What do they know of England? Only England knows

I read an interesting article in today’s Irish Times. My summary of the article is that is that Brexit has intensified speculation on what it is to be British or rather English. Indeed the Brexit debate has ostracised the different elements that make up British Society; that in England there is a recent re-awakening of exploring what it is to be a nation, which has long been silent in England. The article makes a point of hardly mentioning Wales, because Wales would make things too complicated and detract from the thrust of the article

I’m also in the middle of reading Gwyn Williams’ ‘When Was Wales?’ This book also explores the concept of nation. It seems that it is quite possible to argue that Wales, England, Scotland and indeed Britain have never really been nations in the modern sense. The concept of Britain was perhaps formed from the union with Scotland and the beginnings of the age of the British empire. Hence Britain has never been a true nation, it hasn’t had the opportunity to gain a sense of itself as it has long been the seat of empire, a global superpower which has been the primary influence on how the state of the UK has operated. Arguably the UK has only been a nation from the early 1950s up to the early 1980s, a scant 30 year generation, a nation formed glowing in the unity brought about by winning a just war, the collapse of empire and an era of discovery of who the Britons were themselves. a fortunate era of  rapid economic growth and living standards from the 50s to the end of the 60s. In the 80s there seemed to be a halt to this process of nation forming.

I left Wales when I was eighteen to go and live in England. Admittedly I ended up surrounding myself with a mainly liberal bunch. what perturbed me was that none of them identified as English and saw any identification with a nation as being a rather divisive thing to do. I found this odd because I am Welsh, I couldn’t get my head around what exactly was supposed to be wrong with being Welsh? For to be Welsh was to believe that the Welsh are anyone’s equals and to be interested in exploring other cultures. In contrast to the the sense of Britishness, formed of the empire, which seemed to regard itself as superior to anyone else. That I could understand as being a nationalism akin to Nazi Germany and something to be opposed to.

I also noticed this when what was the  Fiive nations or international football came up. I support Wales and whoever plays against England, which is a very internationalist thing to do, where everyone can be a friend. This wasn’t understood by my English friends, they saw this as somehow being anti-English and even anti-British. From my perspective England were our local rivals, so I of course support the other team, in exactly the same way as I support anyone who plays against Manchester United as a Manchester City fan.

However having spent time in England I have understood that there is a different attitude in England. Where England  is perceived as the principal representative of the UK, so Welsh folk should support the England team as such, for Wales is but a parochial regional team. Perhaps there is a wider sense that England sees itself as the most important player in the UK, whilst in Wales, we see the UK as a partnership of equals, though we are aware that often this isn’t reciprocated. Yet in any case, there was no sense of an England, England is perhaps only a collection of various regional identities that share a British identity, but little sense of what it is to be English itself.

If you look at footage from England football matches from around twenty years ago, the England supporters wave the Union Jack and not the St George Cross. it seems the supporters were supporting Britian rather than England.  Things have changed, at England games, even the England cricket team, you will see St George Crosses everywhere and only rarely spot a Union Jack. It does seem that Englishness is quite a new thing and you meet more people that identify as Englsh these days.

My perspective on these questions is interesting. I am a child of Thatcher, of a prevailing political culture that proclaimed that ‘there was no such thing as society’, culture and communities are not important, to abandon your family and community to seek work, that identity is not something of any value and is a hindrance to economic growth. So Brexit was interesting as the majority of people younger than myself, with no direct knowledge of life under Thatcher were against Brexit, yet the majority of people older than me of whom many remember life before Thatcher were for Brexit. It makes me feel very middle aged! Perhaps it is only the appeal of Brexit to the ‘English’ in that it seems to offer the opportunity for England to become a true nation, to return to identity and culture being valued, whereas in Wales, perhaps especially in regard to the Welsh language, we kind of have known for a long time that such things have value in themselves. Yet Brexit has occurred at a point of flux, during a period where a sense of English identity is still a relatively new concept. We witness the rage of the far-right English ‘nationalist’ movements spurred by hate of others, yet there is much less sign of a considered mature English nationalism.

But what is England? What separates England from Britain? This remains a difficult question to answer, for many never used to not see any difference and why the question of an English identity is problematic. It’s less of an issue from a Welsh perspective, it is easier to pin down things that are Welsh and which are British and where they overlap. Yet as a Welshman I have a dual perspective on England and Britain. To me England is the mixture of peoples and regional identities all the way up to Scotland, whilst Britain is both the shared culture of the people living across the island of Great Britain as a separate thing to the British establishment.

Ireland occupies a special relationship with Wales. I have always viewed Ireland as being our neighbours across the sea and Ireland is no more foreign than England to me. I only feel slightly foreign in uireland in the same way as I do in England. The idea of no longer being able to arrive in Ireland after Brexit without needing to show a passport just seems incredibly odd.

