29 Jun 2016

The own goal only England could score

11:10 am on 29 June 2016

OPINION - London in the run-up to the EU referendum was a semi-surreal place. The news was all about Leave or Remain, the rhetoric was becoming more and more florid, the promises and threats increasingly shrill.

On the other channel there was football.

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Photo: AFP / FILE

The first round of Euro 2016 was filling pubs with crowds of bantering football fans, including plenty of visitors from the Continent. I shared a table in a Covent Garden boozer with two young Scandinavians and enjoyed watching Russia go down to Slovakia. We were united in our cheerful contempt.

As ever, Euro offered an opportunity for the ritual self-flagellation of the English. The team played as they usually do - below par and rudderless - and the papers duly abused them. Russian "ultras" beat the daylights out of English supporters in Marseilles, and the usual mock outrage and Europhobic bigotry let the headlines write themselves.

It almost felt like fun, and then it didn't.

I left London the day MP Jo Cox was murdered in the street. Her accused killer announced to a preliminary court hearing, "My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain." Having felt the Brexit fever rising during my short UK stay, it was impossible not to view this psychopathic act as somehow emblematic of a debate that had touched any number of raw nerves in the British body politic.

The shock felt in respectable circles at the referendum result said it all. I had been staying in a gentrified precinct of South London, where property values have soared, middle-class families have supplanted older immigrant communities, and every second front window carried a "Remain" sign. When my host texted on the morning of the result, it was to say this: "Firkin hell! This is going to be interesting."

I'm pretty sure the same sentiment was uttered more than once at half-time during England's match with Iceland. A little like the Remain camp, England supporters might not have been completely confident of their team's chances, but surely the world would not be turned on its head by an upset that outrageous?

Oh dear. If anything, England's Euro exit should have been less surprising than the final Brexit vote, but there were definite similarities - poor leadership, complacency and a tendency to under-estimate the opposition among them.

If Iceland was a slightly unknown quantity, the world beyond London seems to have been a foreign country to many of the Remainers, as this astonishing piece of eye-witness journalism makes clear. Rather than some easily dismissed expression of xenophobic isolationism, the Leave movement appears to have been a complex mix of demographic, geographic and socio-economic factors.

If anti-immigrant sentiment was the most visible manifestation of this, perhaps that is because immigration has been the most visible manifestation of Britain's "integration" within the Euro-zone's economic model. Cheap, mobile and often exploited foreign labour is part of a bigger picture of declining wages and conditions, gutted services and hollowed-out communities that simply don't fit the Brussels brand of shiny Euro-progress.

The tragedy will be that a vote against neoliberal austerity is also by default a vote for reactionary nationalism, not only in the UK but "abroad". For all its faults, the EU represents relative peace after centuries of spectacular bloodshed. There is something to be said for tolerance, diversity and a forum within which to negotiate compromises.

Goodbye to all that. Despite being comprised of players who compete in one of the greatest and most ethnically diverse club leagues anywhere, the English football team invariably flounders and fails under the national flag.

And yes, the analogies should probably end here. But watching the chaos on both sides of the British political establishment in the wake of the Brexit vote, it does look an awful lot like the kind of own goal only England could score.

* Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011.

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