Two months later the flag-makers cannot produce enough red crosses. The tabloids are awash with a fever of specifically English patriotism. The scarlet features of Gazza and the roaring face of Pearce, both transmuted into lions, have become icons of a revitalised national sensibility. An identity, formerly choked by irony and self-loathing, has been resuscitated by football.
But football is, of course, only a game, certainly more, for the moment, than a matter of life and death, but still only a game. The flags will soon be lowered. This phase will pass. Yet the new voice of England may well prove more lasting. It may be the sound of a real change in national sentiment, a change inspired in the English by a sudden impatience and weariness with the recent past.
England has always been different from Britain. Britain has Celtic overtones, evoking a land of wildness and tribalisms, a loose agglomeration of frequently conflicting identities. The idealised vision of England, however, is a united thing - a nation of villages, warm beer and peculiar tenacity. The image of us standing alone in 1940 is an image of Spitfires dogfighting over the villages of the Kentish Weald, not of a patchwork of Celtic and Saxon tribes confronting the enemy. Notice how the excesses of the tabloids in their build-up to last night's match in effect claimed the Second World War as an English rather than a British victory.
But the English have suffered because, since that war, they have been obliged to carry the entire burden of imperial guilt. The English are, stereotypically, arrogant and superior. Hollywood, ever eager to exploit acceptable stereotypes, produces Braveheart to show that it was the snobbish, effete, brutal English who oppressed the Scots. And the American sympathy for the Irish cause has always been based on the underlying belief that the English were the conquering imperialists who created the problem in the first place.
Globally the same image persists. The empire is long gone, but we, the English, are still the snooty conquerors and the rest of the world is still the underdog. So, in the name of entertainment, it becomes perfectly acceptable to evoke medieval conflicts to express anti-Englishness. But, in the name of sport, the English themselves are not allowed to evoke an almost contemporary war - as the Daily Mirror did this week - to express a desire to win a simple game. Of course, neither attitude is attractive, but, on the whole, the latter is at least coherent.
The truth about this chain of guilt that has been hung around the English neck is that we are actually being used as the scapegoats for the entire liberal West. The West has won but it feels bad about it. We despoil the environment and destroy local cultures. Industrial modernity makes us rich but anxious.
And imperialism was, above all, an expression of the triumphant industrial modernity of the English. We invented science, technology and industry and, for most of two centuries, it made us all powerful. Over the last 50 years English power has declined, but our idea of modernity has gone on to make the West all-powerful. Our system of production may have once created a now-hated empire, but it also made America and defeated fascism and communism.
A collective Western guilt, however, is too big to make popular sense. So the English are cast into the global wilderness to atone. Think how hard it now is to be patriotically English. Professional Scots, Welsh, Irish, French and Americans are everywhere, flaunting their idiosyncrasies, but the English cower, occasionally making fun of themselves.
What may be happening now is that the English have had enough of this. The Scots want independence, the Irish still fight us and the Welsh want to be Welsh. Perhaps the English are deciding it is time to be English. Euro 96 has, among other things, produced a popular revulsion against bland globalism - the dull, Eurotrash anthem by Simply Red, commissioned as the official theme, has been all but wiped out by Baddiel and Skinner's ironic, mournful, but perennially hopeful dirge. "Football's coming home," we all sing and home is England.
This could, of course, be an awful development. English patriotism has a bad recent history. Embraced by hooligans and Europhobes alike, it has been an excuse for the worst kind of petty nationalism. Michael Portillo, with his ghastly SAS speech at last year's Tory conference, may not wish to be pigeon-holed with the average skinhead wrecker, but, frankly, he is not many pigeon-holes away.
And the whining of the Tory Eurosceptics is no more sensitive or realistic and frequently no less disgusting than that of the National Front. These are the attitudes of a paranoid culture of losers.
Maybe the problem is that we have grown so accustomed to being losers - either economically or because of our global role as scapegoats for the West - that the best we can do is whine and sulk. And, if that is the case, then this new English patriotism with its flags and songs is a good thing. For it signals that we, as a place, still want to win and that desire, whether or not it is fully expressed this time round, will wake us from our long sleep of defeat.
For you have to be something to understand anything. There are no global identities. The mythologies and iconographies of patriotism are, when not perverted by hatred or bitter irony, good, consoling and probably essential. They are ways of saying that people like to be at home, to belong. They are also expressions of confidence. Bitter losers wrap themselves in the flag, confident winners wave it.
I like being English, in spite of the fantasies of the mad Europhobes and the twittering of squeamish liberals, because that is what I am. And next 23 April, you never know, I might just overcome my native irony and do something.Reuse content