- Sport and English National Identity in a "Disunited Kingdom" ed. by Tom Gibbons and Dominic Malcolm
This new collection, edited by Tom Gibbons and Dominic Malcolm, seeks to bring together a variety of strands in academic work on sport and "English-ness." As the title hints at, the book's release is meant as a summation of the academic literature up to the point of the June 2016 UK referendum on voting to leave the European Union, where an overwhelming English and Welsh vote went for "leave," in contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland. The political paralysis ensuing after the "Brexit" vote has already made some of its conclusions dated, especially after the snap June 9, 2017, UK parliamentary election, which saw the (unexpected) collapse of the populist Right, the (unexpected) rise of the populist Left, the Scottish independence movement (unexpectedly) halted, and the Conservative Party under Theresa May eking out a tenuous government only after gaining support from a populist right-wing party (formerly linked to Unionist paramilitaries) based solely in Northern Ireland; with the lack of a clear result, all this is likely to precipitate another general election in the near future. (This is about as succinctly as it can be explained for a North American audience–before we even talk about devolved parliaments/governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.) So, with all of this in mind, are Gibbons, Malcolm, and their various contributors successful in helping make sense of English sport—in the context of English (not British) nationalism—in a chaotic age?
The book itself is divided into thirteen chapters by different authors. The first ten address slippery notions of "English" identity within England itself as to who constitutes "the English" and what constitutes being English. Inevitably, as U.S. commentators typically conflate "England" with "Britain," so too do many English commentators—in staunch contrast to Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish counterparts, who tend to be more sensitive to the dualities within "British-ness." The final three chapters, accordingly, feature perspectives on the English and sport from the UK's other three "nations." [End Page 251]
For a North American audience, some of what is said in this volume might be very useful indeed. Several chapters serve as primers for broader issues examining "English-ness" in sports as diverse as cricket, tennis, rugby league, and cycling. (To be sure, soccer still manages to dominate.) The very best chapters manage to include voices from outside the academic temple. Gibbons, Stuart Braye, and Kevin Dixon's chapter on disabled athletes and "English" sporting identity is the most critical piece here: the research showcases para-athletes' ambiguousness about representing a nation that actively discriminates against them, inside and outside the sporting arena. Mark Falcous's piece on rugby league sees similar uncertainty among the league's working-class support for the ideas of "English-ness" espoused by fans of and players in the more rarified rugby union. Meanwhile, Ali Bowes shows that some elite women athletes are more comfortable with the aggressive aspects of English sporting identity than some commentators would lead the public to believe. Two of the best chapters come in the final section on outsiders' perspectives of England: Martin Johnes locates the birth of the more distinct anti-English tone in "Welsh-ness" during the postwar period, while (in possibly the best chapter in this collection) Gareth Mulvenna introduces treatments of historical and contemporary Northern Irish Protestant/Loyalist identity that views English national teams' athletes with deep suspicion and anger. These final three pieces—including Stuart Whigham's on Scottish treatments of English sporting identity—showcase "British-ness" as something the non-English "nations" of the United Kingdom have invested a great deal more energy into than the English themselves, often with returns that are perceived to be continually diminishing.
The whole collection itself is sometimes less than the sum of its parts. Gibbons and Malcolm start off introducing the themes of the books and the sociopolitical context of twenty-first-century English nationalism...