Having grown up under the shadow of Thatcherism, I do not share the sense of belonging to a British state and the British establishment that my parents and grandparents had that was forged in the post world war period and belittled by Thatcherite policies. Yet I feel a belonging to Wales and a sense of being a Briton. My generation is perhaps the last to have any sense of what it is to feel a belonging to the British state, it’s a force I have seen weakened as I have progressed through life.  Those younger than myself surely have very little sense of a shared belonging with the British state, it may be seen to be a relic of history and hence the notion of taking back control from the EU seems baffling. The inept directionless nature of the process of the UK leaving the EU seems but a bizarre sideshow to the the fundamentals of whatever Brexit is; and whatever it is isn’t what the majority of people who voted for Brexit voted for.

I don’t get why the calls for Welsh independence are not being more widely being taken up. Wales as a partner in the global British Empire and sharing in the  benefits and advances that come with being a part of it, I can kind of get my head around. Yet continued membership of the UK now doesn’t offer anything apart from continued neglect and sheep jokes. A neglect that will likely intensify as England struggles to come to terms with itself and which has no money or resources to invest for the future anymore in any case, that Britian is in decline is palpable every day.  The resources Britain took from Wales have not been repaid. Surely, now is the time for Wales to ‘take back control’ to find it’s own way to develop in the twenty first century. Looking across the water to Ireland we see an independent state that has done fairly well free from the shackles of the British establishment, whilst Wales remains as the poor disregarded relation of the powerful in England.

Yet the fact that ‘Wales voted for Brexit’ does suggest that there is an appetite for change, to no longer accept decline. Wales is very different to Britian as a whole and has a very different set of problems. However neither the EU nor the Britain state offers Wales the chance to develop. It is surely time for independence.

 

The Few – Billy Bragg

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To TMO or not to TMO

There have been a couple of incidents at the rugby world cup where use non-use of the TMO (referring referreeing decisons to video evidence) seem to be influencing the game in a way they shouldn’t be.

The fact that video replays are shown within the stadium when play has stopped, allowing players and fans to see if a referee has made a wrong decision is wrong, refereeing is a hard enough job as it is without such scrutiny.

TMO is used at the world cup and the six nations and has become part of the game at international fixtures. However, it should not change the way the game is played and make it different to playing at club or amateur level.

The first incident occured in the opening match between England and Fiji. Fiji appeared to score a try, the ref and the linesman were behind the ball and a try was awarded. This is normal at club level as the the probability is that a try has been legally scored. Then, a slow motion replay was shown on the big screen which clearly showed the Fijian player knocking on just before the try line. The ref then (as the kicker was preparing for the conversion attempt) stopped play and referred to the TMO, and the decision to award the try was reversed. Even though technically it wasn’t a try, it only wasn’t due to the TMO rules, hence changing the game. TMO should only be used for marginal decisions where the ref is in doubt or unsighted. To be consistent then  every try would have to go to TMO.

The TMO rules need changing as at the moment the TMO can only be used in specific circumstances such as  to pick up foul and dangerous play, which is good for ensuring player safety. However TMO can’t be used for penalty decisions, this has an affect on the game as  teams are then encouraged to take penalties instead of pushing for a try. There are too mnay penalties in the game as it is in my opinion, more should not be encouraged.

Which brings me to the other incident, in yesterdays quarter final match between Scotland and Australia. It was a superb match, with 1 point separating the teams with 90 seconds to go. Scotland messed up their own lineout, it appeared to be an accidental knock on followed by an accidental offside. Everyone expected an excitign final scrum with an Australian put in. Instead the ref awarded a penalty, a wrong decision, that affected the outcome of the game in the final minute. The ref has to make an on the spot decision, but couldn’t be certain it was a penalty or not, if it’s not clear a penalty shouldn’t be awarded. Here was a situation where whether it was a penalty was unclear, so perhaps should have been referred to the TMO. The ref could, however, have asked the linesman if they had seen anything.

As a supporter of the Welsh national team I have seen the odd wrong decision lose us games. Having said that, watching at home on the telly I’ve also seen penalties awarded to Wales, we shouldn’t have, Refereeing is tough and wrong decisions are simply part of the game. However again thsi incident was shown on the big screens at the game, the crowd and the ref watched it and saw that a wrong decision had been made. This time the ref couldn’t refer to the TMO and potentially reverse the decision. This is the inconsistency, why TMO for a try and not a penalty? It will be interesting to see how the IRB respond to the use of TMO in this world cup.

