Football reminds a fractured nation what it’s like to come together



ENGLAND LIKES a community moment, thanks to football, its national sport. And the impresario of the moment is Gareth Southgate, the manager of England and currently its most popular person. He not only forged what has too often in the past been a collection of prima donnas in a well-oiled machine that beat nemesis Germany to advance to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, then , in overtime, beat a brilliant Danish team to advance to the final on July 11. He also understood the unifying national power of collective joy and despair. “I tell them that when you go out, in that shirt,” Mr Southgate wrote in an open letter to the public on June 8, “you have the opportunity to produce moments that people will remember forever.”

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This unity is palpable, not only because England reached the final of the tournament for the first time in their history, but also because it stands in stark contrast to the divisions that have marked Great Britain in recent years. The 2016 Brexit referendum did more than tear both the country and the Tories apart. It also revealed that Britain was already much more divided than it thought: remember those conversations where the Remainers (or Leavers) said they couldn’t understand how the outcome had been so close, when no one they knew had voted Leave (or Remain)? The pandemic offered some unity, as Britons took to the streets on Thursday to ‘cheer for the caregivers’ and then silently exulted at the incredibly impressive vaccine rollout. But it also forced people to isolate themselves in their homes. One of the most exciting things about the semi-final was the spectacle of 60,000 fans screaming with all their hearts at Wembley Stadium as if the pandemic never happened.

For decades now, life together in Britain has been withering. The English, in particular, sorted themselves out on the basis of income and education. Danny Dorling, a geographer at the University of Oxford, gathered evidence that people with more of the two moved physically apart from those with less in each decade from 1970 to 2000. The English like to think of the Mr. Southgate’s multicultural and kneeling team proves that, save for a few thugs, the country is happily post-racial. In fact, England suffers as much from the flight of whites as America.

Draw a 100km ring around London, supposedly the capital of multiculturalism, to include the most switchable cities, and you’ll find minorities clustered in the center and white Britons towards the outskirts. Leveling things up would mean displacing 58% of those in that perimeter – more than it would take to do the same in the average American city. London’s white population fell by more than half a million in the 2000s, even as its total population grew. In 2001, only a quarter of non-whites lived in areas where whites were in the minority. Now almost half do.

The institutions that once united the country are also withering. The English are much less inclined to join voluntary organizations than before, with blue collar workers leading the exodus. Knowledge-intensive firms are less likely than manufacturing firms to bring workers from different classes together under one roof. Half of the children poor enough to qualify for free school meals attend only one-fifth of the schools.

Classical liberals might point out that much of this segregation is voluntary. But there is much to suggest that many people think their individual decisions add to the loss of something important. About half of Britons tell pollsters that Britain is “the most divided it has been in my life”. In his new book, “Fractured,” Jon Yates, executive director of the Youth Endowment Fund and former Conservative special adviser, gathers evidence that societal segregation imposes significant costs. It denies children from the poorest families access to networks and contacts that would help them progress in life. When voters do not have friends who vote for the other lot, democracy is weakened. And when people feel little in common with their fellow citizens, they are less likely to vote for the taxes that keep the welfare state alive.

How do you solve a problem that arises so directly from private choices? Mr. Yates does his part: he runs a program that takes thousands of teens each year, divides them into groups of 12, from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, and engages them in stimulating physical activities such as hiking and camping. The vivid memories formed by these (sometimes distressing) experiences can form the kind of connections Mr. Southgate wrote to his guys, even if the nation is not looking with its heart in its mouth.

Mr. Yates has other intriguing ideas: to force young people to do community service as part of their education; establish local groups for new parents to make connections about how their life just changed; and encourage recent retirees to meet and discuss what to do with their days. Bagehot finds it easy enough to find more: a volunteer army of young Digerati to help the elderly with their devices? Or retirees to supervise children from disadvantaged neighborhoods? Putting such ideas into practice would be far from easy. The “Big Society” promised by David Cameron when he became Prime Minister in 2010 has fizzled out as his government focused on reducing the budget deficit. It would also raise difficult questions, in particular the degree of coercion to be exerted. Too much, and participation may be reluctant; too little, and those who would benefit the most will give up everything.

Many hands

But there are examples to draw inspiration from. Britain did a remarkable job of reweaving the national fabric in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, establishing hundreds of voluntary organizations. Between 1981 and 2008, the number of Danish voluntary organizations increased by a third, even though it declined elsewhere, and the number of Finns involved in sports clubs increased by a similar amount. After a long period of focusing on the politics of freedom, the British elite must take inspiration from Mr Southgate’s book and shift their attention to unity. â– 

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This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Bande de frères”



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