Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The scarf of convenience

Who does David Cameron support? Which team makes George Osborne's heart beat faster? Whose results does William Hague look out for on a Saturday afternoon? No, me neither until I Googled them - it turns out Cameron follows the Villa (and it's in the family: his uncle was Chairman!). But he's obviously made relatively little of it; and for the other two: nothing. Unusual isn't it? And quite refreshing too. I wonder, are we coming to the end of politics' Age of Football?

It began with John Major, the South London boy who we could well imagine having a team - Chelsea, in his case. But as with so much, Major was unusual in this. The odd reptile tagged along as a Blues supporter (desperate careerist, David Mellor, giving up his first love, Fulham, to do so). But, at that point, football supporting amongst politicians was remarkable for its rarity rather than its ubiquity. And anyway, cricket was so obviously Major's greatest sporting love.

No, it really kicked off, so to speak, under New Labour. I say New Labour, rather than Labour, as it was very much part of that phenomenon. And quite appropriately. If you're going to ditch as many traditions of the People's Party as they did, then playing up your allegiance to the People's Game is a handy figleaf for your ideological embarrassment.

You might have gone to Fettes (the 'Scottish Eton'), been brought up in a Tory family, love tennis, be attracted to rich people, have no sympathy with socialism, but, hey! I'm a Newcastle United supporter! So I'm just like you, really - Tony Blair, member of the Toon Army. (But it turns out he wasn't lying about watching Jackie Milburn play).

Blair wasn't an isolated example: Brown (Raith Rovers), John Reid (Celtic, becoming chairman after retirement from politics), Jack Straw (Blackburn Rovers), Geoff Hoon (Derby County), Alastair Campbell (Burnley), Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool United, ha!), etc. etc. Here's a typical New Labour politician's profile, when attempting to look as normal as possible (for the Mumsnet website):
This is an edited transcript of a live webchat with Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, on 9 Sept 2009. Ed is MP for Normanton, married to Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, and they have three children aged 10, 8 and 5. He loves cooking and is a Norwich City supporter.

Two defining facts.

Interestingly, the more authentically left wing a Labour politician, the less it seems necessary to identify as a football supporter: I can find no record of John Prescott or the late Robin Cook following a team, for instance. None for that touchstone of traditional Labour probity, Clem Attlee, either - even though his East End affiliations might be expected to make him an Iron.

What about the future? The value of identifying yourself as a follower of the sport has probably diminished. In the age of corporate hospitality and £100 and above tickets, it's no longer an affordable weekly habit for your average working man. Bankers and lawyers are found in abundance at stadiums like the Emirates. And when Prince William identifies himself as a Villa fan (like Cameron: is there a trend here?) its potency as social marker can be said to be somewhat weaker.

It may also be that we're entering an age when politicians can be a bit more honest about who they are, not feel the need to pay obeisance at the shrine of the uncouth football supporter. Perhaps they feel they've nothing to prove: they may not like the People's Game, but they're still very much one of a perhaps more widely defined People. Or is not liking the game an admission that they're not one of the People - but who cares? We've all grown up about that now. Or perhaps they just realise people have seen through the charade...

If we have now got the confidence to dispense with the social fakery, the whole patronising rigmarole, I'd welcome it. It would surely be a sign that we don't care so much about class, our leaders no longer feeling the need to pander to 'ordinary people' by pretending to follow their supposed enthusiasms.

The proof of the matter may well come in how the Tories respond to Labour's new 'playing fields of Eton' attack line (a football school, by the way). If Cameron suddenly starts talking about how he cherishes the memory of sitting behind the goal at Villa Park (even if he was actually in the Directors' box) watching Peter Withe banging them in, we'll know that a football scarf is still seen as a useful accessory for pulling the wool over people's eyes.


Gadjo Dilo said...

If I ever get into politics I can bang on about how I used to watch (standing up, at the Rookery End) Luther Blisset bang them in for Watford, and then Elton John would come on the pitch at half-time and throw Hornets flags into the crowd. I can't bear to waste 90 minutes on a football match these days, but that'd be bye the bye.

Sophie King said...

