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Archive for May 2016

“Stand up if you’re England!” – why I’m voting #Remain

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On a warm summer’s day in Amsterdam, many years ago, I had a small moment of revelation about what it means to be English.

It was England vs Denmark – our fourth game of the 2002 World Cup. We’d beaten Argentina in the group stages, avenging the defeat that sent us crashing out in 1998. And despite the six more years of hurt that had passed since “Football’s Coming Home” became England’s unofficial national anthem, I still believed we could go all the way.

I was in a bar, watching the game with my girlfriend. Being Belgian, Heleen shared neither my enthusiasm nor optimism about the match, but gamely indulged me. We’d been together less than a year, still in the phase of happily tolerating each other’s foibles.

It felt like a good time to be English. If the 90s notion of “Cool Britannia” had lost some of its charm, I still had the sense of a nation that was far more hopeful, outward-looking and at ease with itself than during my childhood – an era punctuated by strikes, riots, and IRA bomb attacks.

And it was a glorious game – England were 1-0 up within five minutes, when Sorensen fumbled a header from Rio Ferdinand. Michael Owen made it 2-0 soon afterwards. Heskey scored a third just before half time.

The match finished 3-0. As we emerged into the sunshine, we found ourselves in a beautiful Amsterdam square filled with crowds of cheering, white-clad, England fans.

“Ingalund, Inglalund, Ingalund!” sang the English, raising their beer glasses in the summer air.

“Ingalund, Ingalund, Inga-laa-und!”

“Ingalund, Ingaland, Ingalund!”

“Ingalund, ING-GA-LUND!”

We smiled and nodded.

Then they turned their attention to the increasingly-uncomfortable non-English audience passing through the square.

If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts!”, sang my compatriots, referencing – arguably somewhat simplistically – the role played by England during World War II.

If it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts!

“If it wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English, wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts!”.

By this point, my Belgian girlfriend was pretty uncomfortable too.

“Stand UP… if you’re Ingalund!”, they shouted

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

“Stand up… if you’re Ingalund!”

As they looked around the square, trying to make eye contact and gesturing for us to stand with them, I knew I had far more of an affinity – far more of a sense of solidarity and kinship – with the awkward Dutch passers-by, and the beautiful Belgian I was with, than with my drunk English compatriots.

The June 23rd referendum on Britain’s EU membership looks likely to be very tight. For sensible, pragmatic reasons, much of the debate has centred around the argument that Britain – and England – will be safer and more prosperous within the European Union than outside it.

But I know that in practice – as with last year’s referendum on Scottish independence – for many English people this vote will partly be about how we see ourselves as a nation.

There is an idea of England, and Englishness, that emphasises our separateness – that will always define itself in opposition to the rest of Europe, distrusting the French and the Germans, and patronising the Belgians, Scots, Welsh, Irish, and Dutch. An idea of England defined, perhaps above all else, by the defeat of Germany in “two World Wars and one World Cup”.

This version of our national identity is expressed so loudly, brashly, and frequently, that it can start to seem like the only way. Either you “stand up” and join the white-clad drunks hurling chauvinistic abuse at random passers-by, or you vacate the square.

But there is another way of thinking about English identity – one that can be outward-looking, not insular, despite our island status. An idea of Englishness that, rather than augmenting differences, emphasises our closeness to – and solidarity with – our European neighbours.

Amid the jingoistic focus on vanquished Germans, it’s worth remembering that the starting point for British engagement in World War I was the commitment to support our allies in Belgium – while our role in World War II began with a decision to defend the Poles.

In myriad ways, Britain, and England, have been actively engaged with the rest of Europe for centuries. It seems to me that our EU membership can be seen as the natural – and happily now far more peaceful – continuation of this.

So on June 23rd I will “stand up”. But I’ll be standing up for a very different kind of England than that represented by my brash, beer-swilling compatriots, long ago in that square in Amsterdam.

In voting Remain, I’ll be standing up for an England at ease with its identity as a European nation – and for an idea of Englishness based on co-operation and respect, not division and chauvinism.

I’ll also be standing up for the beautiful Belgian who is now my wife – and for our two young children, who are as at home on the continent as they are here in London.

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Written by Richard Wilson

May 18, 2016 at 12:10 pm