22 February 2023

Gareth Southgate is a metaphor for the state of the nation – but not the one you think


Few aspects of British culture are more smug and sanctimonious than the theatre, so it’s no surprise that Gareth Southgate is the latest subject to be brought to the stage.

The National Theatre has announced that Joseph Fiennes will star as the football manager in Dear England, a new play by the This House and Sherwood writer James Graham. It promises a ‘gripping examination of both nation and game’, and if Graham’s previous work is anything to go by it will be an exercise in telling a story about the country that, for all its apparent subtleties, is ultimately one that audiences want to hear.

I don’t wish to prejudge. Graham is a talented playwright taking on a popular subject with a famous actor – the formula is bound to be a winner. One person who’s not a winner, of course, is Gareth Southgate. 

The defining dramas of Southgate’s career, both as a player and manager, have been the football matches he’s lost. Yes he’s led the England team to its greatest successes since he himself missed a penalty in the semi-final of Euro ‘96, but he’s never actually lifted an international trophy.

Collectively we have spun this as an uplifting national tale of triumph over adversity, rather than one of repeated failure at the final hurdle. Perhaps one reason for this is that, as the Three Lions lyricist David Baddiel says, football fandom is all about ‘magical thinking’. Hope over experience isn’t just a condition of supporting an England team that will inevitably let you down, it’s part of the pleasure.

What’s weird, though, is how this self-deception has bled into how we think about the country itself. In the letter Southgate wrote ahead of Euro 2020, from which Graham’s play takes its name, he made the case that his players had a patriotic duty as role models to take a stand on anti-racism and gay rights. On these issues, he claimed that, ‘this generation of England players is closer to the supporters than they have been for decades.’

Yet the abiding image of that tournament is of those very supporters racially abusing players for missing penalties, storming the gates of Wembley and sticking flares up their bums. And when it came to wearing rainbow armbands in Qatar, Southgate decided that gesturing about social justice wasn’t quite as important as competing in the World Cup.

Southgate’s England – a place where everyone shares the same values, compromise is unnecessary, and nice guys come out on top – is an illusion. The Dear England letter is little more than a wishlist. Comforting lies about your nation’s footballing prowess are one thing, but to tell them about your culture at large is quite another. Likewise, it’s possible to lose with dignity in sport, but we shouldn’t be so accepting of failure in our public institutions.

But everywhere you look in Britain we’re getting Southgate services that offer up fluffy narratives about ‘fairness’ while delivering poor results. The most obvious example is the NHS.

It’s no coincidence that it was another theatrical production, the Olympic Opening Ceremony, that best encapsulated this country’s mawkish mythologising of the health service. Danny Boyle was tasked with telling the story of Britain to a global audience and he did it with dancing doctors. This is despite the fact the NHS consistently does poorly in international comparisons on the measure that really matters – keeping people alive. The Commonwealth Fund ranks the UK ninth out of 11 high-income countries for ‘healthcare outcomes’ and Civitas has found we have among the lowest survival rates in the OECD for five common cancers. If this was a football tournament we’d barely make it past the group stage.

Meanwhile, far from boogying with patients, doctors are holding them to ransom by going on strike for three days without even promising to provide emergency care. And that’s just their starting position in negotiations.

Another area where idealism is not backed up by a system that actually works is asylum. There’s no shortage of rhetoric around Britain being a safe haven for people fleeing persecution, but just 10% of asylum claims are processed within six months, and in the second quarter of 2022 there was a backlog of 166,000 cases. Deaths in the Channel are a direct result of this broken system and politicians who oppose solutions while offering no alternatives are complicit in this outrage.

Privileging aesthetics over outcomes is no basis for policy-making. Slipping behind our international competitors while clinging to a perceived moral high-ground is a pathetic situation for a proud country to find itself in. How apt that a writer would choose Gareth Southgate as a metaphor for all this. As the National Theatre’s publicity for Dear England says, it’s time to change the game.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX