World Cup – the new political football

New Labour wants to use football as a form of national therapy.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

‘Has the whole country gone mad?’ asked one letter-writer to a British newspaper this week.

With millions stopping work and everything else to watch football, a wax statue of David Beckham occupying the empty plinth alongside Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and the World Cup relegating the Kashmir crisis down the news agenda, some might think he had a point.

Let me confess that, emotionally, I stand on the other side of the football divide, among those for whom there could never be ‘too much’ coverage of the World Cup. Yet there is something wrong with this endless discussion.

It is not so much that football has replaced politics in the news; the World Cup really is a bigger story than the boring squabble between Black Rod and Alastair Campbell that now passes for British political debate. It is more that everybody is parasitically latching on to the football for political purposes.

This has gone beyond the traditional marriage between football and patriotism during a World Cup (of which more in a moment). This time around, the desperate authorities seem to want to turn football into a sort of therapy to help us through all the traumas of contemporary society, from the crisis of national identity to the problems of social exclusion and the education system.

‘Only connect’ is the cri de coeur of many in the political and media establishment today. Acutely conscious of their own isolation and lack of authority, they will grab at anything that appears likely to touch the emotions of the great British public. And at least until the team gets knocked out of the World Cup, nothing appears more likely to touch the English public. A staggering 30million St George flags are reported to have been sold around the tournament, and the red cross of England has appeared everywhere. Compared to the made-for-TV Golden Jubilee party in central London, the wave of support for the England football team looks authentic.

UK prime minister Tony Blair, the ‘modern man’, has long sought to associate his government with football, the people’s game, in contrast to his Tory predecessor’s affinity for cricket. Now, however, New Labour’s meddling in football affairs has moved on from Blair’s predictable photo-call with Beckham, Sven and ‘the lads’ as they departed for the Far East. New Labour would like to turn football into an instrument of government policy, a tool for social engineering. A couple of examples.

The leading New Labour think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), wants to use the football-based popularity of the Cross of St George, and a new multicultural image of football, to help construct a softer, more feminine national identity. ‘Football is the people’s game and it can help engage us in a new sense of positive pride in our country and communities’, says the IPPR director (1).

Within the government, Blair’s influential Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) is now completing a major project on the role of football and sport in British society. The report that launched the project begins with the sweeping statement that ‘sport is important’ because ‘it can improve health, education and social cohesion, create enjoyment, national prestige and economic activity’.

It goes on to argue that ‘sport can contribute to tackling social exclusion’ with ‘beneficial outcomes such as reducing crime and increasing educational attainment’. It talks about the importance of sporting success to national prestige and (having noted the relatively poor performance of British national teams), of the ‘measurable social results from the strong feelings created by success or failure in sport’. The PIU even calls for more research into ‘trends in social trust, crime levels, and suicide rates after major sporting events’ (2). No doubt the social engineers will have their laptop spreadsheets at the ready to measure the impact whenever England’s World Cup campaign ends.

On the eve of the World Cup, 250 British educational advisers and representatives from football clubs held a conference entitled ‘Football, Citizenship and Anti-Racism’ to discuss ‘how football can be used to educate young people about racism and diversity’. New Labour’s rising star, the new government minister David Lammy, announced that ‘football can be a wonderful means of educating and increasing awareness of different cultures and backgrounds, and of promoting tolerance’. The attempt to use the popularity of the World Cup for educational ends was captured by a BBC Online education headline on 12 June 2002: ‘Football “could help exam revision”.’ (3)

But not everybody is happy about football fever. The same feelings of national insecurity and uncertainty which have made many keen to leap on the World Cup bandwagon have left others feeling uncomfortable about an apparent upsurge of popular patriotism. One columnist in the left-liberal press has warned that, ‘by supporting England you are aligning yourself with a significant minority who arm-jerkingly hail each other with Nazi salutes’ (4). Another complains that the World Cup leads fans to ‘poison the air with their rhetoric of hate’, and says that ‘the victory over Argentina has just added the ghost of Thatcher, another fearful symbol of English hubris’ (5).

As the references to Thatcher and the Nazis might suggest, these people are pretty much living in the past. During much of the twentieth century, when nationalism was a powerful force in British society, football certainly provided an important focus for anti-foreign feeling. This went largely unchallenged. In 1985, when Liverpool fans waving Union Jack flags charged Italian supporters in the Heysel Stadium, causing a crush that left 39 dead, few were prepared to point out the connection between patriotism and that tragedy. During the 1986 World Cup, when England’s clash with Maradona’s Argentina revived the public chauvinism of the 1982 Falklands War, I was not the only anti-imperialist to put support for England at football on hold.

Now, however, things are very different. Nationalism is no longer a coherent or cohering force in a country wracked by debates about the meaning of ‘Britishness’. Instead of being a vehicle for powerful nationalist beliefs, football has become almost the one thing we can unite around in a nation that no longer believes in anything very much.

This is a substitute for national sentiment, a kind of ersatz patriotism. It does not signify any deep-seated national pride or xenophobia for anybody except a small, ugly and irrelevant minority. It certainly could no longer be transferred into support for a war through the use of Thatcher’s patriotic Falklands Factor. The displaying of all those flags of St George reveals little more than the widespread desire to be part of some – any – shared experience today.

In these circumstances, there is nothing wrong with enjoying England’s (limited) success at the World Cup. Indeed, the upbeat atmosphere generated by victory over Argentina made a welcome change from the mood of national miserabilism (about the railways, the hospitals, food and everything) that is more typical of our times.

There is, of course, nothing ‘right’ about supporting England at football, either. Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian was correct to suggest that both the Jubilee party and the World Cup celebrations have been less about traditional patriotism than about a contemporary yearning for collective experience. But he went a bit too far in concluding that this proves ‘we are not the atomised, privatised people of our own myth’ (6). On the contrary, it is surely a sign of how atomised our society has become that we can only find such artificial and passing moments of anything resembling togetherness in a spectacle or a sporting event.

Football is neither the cause, nor the cure, for society’s problems. It is only game – albeit the greatest game on Earth. Can we have our football back please, mister?

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

Don’t get cross about St George, all this flag-waving is just about fun not fascism, by Mick Hume, The Times (London), 17 June 2002

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Offside, 26 April, by Duleep Allirajah

(2) See the website Performance and Innovation Unit

(3) Football ‘could help exam revision’, BBC News, 12 June 2002

(4) Here’s to Ireland, and England’s opponents, Will Buckley, Observer, 2 June 2002

(5) ‘Oh dear, I have flunked the Tebbit test again’, Independent, 10 June 2002

(6) Up together for the Cup, Guardian, 12 June 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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