I loathe football, but couldn't help being impressed by the supporters' wit when I visited Chelsea sometime in the '90s. They were playing Bruges in some kind of cup match. All around me the air was blue with effing and blinding and general laddishness. Then I heard a chant begin behind me which was taken up by all the Chelsea supporters: "Hitler invaded your country in half a daaaay".

worm said...

When I moved to london in '96 I didn't hear much talk of football amongst my friends, within about 2 years, they suddenly all supported london teams and talked about them at length in the pub. It was a most distressing time.

Brit said...

If England win or come close to winning or at least don't disgrace themselves at the World Cup next year, expect a lot more politicians to rediscover their love of football.

dearieme said...

It's not that Blair didn't lie about football, it's that his lies about football do not include the lie that everyone thinks he told.
So "football falsehood fraud about loathsome low-life's lawless lies" about fits the bill.

malty said...

Harold Wilson used to go to the cup finals. In his Gannex overcoat, sometimes accompanied by his mate, the bod who owned Gannex and was a big Labour bunger.

Can't see Dave doing the Mexican wave, more likely that sport where the players wear Argentinian boots.

Ally Darling, no footie supporter he, dominoes man through and through.

Gaw said...

Gadjo: It's difficult to imagine now that Watford was a glamour team! Up the road, Luton was too, of course. Can't really happen again, though.

Sophie: I like the game but not the sport. Chelsea aren't always so amusing. I went when they were playing Man U and whilst they were doing the Dambusters tune with actions to mock the deadly Munich air crash, the Man U supporters were whirring their hands over their heads in reference to the Chelsea owner's recent death in a helicopter crash. Delightful, eh?

Worm: I remember it well - it happened virtually overnight didn't it? The most unlikely people started talking about footie. And of course they'd been fans of Arsenal or whoever since they were six, despite coming from Guildford and showing no discernible interest beforehand.

Brit: As you know, I think they may win what with the lack of blue in their current kit. You've given me another reason to slightly dread this prospect.

Dearieme: The whole subject is so sprawling it's difficult to get one's hands around it, isn't it?

Malty: Kagan was the name. I suspect Darling rather like Brown is actually a rugby man but keeps it quiet.

dearieme said...

The MI5 history on ITV last night reported that Kagan used to have weekly meetings with a KGB spy to pass on his news of British politics. Those of us who can remember the era were probably not falling over with astonishment.

Gaw said...

That is interesting - I must track that programme down. I wonder whether we'll get anything on Wilson? He did travel to Russia a lot in his earlier years - on trade business.

malty said...

Harold had a very sad ending, some years ago, passing thro' St Marys on the way to visit friends on St Martins we had an hour or two to kill and took a peek. Without realising it we walked past the Wilson house. Harold was sitting at the window staring at nothing, totally out of it. He was by then completely gaga.
Interesting comment dme, the old boy was paranoid about the spooks watching him, he was convinced that there was a right wing plot to unseat him via a Coup d'├ętat, with some justification, there had been a group of colonel Blimps muttering into their sharpeners in the London clubs.
Confession time..I had a Gannex mac.

dearieme said...

I had a Gannex too. I remember the rumours about Wilson being an agent - variously for the KGB, the CIA, Mossad, and another one I can't remember. Some people thought he was so twisted that he was probably doing all four - he was proud of his wonderful memory, so he probably could have kept four on the go, before the dementia set in. Anyway, the prog gave him a rather unenthusiastic OK on the KGB question, but fingered John Stonehouse and Jack Jones as spies. They also said that there was another leading Labour figure, yet to be named. Mind you, what can you believe about a history of a Secret Sevice? The big revelation for me was why they were so slapdash as to let the Cambridge traitors in. The answer was that their manpower at the outbreak of the war was 30 people (can I have got that right?) - they had to expand toot sweet and of course couldn't vet everyone.

Gaw said...

The police caught up with Kagan in the end: something to do with exchange controls I think.

Interesting about the Cambridge traitors. But I think there was more to it than lack of manpower. Not sure whether you caught this one, but I posted on Guy Burgess and Goronwy Rees here.