Rugby and union?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the search for some sort of national identity in everything from ID cards to sport.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Think of a traditional symbol of patriotic pride and national identity – the monarchy, the Church, the parliamentary system, the police force, even the football team. Now try to name one that is not in a state of crisis. Sorry, your time is up. And so, fear some panicky people in high places, might theirs be.

Every major institution of Britishness is now experiencing an identity crisis. With the corrosion of the old bedrock values on which their authority rested, they are trying hard to update their image. The trouble is that, as with many a hasty makeover conducted in the public eye, the result is to make things look worse.

A Royal Family that once occupied the high ground of imperial grandeur is now besieged by the sort of gossip and backstabbing that normally attaches to soap opera queens. A Church that stood for firm moral commandments is split over the long-closseted question of gay clergy. A Parliament long admired as the mother of democracy is now looked down upon as rather a dissolute, sleazy old slapper. A police force that prided itself on being the best in the world is now traumatised by the merest mention of the word racism. And so it goes on.

On hearing that I did not entirely share their enthusiasm for the attrition of the Rugby Union World Cup, two fellow sports fans defended their conversion to the ugly game in identical terms. ‘It might not be much,’ both protested, ‘but it’s all that we’ve got now.’ They were talking in terms of a national sports team to identify with. But it struck me that anybody looking for some wider symbol of national identity this week might well draw the same conclusion.

After all, apart from some broad-but-shallow support for the England rugby team, and perhaps an outburst of popular anti-Americanism directed at President Bush, what is there to show that our society stands for something today?

‘It might not be much, but it’s all that we’ve got’ could certainly serve as a slogan for the Government’s latest attempt to manufacture such a national symbol, by letting David Blunkett play his identity card. The Home Office sees ID cards as a way for it not just to identify individuals, but also to give us a collective identity. Its ambition is not only to find out who we are, but to help us find a sense of ourselves, as British citizens.

So Blunkett’s White Paper imagines that ID cards will enable everybody ‘to assert their identity and that they belong here’. It fantasises that the card will somehow help to overcome divisions: ‘It will show that everyone belongs to our society.’

National identity is here reduced to something like membership of a golf club. If you pay the fee for your card – up to £77 a time – you can show that you belong to British society. Even at a golf club, however, you have to know and show that you are ‘one of them’ before you become a full member.

The card is just a confirmation, not a substitute for a shared identity. No ID card can answer questions such as: ‘What does it mean to be British? What do we stand for now,’ that so vex our leaders. The Crick committee’s proposals for a ‘citizens’ test’, published this year, are full of the uncertainties that now afflict any discussion of national identity.

New citizens, it suggested, should be taught that the UK is a multicultural society that ‘emphasises the need for a continuous process of mutual engagement and learning about each other with respect, understanding and tolerance’.

So the central value of new Britain turns out to be that we tolerate everybody else’s values. Very nice, no doubt, but hardly a sound basis for forging a powerful sense of social cohesion. In trying to come up with a sort of bottom line of Britishness on which we can agree, Blunkett’s people have so far proposed that we condemn female circumcision and forced marriages on one hand, and racist and Islamophobic witchhunts on the other.

In terms of a moral consensus, lowest common denominators don’t come much lower than that. Thrashing around for something, anything to offer as a symbol of national identity, some have sought to exploit sport for political ends. First they tried to turn David Beckham’s England football team into the vehicle for what one new Labour think-tank called a more ‘feminine’ patriotism. Now they even want to latch on to such a minority sport as Rugby Union – although that too has raised divisive issues, such as why was Prince Harry cheering for England against his father’s principality?

I neither know nor care much about rugby. But Jonny Wilkinson would seem to have enough of a burden scoring all the points for his try-less team without having to carry the baggage of a national identity crisis as well.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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