By Hannah Jones
Last night the English football team lost a semi-final game in the World Cup. Apparently, this was the most-watched television event in the UK since the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012. In the days preceding the game, national media seemed to be entirely taken over by it – almost every guest on Radio 4’s Today programme was asked about the game, from the Colombian ambassador to (many) childhood friends of Gareth Southgate, the team’s manager. Three times in just over a week, I heard the BBC’s lead political journalists interviewing English guests with partners from other countries about which team they or their children would support in the World Cup as they watched it at home (‘will you need to be in separate rooms?’). Each time it was treated jovially and amicably but why was this reminder of the Tebbit Test even relevant in what Southgate himself described as a diverse ‘modern England’ represented by his team?
Stuart Hall wrote of a ‘multicultural drift’ in Britain. Rather than a deliberate policy of ‘multiculturalism’ (such policies incidentally never having existed in the UK at a national level, despite the frequent announcement of their failure), multicultural drift describes how it simply became normal, boring even, to live with people who look different or came from different parts of the world. Over time, that is, people in Britain as elsewhere became more used to ethnic diversity as everyday. And this was represented nowhere more prominently than in the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, that televisual event even bigger than the World Cup semi-final, which featured, among other things, workers’ political resistance, suffragettes, the NHS – and Empire Windrush representing the arrival of Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean as central to British history and identity.
This triumph of spectacular conviviality and an alternative set of ‘British values’ (of struggle, change, and interconnection) to those announced by government as under threat, was followed only a year later by the wake-up call of the Go Home van. Outside the level of spectacular communications, entrenchment of immigration controls in law and institutional practice and indefinite detention for administrative infractions continued. While Britain had become increasingly cosmopolitan – in its dictionary definition of ‘familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures’, it had simultaneously become more fearful, and this was embodied nowhere more clearly than in the performance of Home Secretary/Prime Minister Theresa May.
As we wrote the final revisions to the ‘Go Home?’ book manuscript in June 2016, the UK really did seem at ‘breaking point’, but not in the way that MEP Nigel Farage’s Leave poster of that week was intended to suggest. The Brexit referendum campaign still raged, and a remain-campaigning MP was murdered in the street by a man shouting ‘Britain First’, the name of a far-right racist and anti-immigration movement which associates itself with Farage’s UKIP, which itself in turn is credited with shifting the ‘centre’ ground of British politics both to create the Brexit vote itself, and before that inspiring the increasing ‘get-tough’ displays by the Home Office of which the Go Home van formed a part.
This July 2018 week’s news seems emblematic of where we are, five years on from the Go Home van, two years from the Brexit vote. In Westminster and in the media establishment there is a consensus that ‘the people’ voted for Brexit – and in doing so, a rejection of both internationalism and migrants – though the result was in fact a very slender majority of what was basically a 50/50 split, and was followed by the 2017 general election which resulted in a minority government, now dependent on Northern Irish DUP votes while the Northern Irish border has emerged as one of the most intractable – and for some reason, completely unanticipated – questions about how Brexit could work. Scotland did not vote in a majority for Brexit, and the First Minister continues to press for a further independence referendum in the light of Brexit negotiations. There is less than a year until the UK leaves the EU and apparent constitutional chaos, as only this week did ‘a plan’ emerge, immediately followed by the resignation of both the Brexit Secretary and the Foreign Secretary. But never mind, perhaps football would be ‘coming home’ (to England, whose media often forgets it is only part of the Britain being riven by Brexit).
What seems to be ‘coming home,’ aside from the defeated team, are the reverberations of Britain’s colonial history. This can be understood as what Paul Gilroy has termed ‘postcolonial melancholia,’ the failure to properly contemplate the real history of empire’s cruelties and loss. The result is a persistent illusion that ‘greatness’ is a birthright of ‘the British’ – and when this greatness is not delivered for the majority of the population, a feeling of being cheated which tends to be directed at the ‘un-British’. In recent politics, this has been channelled into the problems of capitalist scarcity and competition, re-enforced by austerity policies, being blamed on the shadowy figure of ‘immigration’. This is also a gendered melancholia, one expression of it exploding after World Cup defeats in increased domestic violence.
It is notable that in his resignation letter, the Foreign Secretary claimed that the current Brexit ‘plan’ means the UK is ‘truly headed for the status of colony – and many will struggle to see the economic or political advantages of that particular arrangement’. No irony was signalled from this man whose own plans for post-Brexit Britain apparently included an ‘Empire 2.0’ in which Britain would be ‘re-entering the Commonwealth’. There is no recognition from this self-styled ‘historian’ that Britain’s prosperity has been entwined with that of Commonwealth countries and their populations since British forces invaded and colonised swathes of the world. Britain (not just the England football team) would not exist in its current form without the violent histories of colonisation and resistance to it. But the British Empire is no more – and it is not for the former Foreign Secretary to decide when to ‘enter’ or ‘leave’ those territories; Britain has to get used to asking for permission to enter others’ homes, rather than simply taking away others’ permission to enter Britain.
The failure to re-imagine the various meanings of ‘home’ and how home might be shared rather than owned or controlled, lie at the heart of the politics of contradictory nationalism which are now playing out.
Today, the ubiquitous white flag crossed with blood-red is being forlornly removed from cars, shops, houses and bodies; the over-excited news anchors might remember that there is more to Britain than England (never mind football); the replacement Brexit and Foreign Secretaries will have to resume negotiating a reality in which ‘the public’ apparently want to control where non-Brits call home but maintain their own rights to free movement and trade. The World Cup will remain out in The World. And the idea of Britain as home seems to increasingly narrow for all of us who live here and make it home, including those many of us who thought that being part of the world was a good thing, that it was possible to make a home without bricking up all the doors, and that part of doing so might lie in recognising and understanding both the mistakes and triumphs of the past.