Hollow victory parade

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on why Britain feels more comfortable celebrating a tinpot rugby trophy than a war.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The Queen ‘made it known’ that she was against a victory parade. The Prime Minister agreed that there should be nothing that might smack of ‘triumphalism’. Even the team captain objected that a parade risked appearing ‘arrogant or patronising’ towards the other side.

No, of course they were not talking about the rugby World Cup. Everybody from the Queen and Tony Blair downwards has supported a big victory parade for England’s triumphant team next week. The quotes above came from six months earlier, at the end of Gulf War II. Then, despite some newspapers clamouring for a victory parade, the authorities fought shy of anything triumphalist. ‘Team captain’ Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, head of the British A rmed Forces, revealed that even the top brass did not favour a parade for their troops. The Archbishop of Canterbury helped to ensure that, when a service was held at St Paul’s, it was one of ‘remembrance’ for all the war dead, rather than of ‘thanksgiving’ for victory over Saddam Hussein.

This tale of two parades is a public demonstration of the problem of finding a Shared National Experience, or SNE, these days. Big political issues such as war now seem too difficult and divisive to create a national consensus around. So the trend is to retreat on to the softer terrain of the sports field in search of something that can bring people together without too much controversy. In these insecure times the search is on, not so much for an SNE as an SSNE – a Safe Shared National Experience. And what could be safer than a parade to acclaim our Jonny as a bloody good bloke?
Some might protest that it is better to hold a parade for sportsmen with mud on their boots than for soldiers with blood on their hands. Fair enough; but then why is it that, until recently, these things were seen the other way around? Proper victory parades were reserved for British soldiers and statesmen. Sport was deemed too unimportant for such serious treatment.

In May 1945 at the end of the Second World War the streets of London were deep-lined with cheering crowds as King George VI and the entire royal, military and political establishment turned out for a thanksgiving service at St Paul’s. In 1982, after the Falklands conflict, the Queen and 14 of her family attended the thanksgiving service, although they stayed away from the full-scale military parade. In 1991, after Gulf War I, the Queen took her place in the victory parade alongside Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the Crown Prince of Kuwait.

These military parades were carefully staged displays of national unity and the conviction that Britain fought with right on its side. By contrast, England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup – which prompted far greater spontaneous celebrations than the recent rugby equivalent – was officially marked by a short bus ride to a hotel reception to which the players’ wives were not invited, never mind the nation. So what has changed? Contrary to some suggestions, rugby’s elevated status has little to do with the players’ toned physiques and skin-tight outfits. There are more powerful forces at work than Jonny Wilkinson’s right boot.

Our society has experienced a serious breakdown of the old moral consensus on major issues. The answers to fundamental questions of life and death can no longer be taken for granted – see the heated debates over the ethics of everything from late abortion or animal research to genetic science or euthanasia. Traditional nationalism, too, has lost its purchase on the public imagination. Where once a war could have been relied upon to unite people behind the flag, it is now likely to raise such awkward questions as ‘What is worth fighting for?’

The current War on Terror, and the traumatic invasion of Iraq, has done more to expose divisions and uncertainties than to unify the nation. When the Foreign Office Minister Denis MacShane was pilloried last week, for daring to suggest that Muslims in Britain should support ‘the British way’, it only revealed the lack of consensus on what that ‘way’ might mean today.

These political problems have encouraged the search for a Safe Shared National Experience elsewhere. Sport has emerged as one soft option. Of course, there is nothing new about sport being mixed up with politics, but this is different from the past. British sport has often been used as a popular vehicle for an existing powerful patriotism. This is what George Orwell meant when describing international football as ‘mimic warfare’.
Today, by contrast, sport is the focus for a pretend, ersatz patriotism, a substitute for any deeper sense of national conviction. Over the past few years, we have witnessed football being blown up out of all proportion. During last year’s World Cup, the Cross of St George appeared everywhere in support of David Beckham and Co – a sharp contrast to the absence of flag-waving support for Britain’s recent wars.

Now the cult of football has run into some PR problems, with the young players who were foolishly appointed as national role models being turned overnight (and equally foolishly) into metaphors for all that is wrong with modern Britain. So the search for an SSNE has temporarily moved on to rugby union – which only exposes the artificiality of the exercise.

In recent years, despite turning professional, rugby union in England has been declining at the grassroots. Yet so desperate have we become for some feeling of oneness, however phoney or fleeting, that winning the rugby World Cup (a contest taken seriously by half a dozen countries) has now been latched on to as an historic triumph deserving of a national victory parade. (For the purpose of this exercise in self-delusion, it is necessary not only to pretend that rugby is as big as football, but also that England equals the UK.) Those individuals who treat sport as something more than a game have traditionally been looked at as sad and advised to get a life. When English society starts acting like a sport-obsessed saddo over rugby, it looks like we are parading the fact that something is missing from our public life.

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.

Topics Politics


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