As the nation settled down on Wednesday night to watch England play Croatia, I sensed an air of optimism in the land. A feeling that all would be well. I mean hey, England were holding their own against Brazil when Croatia didn’t even exist as a nation state. So what chance would these swarthy-looking Yugo-ruffians have? They were minnows in a tank of sharks. They weren’t going to be beaten. They were going to be eaten.
Hmmm. I’m afraid I knew we were going to lose moments before the match began. I looked at our players mumbling their way through the national anthem and realised they didn’t really care about playing for England. Because they don’t really know what England is. And truth be told, neither do I.
When I was their age it was crystal clear. Newspapers would report: “Fog in the Channel: Europe cut off.” Peter Ustinov would arrive at JFK airport and, having studied the signs saying “US citizens” and “Aliens”, he’d ask a security guard where the British should go. We were separate, different, better.
We had hardback dark blue passports with a personal message from the Queen on the inside cover “requiring” that foreign border guards allow the bearer to do whatever he or she pleased without let or hindrance. Slap one of those down on a Frenchman’s desk and the crack of invitation grade cardboard would have the greasy little oik sitting up straight; that’s for sure.
We had saved the world from tyranny so often we’d lost count; we’d brought decency, truth and cricket to every continent and every coral pinprick. We’d sailed iron steamships into America when they were still using coracles. We were defined by our brilliance, our superiority, our technical know-how.
Today, things are rather different. Mention the war and you’ll be told by an outreach counsellor that we must empathise with the Germans, who are coming to terms with their mistakes of the past. “And you know, children, it was actually the British who invented concentration camps . . .”
Empire? When I was at school, teachers spoke with pride about how a little island in the north Atlantic turned a quarter of the world pink, but now all teachers talk about is the slave trade and how we must hang our heads in shame.
Right. So we must forgive Germany for invading Poland. But I must beat myself to death every night because my great-great-great-grandad moved some chap from a hellhole in Ghana to Barbados. In fact I can’t even say we’re British any more because then all of Scotland would rush over the border, pour porridge down my trousers and push a thistle up my bottom.
I believe people need to feel like they’re part of a gang, part of a tribe. And I also believe we need to feel pride in our gang. But all we ever hear now is that we in England have nothing to be proud about. In a world of righteousness we are the child molesters and rapists.
Our soldiers were murderers. Our empire builders were thieves. Our class system was ridiculous and our industrial revolution set in motion a chain of events that, eventually, will kill every polar bear in the Arctic.
And it gets so much worse. Because if you say you are a patriot, men with beards and sandals will come round to your house in the night and daub BNP slogans on your front door. This is the only country in the world where the national flag is deemed offensive. Small wonder the England players were disinclined to sing the national anthem with any gusto. It’s in English and that’s offensive too. Unless it’s simultaneously translated into Urdu, for the deaf.
Then there’s our national character. In the past, boys were told in school assembly that their mothers had died and were expected to get over it in a nice game of rugby. Crying only happened abroad. Not any more. We were ordered to weep like Americans when Diana died, and no local news report is complete today without some fat oik sobbing because his house has fallen over. I sometimes get the impression Kate McCann is being hounded precisely because she has a stiff upper lip.
Every day we read obituaries about men who pressed on with the attack on a German machinegun nest even though their arms and legs had been blown off. Today disabled people get a statue in Trafalgar Square just because they got pregnant. Tomorrow all the obituaries will be for those who saved others from certain death by insisting they wear high visibility jackets. Cowardice is the new bravery.
As for that wounded soldier seen recently sporting a T-shirt that said: “I went to Afghanistan and all I got was this crappy false leg,” I call that typically English. But not any more. It’s appalling. A slight on disabled people. And you shouldn’t have been in Afghanistan in the first place, you baby killer.
Do you see? We can’t be proud of our past because it’s all bad, we can’t use British humour because it’s offensive and we can’t use understatement to deal with a crisis because the army of state-sponsored counsellors say we’ve got to sob uncontrollably at every small thing.
I want to end with a question. It’s addressed to all the equal opportunity, human rights, diet carbon, back room, bleeding heart liberals who advise the government: “I am English. Why is that a good thing?”
I bet they don’t have an answer. And until they can come up with one, chances are we’ll never win at football again.