Something happened in Japan: English nationalism felt comfortable with itself

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The Independent Football

Nationalism is a tricky feeling, and liberals are right to be wary of it. But a sense of pride in a collective identity is intrinsic to the human condition, so the question should not be whether or not to approve of nationalism, but to ask what form it should take.

Nationalism is a tricky feeling, and liberals are right to be wary of it. But a sense of pride in a collective identity is intrinsic to the human condition, so the question should not be whether or not to approve of nationalism, but to ask what form it should take.

The form English nationalism currently takes was thrown into relief by the football team's return from Japan in the middle of Saturday night, and the reaction to it – an enthusiastic crowd of 7,000 people cheering David Seaman, the goalkeeper whose mistake ended a credible World Cup campaign. Now the Football Association realises that a mistake has been made and a mood misjudged – it promises a "major reception" for the team. If Ireland can muster 100,000 people to welcome its team back from an earlier stage of the contest, England could have done better by its demi-heroes, had they arrived in daylight.

But the moment has passed, and the FA's plan is probably to misjudge the mood the other way. Most people thought the national side did all right, if erratically. But they also conducted themselves well, as did – whether it was because of the distance or a change of heart – the travelling fans.

The transformation of the St George cross from the trademark of the football hooligan into a benign symbol that Beckham-crazed Japanese teenagers are happy to paint on their faces has been one of the most startling effects of this World Cup.

It emphasises the artificiality of nationality. Like this country's attachment to the monarchy, which veers alarmingly (for the monarchy) between contempt and adulation, England's attitude towards itself is an unstable mixture of embarrassment and arrogance. Most of the traditions of the monarchy are recent inventions dreamt up by the royal spin machine. The symbols of English nationalism are an even more recent fashion. Few schoolchildren would have been able to identify an orthogonal red cross on a white background two World Cups ago. If they had, they might have thought it stood for aggression and intolerance. Suddenly – and for the time being – it has been reinvented as a symbol of honest endeavour.

St George nationalism is almost exclusively a sporting phenomenon, however. And a football, cricket and rugby phenomenon at that. (Look out for the red-and-white spreading to England cricket supporters.) Despite Wimbledon's upper-crust, metropolitan bias, tennis is a British affair. Greg Rusedski is obviously British, while Tim Henman's ambiguous status as an English Briton is merely a continuation of the same old confusion that has dogged the United Kingdom almost since 1707. But the weight of Englishness in the British identity means that the restoration to health of the symbolism of the red-and-white cross may have a rebalancing effect on the union (and its flag) as a whole.

Whether Mr Henman this year finally does what the England football team could not, or whether he crumples as he has before – and we mostly expect him to again – the outcome is likely to be accepted with either joy or realism. But in the latter case it may be with less of the recrimination of the past along the lines of: "Why can't we produce the world-class players that we used to?"

A benign English patriotism balances the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All we need is a new national anthem and the interlocking nationalisms of these islands might finally feel at ease with each other and the world.

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