Since ’98 at every England home game I’ve been part of a group ‘Raise the Flag’ who lay out hundreds of cards to form a huge St George’s Cross, a fans’ flag.
Not on Tuesday night we didn’t, against France. The Football Association (FA) get a lot of stick but on this occasion they took a magnificent lead. As soon as the French announced they wanted the game to go ahead, the FA turned Wembley into a celebration of solidarité and humanité. The stadium bathed in the bleu, blanc et rouge not of a Union Jack but Le Tricolor. Sponsor’s logos and pitchside advertising replaced by three words. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Much-needed leadership from above. But none of this would be worth very much without support from below. The fans busy practicing Le Marsellaise on the tube to the game, those who had hunted out an old French shirt to wear, daubed a message on a tricolor, symbolised by the thousands of fans holding up the cards to form their flag, not ours, and without hardly a murmur of dissent.
This was a participative, visual, inclusive politics, with an eye on maximum media exposure. Not a public meeting, a rally, a vigil – these were ordinary men and women, kids with mums and dads, at a game they had been looking forward to, watching a sport they love, appreciating something bigger than the fact that the bombs had killed their lot, not ours. It could just as easily have been us.
This is what a hegemonic politics looks like. Starting where people are at, not where we might want them to be. I’ve lost patience with a leftism only capable of speaking to each other. Self-satisfied by a cult of activism that is entirely alien to most people. Unable to recognise that politics is a journey of beginnings, not final destinations.
This was a supreme moment of popular internationalism. Caring about, singing the anthem of, waving the flag that belongs to, an other. Football, the single biggest popular cultural form in England, is also entirely Europeanised. The single European currency a coin? Don’t make me laugh, it’s a game of twenty-two people trying to put a ball between two uprights and a crossbar. What hope do we have with an in/out EU referendum when for these so-called activists this has never even occurred to them. Am I angry? Yes, and I’ve every right to be.
What would we prefer? That these ordinary men and women didn’t stand up in solidarity? That we judge and patronise their emotions with the tried and failed language of moral relativism and anti-imperialism until they get it sufficiently right?
Yes there are contradictions. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the founding ideals of the French Revolution that founded a republic, the wreath-laying led by Prince William. Le Marsellaise – a rebel song, once described by comedian Rob Newman as “like having The Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton’ as your National Anthem” vs “Long to Reign Over Us, Happy and Glorious.” A multicultural French team on the pitch. Off the pitch the Front National on the march.
But life is full of contradictions, this is politics. A hegemonic, or dominant, politics pushes at the limits of the contradictions, taking them as the start of a conversation, not a reason to close it down. Stuart Hall once wrote of the importance of popular culture as a space where ideas are both formed and changed, “the cultural dimension seemed to us not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society.” Of course, holding up Le Tricolor is not in and of itself a political, or even a progressive, act. The point is that it is the task of a hegemonic politics to take such a beginning, to frame a process, so it can become one. What might be the means of doing this?
I live in Lewes, where Tom Paine lived, worked and wrote. He is one of this country’s most famous writers and was a defender of the French revolution, put on trial for sedition in a British court, and elected to the Republican National Assembly in France. His most famous words give us the means to shape Humanité out of horror. “The World is my country. To do Good is my religion.” Our words of resistance and community, then and now.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.