As a fan of rugby, such things do ruin games as a spectacle for the supporters. It was a great contest to watch. For Scotland, coming close to getting to the semi-finals is heartbreaking, to lose the match in the final minute by a wrong refereeing decision, doubly so. It’s tough on the victors, Australia, too, as they are seen as not progressing by winning the game, but by being lucky with a refereeing decision, celebrations are then muted. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth for the neutral too ( I was of course supporting our comrades in Scotland).

Finally and incidentally, I do not condone the abuse the referee has received online. Completely uncalled for, as i said a very tough job and in a game such as rugby you are never going to get every decision right. So, use the TMO where there is doubt and don’t show replays in the stadium (part of the fun is watching a replay at home after a match and seeing what happened at all the breakdowns.

When to sing the national anthem as a patriot.

When I first left home and lived in England, I had a circle of English friends who stated that they weren’t patriotic and that nationalism was a bad thing. I was initially surprised at this as I’ve always been a patriotic Welshman and regard it as a positive thing. As with any political, religious or cultural creed, patriotism has both positive and negative elements to it. Like anything else, Patriotism, it is about striking a balance, learning how to make use of the good elements and dismissing the bad elements. It is an interesting concept, because whilst every culture is different, there are many common threads to patriotism. Again, like anything else, people should be wary of allowing positive elements of any creed to lead uncritically to bad elements.There have been a few recent events that illustrate my views on patriotism:

The Rugby World Cup

In Wales, rugby is our national sport, and supporting rugby is part of our culture. The established patriotic position is of the ‘local rival’ type, The Welsh patriot supports two teams; Wales and whoever is playing England. This is similar to the New Zealander who supports the All Blacks and whoever plays the Wallabies (Australia). People from countries, such as England, often don’t quite get this as their patriotism is different. I think it’s a positive outward looking stance. It means that at certain times support is lent to the team of any country in the world, enabling increased cultural understanding and new relationships.

The critic may say, that it’s not very nice for the English to be hated. The English are not hated though, the English are our friends and neighbours, there is simply a healthy rivalry with them. It’s the same thing in football, I’m a Manchester City supporter and ‘hate’ Manchester United, nonetheless I have many friends who support Man United,Ii think they are a little ‘misguided’ (have a slightly different set of priorities in how there support manifests itself, but it is essentially the same thing).

There are mild irritations that are experienced by Welsh supporters. The British media extensively covers  the performances of the English teams, any win seems to be  reported as the ‘greatest victory’ and any loss, the ‘greatest crisis’, it is difficult to ignore all this, when it is something you have no interest in. Though, generally the Welsh quite understand why UK wide media would cover it as England has a population of over 50 million, compared to the 3.5 million of Wales.Having said that it is a healthy thing to have a set of media opinion that you ignore, as having a healthy disrespect for the bias opinions of the media, of people with different.  opinions. It encourages one to work things out for yourself.

Perhaps the difference is expectation, England expect to win. I don’t have this, in Wales, we don’t expect to win, so any victory is all the more sweeter, the case in point being Wales’ recent victory over England in the Rugby World Cup! It’s the same with supporting Man City, I still don’t expect the team to win, even now we are a successful top of the league outfit, this generally isn’t the case with supported of Liverpool or Man United.

The problem with expectation of winning it that it implies superiority, which is a bad thing. The easiest bad trap to fall into with patriotism is superiority, the idea that your country is the best, has the best culture and way of doing things. Perhaps the Welsh can be patriotic, much more easily than the English, because as such a small country, on the Western periphery of Europe with a hilly terrain, the  Welsh are not concerned with ‘being the best’, rather being the best we can be.

I am a proud Welshman, it is my favourite country in the world, it is the best for me personally. I love Wales, not for any specific attribute, but simply as it is home, it is my culture and I understand it better than any other.  Good patriotism is very akin to family, it roots us and gives us confidence in belonging to something before we discover who we. Much like families there are aspects we love and aspects we hate, but it is an inescapable part of us, a relationships we don’t choose. As an outsider, i have become aware of many distinct ways i am different to others or the ‘mainstream’, but country, like family grants an automatic membership of a group. It some ways, this sense of being an outsider when the British media carp on about England, is something the Welsh have in common and being an outsider is part of the nationality, a nonconformity, which is useful. It is I believe important to belong, to know you are not crazy, yet able to be yourself and confident not to be in the mainstream.

I am always fascinated by people who come to live and work in Wales. Some people fall in love with Wales, some merely find it interesting and some realise they dislike the place. Everybody is different and value different aspects of life. No-one should take offense that their country or themselves as an individual is disliked, but they should take comfort when they encounter people who love them.

