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Fintan O’Toole: Eoin Morgan showed England its better self

The Irish captain of England's triumphant cricket team knocked xenophobia for six

If there were to be a new referendum on Brexit in the UK, what should the slogan be for the Remainers?

Last time out, the Leave campaign owed much of its appeal to a brilliantly constructed catchphrase: Take Back Control. In a rerun, it would have another obvious zinger: Tell Them Again.

So how would you counter that in a few words? My suggestion would be: We’re Better Than This. And the implicit “we” would not be the British. It would be the English.

Of the 17.4 million votes cast for Brexit in 2016, 15.2 million were in England – 87 per cent of the total. It is to England that any anti-Brexit campaign must speak. And what it must say is that England is surely about something more than willful self-harm.

If I were running that campaign, I'd start by putting on a loop a clip from the press conference given on Monday morning by an Irishman, Eoin Morgan, who had captained the English cricket team to the World Cup title the previous day.

In an unbearably tense climax to the match against New Zealand, England enjoyed a stroke of outrageous good fortune.

Morgan, who is from Rush in north Co Dublin, and who previously played for Ireland, was asked: “Do you think the luck of an Irishman got England over the line?” He responded: “We had Allah with us as well. I spoke to [England bowler] Adil [Rashid]. He said Allah was definitely with us. I said we had the rub of the green. It actually epitomises our team. It has quite diverse backgrounds and cultures … To actually find humour in the situation that we were in at the time was pretty cool.”

Morgan is pretty damn cool himself. His reply was witty, warm, and good-natured. But it was also a masterclass in political batsmanship. Morgan was bowled a harmless and well-intentioned cliché about Irishness and he knocked it out of the park. It sailed gracefully over the boundaries of a closed-in nationalism and out into the wide-open spaces of a whole other England.

Morgan may or may not have been aware of an idiotic tweet from Jacob Rees-Mogg at the end of the final: “We clearly don’t need Europe to win...” But he surely knew very well that the same people who still sing “Two world wars and one World Cup” at football matches against Germany would try to catch and claim his own team’s achievements. He left them grasping at the air as the ball flew way above their heads.

Morgan has, by all accounts, done a splendid job in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect

Morgan is an immigrant and the son of an immigrant. His mother Olivia is from Ipswich and lived her early life in England until the family moved to Waterford. He is comfortable with a dual identity, with being both Irish and English.

And this has made him a perfect leader for an English side that also stars bowler Jofra Archer, born in Barbados to a Liverpudlian father; all-rounder Ben Stokes, born in New Zealand; batsman Jason Roy, born in South Africa; and Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, both born in England to Pakistani immigrant parents.

Complex Englishness

Morgan has, by all accounts, done a splendid job in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect. Ali wrote in the Guardian on Tuesday about how “guys took time out very early on to talk to us about our religion and our culture. They have made adjustments for us and we have for them”. Some of this is very simple – like not spraying Ali and Rashid with champagne during the celebrations because alcohol is taboo in Islam.

We shouldn't read too much into any of this. When France won the football World Cup in 1998 with a thrilling team that starred players of African descent such as Lilian Thuram and the great Zinedine Zidane – the team was nicknamed Black Blanc Beur (Black White Arab) – the moment supposedly defined the dawn of a post-racial France.

Just four years later, the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to the second round run-off in the French presidential election. No doubt many people with Zidane’s name on their replica France shirts voted for Le Pen, just as many people who wept with pride at England’s victory on Sunday are fed up with bloody immigrants and vote accordingly.

Sport is not real life. But it’s not entirely divorced from it either. And Morgan’s elegant and benign reminder of the possibilities of a more open and complex Englishness could not be more salient.

For it doesn’t speak only to the hard English nationalists, who in truth will not pay much attention to it anyway. Its more important message is actually to Remainers. If they want to win, they have to address the English Question.

Another England

Since the beginning of the century, there has been a huge shift in the way English people identify themselves, away from “British” and towards “English”. And there is a very close relationship between identifying as English and supporting Brexit. With some honourable exceptions, liberals have tended to respond to his shift by turning up their noses in disdain.

George Orwell once claimed that "England is perhaps the only great country where intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality". Not without reason: displays of Englishness have been associated with racism, football hooliganism and yobbery.

It is not a good sign that they have to look to an Irish sportsman for a lesson in leadership

But there is and always has been another England. And that other England has always been multicultural – Celtic/Roman/Saxon/Norman/Irish/Jewish/ Pakistani/Caribbean and so on.

"Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,/ That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman", wrote Daniel Defoe in the 18th century. He added that "scarce one family is left alive,/Which does not from some foreigner derive".

That other England is no more perfect than anywhere else, but it does have traditions of openness and egalitarianism that run at least as deep as the traditions of xenophobia and paranoia.

If Britain is to get out of the terrible mess it has created for itself, it won’t be done by telling the English they should be ashamed of themselves. It will be done by encouraging them to be proud of the things they should be proud of – those immense achievements in social justice (the building of the National Health Service for example), in fighting fascism, in science, in the arts and culture and in the absorption of migrants that have so enriched humanity.

It is not a good sign that they have to look to an Irish sportsman for a lesson in leadership. But with political leadership apparently about to pass to a man with no pride in himself, let alone in the real country he wants to represent, the bar is not all that high.

Who could not look at the likely next prime minister and say: England is better than this?

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