Fear of the madding crowds
The hysterical backlash against Rangers fans reveals more about our society’s troubled state of mind than about the trouble in Manchester.
The right to hate – an important liberty in any free society – has been under serious attack in the UK and other Western nations in recent years. A combination of hate speech laws, speech codes and informal PC conventions means there are not many groups of people that one is still officially allowed to despise, at least in public. However, the ongoing furore over last week’s ‘Manchester riots’ confirms that working-class football fans remain top of the hate table for many in respectable British circles. It also reveals a new and wider ambivalence about The Crowd in our atomised, insecure society.
The reaction to the trouble involving Glasgow Rangers supporters in Manchester, after a big screen showing the UEFA Cup Final in the city centre broke down, has been a riot of self-righteous flagellation. The British prime minister, the Scottish first minister, the leaders of Manchester and Glasgow and just about everybody else in range of a microphone or a computer keyboard has denounced the disgrace/shame/evil of the Rangers fans.
The council and police in Manchester have moved swiftly to ensure there is no repetition around Manchester United’s participation in this week’s Champions League final – even though that match is taking place in faraway Moscow. They have effectively tried to outlaw large crowds in Manchester city centre, by banning big TV screens for the match and postponing any victory parade if United win. Chelsea have also been told there will be no next-day parade in London. No matter that an estimated million people turned out peaceably to celebrate United’s win in the Euro final of 1999.
And why stop at big screens? There have even been calls to ban horrid football altogether from the usual (and usually rugby-loving) suspects. But so vitriolic has been the abuse that even football fans have been keen to distance themselves from the Rangers crowd in Manchester. The message boards are full of people proclaiming that these were not real football supporters, or not proper Scottish fans (the ‘Tartan Army’, of course, being known as a UN peace envoy). Even Rangers have sought to distance themselves from their own supporters, with suggestions that the trouble might have been caused by outside ‘infiltrators’.
Finally everybody found one stereotype Rangers fan whom they could unite against - the bald, tattooed fat bloke pictured being bitten by a police dog, who featured in a Sun frontpage headline declaring ‘Dog Bite Yob is Killer’. Apparently he was convicted 20 years ago of killing his brother-in-law ‘in a row over his sister’. What this had to do with the events in Manchester is unclear, but it helped make him the one man all could hate. String ’im up!
I am no great fan of Rangers supporters, who have never been amongst the most attractive of football followers. But come on, what really happened in Manchester that could justify this sustained outburst? When the countless thousands of ticketless supporters who had been encouraged to come to Manchester and spend the day drinking and enjoying themselves found that the big screen had failed, it was hardly surprising that a the reaction would follow. Nor were the events particularly shocking. Yes, we saw some ugly-looking skirmishes between 60 of Manchester’s finest riot cops and what the police estimated as a couple of hundred beery Rangers fans. But 40-odd arrests from an estimated crowd of at least 100,000 sounds like a quietish night in Glasgow. The BBC website’s morning-after photos, headlined ‘Manchester trashed’, mostly showed the city’s streets covered in, well, trash - more cans and broken bottles rather than broken teeth.
No, it cannot have been the fairly isolated incidents alone that sparked such a violent national backlash. It was more the way that those images touched a raw nerve about a wider ambiguity towards crowds today, and a fear of people getting together and off the leash.
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There have long been deep-seated historical fears of the crowd in societies divided by class. Alongside the growth of popular democracy in a country like Britain, there developed elite anxieties about the power of ‘the mob’. Poisonous attitudes towards the ignorant, dangerous masses were well captured in nineteenth-century works such as Gustav le Bon’s The Crowd.
Karl Marx describes with delight the horrified reactions of the London aristocrats and upper classes riding through Hyde Park when confronted by a riotous crowd protesting against the anti-working class Sunday Trading Bill in 1855: ‘They ran the gauntlet. A babel of jeering, taunting and discordant noises – in which no language is so rich as the English – soon closed in upon them from all sides. As the concert was improvised there was a lack of instrumental accompaniment. The chorus, therefore, had to make use of its own organs and to confine itself to vocal music. And what a diabolical concert it was: a cacophony of grunting, hissing, whistling, squawking, snarling, growling, croaking, yelling, groaning, rattling, shrieking, gnashing sounds. Music to drive a man out of his mind, music to move a stone. Added to this came outbursts of genuine Old English humour strangely mixed with boiling and long-constrained anger.’
Football crowds of course lacked the political menace of a mass protest movement or trade unions. Nevertheless, from the nineteenth-century birth of the organised sport, football fans became a focus of respectable fears about the unleashed passions and unbounded behaviour of working-class crowds. In his classic study Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, Geoffrey Pearson notes how panics about modern football crowds date from as far back as the 1890s, when one leading writer railing against the ‘Football Madness’ was ‘particularly shocked by the epidemic of excitement among the fans’ whose demands for blood made him ‘thankful that murder is illegal’. He particularly denounced the people of the north of England, ‘whose warped sporting instincts are so difficult to understand’. What he would have made of Rangers fans is anybody’s guess.
Today there are few if any mass political protests or movements, so that football crowds are almost the only regular large public gatherings. And these crowds are far more sanitised and controlled than even in the recent past; indeed, one reason why those Manchester images seemed so striking was that such incidents are now so rare. Yet so insecure do many feel today that one local outbreak of crowd trouble is enough to have them panicking that the barbarians are besieging the gates of civilisation without a ticket.
These reactions point up our ambivalent attitudes to The Crowd today. In a fragmented society where many yearn to be part of something bigger, football has become a focus of the search for some Shared National Experience. Why else did so many Glaswegians travel to Manchester to watch the match on a telly, or the entire population of Portsmouth turn out in a field on Sunday to see the FA Cup on a bus? This use of the ‘football factor’ to bring us together has been officially encouraged by everybody from Downing Street downwards. Tony Blair was a famous plastic football fan who tried to use the national game as a substitute for something more important to unify people around, and current PM Gordon Brown wants to bring the World Cup to England for similar reasons. The very day of the ‘Rangers riots’, Manchester council was welcoming all the fans to an official carnival in the city and boasting about the £25million they were expected to spend.
But at the same time, the authorities are very nervous about any sign of a passionate crowd actually behaving like one, getting drunk and raucous and out of hand. We want a 100,000-strong well-behaved church congregation instead. Hence Brown’s post-Manchester suggestions to shore up the World Cup bid by banning booze on match days and ensuring only fans with tickets are allowed to travel to host cities. Good luck with policing that one.
The uncouth element amongst Rangers fans, with their anachronistic Protestant Unionism and sectarian/anti-Irish songs, make the easiest of hate figures for the liberal establishment. But that backlash is underpinned by a mixture of respectable fear and loathing towards anything mass and unruly today. Should the combination of English fans and Russian authorities become any sort of Molotov cocktail in Moscow this week, we will see more of the same (along, no doubt, with complaints about the ‘heavy-handed’ foreign police who of course do not share the sensibilities of Our Boys in Blue). If there is class prejudice in society today, it is not aimed at ‘toffs’ alone.
Crowds can be rowdy, get over it. Nobody needs to defend what some of those Rangers fans did in Manchester – and anyway, they are old enough and ugly enough to stand up for themselves. But we might try not to lose a sense of perspective about trouble at football matches. After all, as I suggested elsewhere today: ‘If there is one thing worse than some middle aged men in football shirts behaving like boorish yobs, perhaps it is a nation behaving like neurotic old biddies in response.’
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.