost every incident of England fan violence will have a shot of the flag being worn by those involved’, says Mark Perryman, author of the report Ingerland Expects (and the man responsible for those geeky philosophy football t-shirts favoured by Guardian-reading nouveau fans everywhere).

Perryman wants to change the widely held perception that English football supporters are ‘shaven-headed, beer-bellied, tattooed and looking for trouble’. (Perhaps he should have advised fans to grow their hair long, start dieting, and have their tattoos surgically removed, but then I guess that would have been way too obvious.) Instead, the IPPR report outlines 11 steps to rebrand the image of English football abroad, which range from Greater London Council-style municipal worthiness to the downright comical.

One of the more amusing proposals is a PC-version of the legendary hooligan calling cards, but instead with foreign-language messages of friendship, to be handed out to local bartenders and waiters (presumably saying things like ‘Congratulations, you’ve just met the culturally sensitive, Islington Polenta-Hunters). Er, perhaps I’m missing something here, but surely foreign bar-owners can work out for themselves whether their English customers have been well-behaved?

Another quite batty idea is for English pubs showing World Cup games on TV to ‘serve up Turkish and Nigerian dishes, pasta, sushi and Argentinian beef, with Mexican enchiladas, Belgian mussels and Spanish paella thrown in’. Perryman suggests that ‘gobbling down symbols of internationalism serve as a better setting than some to indulge ourselves in flag-waving’. Yeah, right. If the pubs in my area are anything to go by, putting sushi or paella on the menu is more likely to engender diarrhoea than internationalism. The sad truth is that every high street in Britain has its kebab shop, curry house, pizzeria, and Chinese take-away, but foreign food hasn’t eradicated racial segregation from Britain’s provincial towns.

But leaving aside some of the sillier suggestions, what of the IPPR’s central idea – to use football to forge a ‘softer patriotism’ in place of the old-fashioned Rule Britannia nationalism? ‘Football is the people’s game and it can help engage us in a new sense of positive pride in our country and communities’, says IPPR director Matthew Taylor. A key proposal is to turn St George’s Day into football’s version of Comic Relief, through such initiatives as sponsored penalty shoot-outs, five-a-side ‘footballathons’, and league clubs sporting charity logos on their shirts instead of corporate brand names (Wimbledon, for example, could be sponsored by the Big Issue).

Such do-goodery isn’t really my cup of Bovril, but if professional footballers want to degrade themselves for ‘charidee’ then good luck to them. But what exactly are we trying to reclaim the St George flag from? Yes, for an irrelevant minority of old-fashioned chauvinists the flag of St George signifies racial supremacy, but what does it mean to everyone else?

I would suggest that ever since Euro ’96 the St George flag has predominantly represented support for the England football team and nothing else. You are more likely to see St George flags fluttering from car aerials or hung from bedroom windows before a big England international than on St George’s Day itself. Indeed, a survey in 2001 found that 83 percent of English people didn’t know that St George’s day was on 23 April and one in four couldn’t even name England’s patron saint (2). So much for English patriotism!

And the episodic bouts of Ingerland-fever that attend big football matches are not based on the imperial myth of English sporting invincibility – we’ve lost too many penalty shoot-outs to believe that – but on the fleeting sense of community that football provides.

Forget the flag of St George – it is supporting England that needs rescuing from the clutches of the Home Office and Blairite think-tanks. It is they who want England fans to conduct themselves like the smiley happy Tartan Army, to respect their opponents’ national anthems, to offend nobody with their chanting, and to sing along with the dismal supporters’ band.

England fans might be feared and reviled, but I’d rather that than being the laughing stock of the world.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Ingerland Expects: Football, National Identity and World Cup 2002, Mark Perryman, IPPR, April 2002

(2) Research reveals St. George’s Day ignorance, Bombardier

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Topics Politics

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