Raj Persaud: Football hooligans, politics and the need to belong

If people need a sense of shared identity, from where are they going to secure it today?
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The Independent Online

The first serious violence of Euro 2004 inevitably involved England fans when they clashed with Portuguese police yesterday..

The first serious violence of Euro 2004 inevitably involved England fans when they clashed with Portuguese police yesterday. But psychologists weren't surprised - their research suggests an intriguing explanation for the propensity of English fans to let the side down, an elucidation linked as well to the startling rise of the UK Independence Party.

Officially, more than 2,500 English football fans had been banned from going to Euro 2004, a policy founded on the notion that hooliganism is the preserve of a small minority of "trouble makers". Target this marginal faction, so the official argument goes, and you will eliminate problem.

Actually psychologists who specialise in crowd behaviour and who have made a special study of football fans' behaviour, have arrived at an almost diametrically opposite conclusion. They believe that many caught up in riots have no previous history of violence, and instead are galvanised into action by a sense of solidarity which emerges suddenly and powerfully, as a direct result of the way the authorities confront crowds.

This difference of opinion between behavioural scientists and the Government has dramatic implications not just for English football, but also the prospect for UK politics. The two foremost authorities in the area of the behaviour of violent crowds and European football hooligans are Otto Adang, a behavioural scientist at the Netherlands Police Academy, and Clifford Stott, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, and their research has converged on a remarkably similar explanation for football violence.

These psychologists point out that there are many football games where known hooligans are present, but yet no aggression erupts, therefore the reasons a crowd turns violent must hinge on another process.

Dr Stott's ideas began to formulate after his study of the London poll tax riots in 1990, where it became clear that violence from a group of people who usually had not met much, or even at all before, emerges from the rapid but powerful development of a shared group identity. This identity is based on a strong sense of "them" and "us" which is often galvanised by certain police control techniques. Dr Stott argues that coercive policing - often termed 'high-profile' - actually works to create a sense of solidarity amongst a crowd of people, whose fear and anger in response, cements them into a cohesive collective which then produces the confidence to retaliate. Dr Adang and Dr Stott have conducted several studies of fans of English teams playing in continental Europe over the past decade and have observed how many who saw themselves as having no intention of engaging in hooliganism came to see conflict with the police as acceptable because of developing a sense of "them" and "us" over "heavy-handed" policing.

This notion of an enemy mobilising a strong sense of identity by catalysing a sense of "them" and "us" - in other words we almost need a "them" in order to produce a sense of "us" - has recently received another fillip from just-published psychiatric research which finds the number of suicides in September 2001 were significantly lower than other months in the same year, and any September of the previous 22 years, in England and Wales.

The author of the study, University of Liverpool psychiatrist Dr Emad Salib, argues the terrorist attacks on the twin towers in that month seemed to lower suicide rates nationally perhaps because it brought communities closer together as a response to a new perceived peril.

Psychologists would therefore argue that the major political parties have rather missed the essential point of the recent startling success of UKIP - they have mobilised massive support from a standing start because at a deep psychological level their identification of an enemy (Europe) and a consequent threat to UK identity, has filled a need for social cohesion the other parties are not addressing. Previously our sense of identity may have come from our religion, our geographical location or our class - all of these sources are now rendered problematic because of increasing secularisation, geographical and class mobility.

If people need a sense of shared identity, from where are they going to secure it today? Sport may have come to be so pervasive because it fills certain innate psychological tribal needs within us all - witness the current remarkable contagion of England flags. UKIP, unlike the other parties, is offering a shared sense of identity which turns on the powerful idea of a potential loss of character from disappearing into a European morass. The failure of the policing of Euro 2004 could be the same collapse as that of the politicians over the European project, a fundamental breakdown in understanding the essential psychological need to put in place a healthy sense of self and belonging.

Otherwise our need to belong is so strong and deep, we are vulnerable to the intervention of darker forces, who will slither in and exploit the opportunity, wherever a vacuum begins to develop in our sense of identity.

The writer is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital