Magazine article The Spectator

Nationalism Won't Save the Tories

Magazine article The Spectator

Nationalism Won't Save the Tories

Article excerpt

ON 17 November, England will play Scotland at Wembley. The match, one of two play-offs to qualify for the European Championships, is another round in an age-old tribal conflict. England versus Scotland at football is not sport as entertainment - an alternative to a night at the cinema or the pub - but sport as proxy for war: a chance to refight Bannockburn or Flodden. Predictably, the match is already sold out. Yet when Arsenal played its home fixtures in the European Champions League at the same venue last month, the north London club did not need the spur of historical antagonism to fill the stadium. The matches against Barcelona and Fiorentina were strictly commercial ventures, drenched in advertising and sponsorship, and hosted by a publicly quoted company that hired the stadium in order to accommodate more paying spectators. The players, most of them hirelings on salaries that would embarrass a boardroom fat cat, were drawn from all over the world. The contest between England and Scotland could scarcely be more different. It is drenched not in money but in history, and in the mythic nationalisms to which history gives rise.

In the contrasting nature of the two matches at Wembley can be discerned the true battle between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism in Britain today. It is a contest between public and private; professional and commercial; citizen and consumer; society and market; shopper and voter; nation-state and global economy; politics-with-purpose and economics-with-- none.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Britain is not yet a land of budding entrepreneurs, soulless accumulators and guilt-free shoppers. It is certainly rich, and getting richer, but abundance brings anxieties of its own. Modern Britons are hungry to play roles, feel allegiances, and create narratives which will insulate them from the rigours of the market economy and reassure them that the business of the British is not merely business. The genius of New Labour is to play on this. New Labour offers security, duty, work, frugality, modernity, environmentalism, purpose; the Conservatives offer nationalism.

As a political strategy, nationalism is a poor choice. Robbed of the traditional pleasures of conquest and war, nationalism now has only two means of expression. One is Europe; the other is sport. Oddly enough, nothing could be less nationalistic and more cosmopolitan than European sport. The defeat of Arsenal by Barcelona one night last month, and the victory of Marseille over Manchester United the same evening, were reported by journalists as 'a disastrous night for English clubs in Europe'. It was nothing of the kind. The players that night were drawn from Australia, Croatia, France, Holland, Nigeria, Sweden, Trinidad and Wales. The Chelsea team which beat a Turkish side 5-0 a day later fielded only one Englishman -- a triumph for Eurotrash in the Levant rather than English clubs in Europe. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are not really football clubs at all but branded sports businesses.

Rugby union is equally businesslike. International matches are preceded by the ritual singing of national anthems, but the teams on the field are crammed with mercenaries flying under various flags of convenience. Eventually, the gap between fact and fiction in international sport will be closed, and games will take place between global businesses rather than nation-states. They will be followed by brand-conscious consumers, not sub-patriotic fans, and victory and defeat will be forms of entertainment, not sources of national pride or dismay.

The same fate awaits Euroscepticism, another form of nationalism dependent on the gap between fact and fantasy. The vocabulary of Euroscepticism - 'nationstate', 'country', 'sovereignty', 'Englishspeaking peoples' - is already trapped in metaphysics. For the Conservative party, in particular, the attempt to marry nationalism to free trade - as in the slogan 'In Europe but not run by Europe' - is proving disastrous. …

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