National anthems

The other thing that is a mild annoyance with England national teams is the anthem. England don’t sing an English national anthem, they borrow the British anthem ‘God Save the Queen/King’. Generally, when the British national anthem is played, I stand up and sing along. However I am silent when it is played for the English national team, because whilst I respect them I don’t support them. so, there are occasions when I sing and when I don’t.

Cultures are perhaps differentiated by how the concept of freedom is defined. It is interesting that people of political creeds say the same thing: “I am a socialist/liberal/conservative because I believe in freedom”. Almost everyone believes in freedom, indeed this is often expressed in the words of national anthems. True freedom is I believe impossible for human beings as social animals, there is always a balance of ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’. A balance of different elements is sought to maximise individual freedom and each political creed goes about it in a slightly different way.

Sections of the  British right wing media went into a frenzy when Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour party leader, didn’t sing the British national anthem at his first official engagement as party leader, because  he is a republican. In Britain is a widely held view that everyone is free to choose whether or not to sing the national anthem or indeed behave in a patriotic way. Much of the media didn’t respect Corbyn’s choice not to sing as an example of this freedom. It is sad that this man felt obliged to change his stance and sing the national anthem simply because of his status as a national leader and an appeal to mainstream electorate. This doesn’t send a message about the freedom the British value to the world does it?

Tribes

Human beings have always been tribal by nature. People exist as part of tribes that offer support and a sense of belonging. There has always been a balance between competition and cooperation between tribes. This phenomena exists in other animals, whilst there is some aggression between tribes, there is a respect, because  those in the neighbouring tribe are often cousins. For example males who go off to mate in a nearby tribe to avoid in-breeding. In modern society, we are still tribal, the system has developed so that often we are a member of many different tribes, from the family unit to ones that cross international boundaries.

I love team sports. Principally I love football and rugby. I enjoy being part of the team, when I play in a team I give everything I can to the team. I also support professional teams. Supporting professional teams provides two services to me as an individual. There is the tribal sense of belonging and desire for the team to do well. There is also the interest and awe of observing professionals demonstrate skills and tactics, beyond my own skill level.

Watching professional sport is also akin to attending music concerts. Again there is the sense of belonging to the tribe of people who venerate particular musicians and the shared joy of listening with like minded souls. The ability to be positive about a particular style without an overly critical response. Arguably this could also apply to religion, career paths or genres of books and films I particularly like.

People sometimes find it strange that I support three football clubs. I grew up in rural Wales, lacking professional football teams. There was no football tribe that I already belonged to, so I ended up supporting three different tribes. I am lucky in that all three of my teams play in blue and white. The three clubs are different sizes and play at different levels of the football pyramid, so each offers a different interest. In rugby, I am more conventional, i support my home town team and my national team. Being Welsh this is mandatory, unless you really dislike the sport. In this sense I was already part of the tribe before I understood the game of rugby.

Whilst fierce rivalries exist between my teams and others. The huge passions evoked during a match are quickly put aside to join the bigger tribe of people who appreciate rugby/ football.

What is perhaps interesting sociologically is that in football I chose the teams to support. I didn’t actively choose through some analysis of the game or the relevant merits of each team, the teams I chose happened somewhat passively, accidentally. However, I have written in this blog about my status as an outsider, yet I strongly identify with these team tribes. Perhaps because I used to have an unfulfilled need to feel a sense of belonging. It is also interesting in that the football teams I support, historically are the big underachievers, the sleeping giants, often overshadowed by bigger more successful local rivals. So, whilst I didn’t actively choose the football teams I support, something in my personality drew me to them, this sense of the outsider and the joy of being welcomed into a big tribe of outsiders.

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The Manchester City tribal home. “We all live in a sky blue stadium!”

The biggest football team I support, the one I have been the most passionate about is Manchester City. In recent years, something very odd has occurred. They became a rich and successful club, actually winning things like the FA cup and  English Premier league titles. To be honest, I find this a little strange and unworldly, yet am wonderfully pleased by the success. I remember being at a game and the bloke next to me was getting very stressed and vocal about the teams performance against a rival team for the Premier league title. A fellow fan quipped “Don’t worry mate, we’re still in the play-offs!” a reference to the clubs recent past struggling to get back into the higher divisions. To me finishing second for Manchester City still feels like a big achievement.

Supporting football and rugby teams, historically has been about community, specifically working class communities. Life was tough, though there was a sense of solidarity. The achievements of the communities representatives in the sporting arena, when the team won, would provide a sense of joy and pride that would fill the week with positivity until the next game. The success or failure of the team/tribe provides a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs quite separate from the individuals life. In everyone’s struggle to be positive and happy, it is sometimes very useful to have something outside the self to provide extended uplifts or short bursts of sorrow to help keep ones own moods in perspective.