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TONY TRAVERS - WHY THE WORLD CUP IS ABOUT FAR MORE THAN FOOTBALL

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Even before the first kick-off, the World Cup has aroused a debate about English nationalism. It has also highlight...
Even before the first kick-off, the World Cup has aroused a debate about English nationalism. It has also highlighted attitudes in Scotland to their southern neighbours.

Identity - whether national or local - has become an increasingly important element in Britain. A series of issues, including devolution, the 'war on terror', religious fundamentalism and mass immigration have provoked a re-think about the places we live in.

The red-and-white Cross of St George (also used as a local symbol by municipalities such as Milan, Barcelona and Montreal) can be seen as never before. 'England', which until a few years ago was rarely discussed other than for sport, is now visibly different from 'Britain'. The devolution of political power to Edinburgh and Cardiff, more than anything else, seems to be responsible for this kindling of English nationalism.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond is backing Trinidad & Tobago, whose team includes individuals who play in the Scottish league. Scotland's first minister Jack McConnell has said he will support teams other than England. On the other hand, fellow Scots Gordon Brown and Sir Menzies Campbell will cheer England. Opinion polling suggests the Scottish public remain broadly friendly towards the English.

Yet England is still a messy concept. Although almost all non-white people who live in England - Africans, Caribbeans and others - would routinely describe themselves as 'Black British', which is what officialdom calls them, many British people support teams from other countries, notwithstanding Norman Tebbit's protestations. Cricket matches in Birmingham between India and Pakistan are among the most extraordinary sporting events held in this country. They also assist in improving community (not to say international) relations.

There is no English Parliament, nor is there likely to be one. The entity that will be supported as it plays Paraguay, Trinidad and Sweden is one that has defeated description, analysis or understanding. But it nevertheless real. Moreover, it underlines the importance of place and identity in our make-up.

Politicians who ignore or damage a society's identity will find there are bad consequences. The relentless fiddling with local government has included the abolition of ancient counties, the random combination of towns and an array of other changes intended to 'modernise' or to deliver economies of scale. The police are currently being subjected to another bout of such reform.

The careless treatment of local identity has already produced baleful results. Central government is now desperately attempting to reconnect with the electorate by adopting neighbourhood-based policies. What is actually needed is a simple transfer of decision-making power to the places people identify with. Wise politicians build upon identity rather than undermining it.

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