Magazine article Soundings

Red, White and Blue Labour: What Would a Flag-Waving English Left Look Like?

Magazine article Soundings

Red, White and Blue Labour: What Would a Flag-Waving English Left Look Like?

Article excerpt

  'Fuck off you racist, gypo cunts.'
  Bulgaria vs England, 2 September 2011

It's around the seventieth minute in England's well-deserved three-nil victory over Bulgaria at Sofia's Vasil Levski stadium. Tiresomely and predictably, a bunch of the local wannabe hooligans lose interest in their side going down to a heavyish defeat and resort instead to winding up our players. Not the catcalls and banter we're more used to back home but richly offensive monkey grunts and gestures. In a split second the enjoyment of an England win turns to a collective fury at the way the likes of Ashley Young, Theo Walcott and debutant Chris Smalling are being singled out for abuse simply because of the colour of their skin. This is an angry English, mainly white, mob, pumped up with Three-Lions-on-our-chest patriotism, yet knowing precisely the nature of the offence being committed against our own - racism. Of course the contradictions in that anger matter - the anti-Roma prejudice, the sexism, the physical violence which would surely have erupted if the regregation between us and them hadn't been maintained. But the reality of that anger directed at others' racism should not be lightly discounted either.

Researcher Dan Burdsey has recently pointed out the complexities when accounting for racism, and anti-racism, in football:

  Overly optimistic views of progress neatly side-step questions
  around power and politics, and ignore the fact that to look beyond
  the multiethnic spectacle on the pitch, in Europe
  at least, football remains a primarily white
  institution: games are watched by crowds of predominantly
  white supporters, controlled by white match officials,
  and teams are run by white (male) managers,
  coaches, owners and directors. (1)

And he adds a poignant afterthought for anyone who has attended a modern football stadium with eyes on more than simply what's going on the pitch.

  You will often see a significant presence of minority ethnic
  people in the stadium: they will be directing you to your
  seat or serving your refreshments. The racialised historical
  antecedents, and continuing legacy, of these roles - entertaining
  or serving the white folk - should not be lost within the
  contemporary clamour of positivity (p5).

This is the kind of terrain of steps forwards and backwards upon which a contemporary Englishness is being constructed. In the stands of the Vasil Levski Stadium, a vigorous opposition to racist abuse mixed up with an all pervasive antiRoma sentiment - the latter hardly surprising given that during our few days in Bulgaria almost every hotel employee, tour guide or taxi driver had been going out of their way to warn us against those 'gypsy pickpockets', while back home the radio phone-ins were bristling with callers demanding the bulldozing of the travellers' encampment at Dale Farm.

The Parekh Report, racialisation vs racism

In 2000 a short-term controversy was generated following the publication of The Parekh Report. This was mostly focused on the section of the publication dealing with the racialisation of Englishness. Journalists as well as New Labour politicians who should really have known better hopelessly confused hardly uncontroversial observations by the report's authors on racialisation with what their critics decided were wild accusations of irrefutable English racism. 'Whiteness nowhere features as an explicit condition of being British, but it is widely understood that Englishness, and therefore by extension Britishness, is racially coded.' (2) Of course those angrily responding to the racist taunting of our players in Sofia weren't necessarily subscribing to the point of view articulated in The Parekh Report, but the distinction they were making perhaps bore its imprint: it was the colour of the shirt our players wear that matters (in this case a curious navy blue with sky blue trimmings but that's for another argument), not the colour of their skin. …

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