Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Why Do Tories Hate Football

England taking the knee (via Sky Sports)

It has been well over a year since Coronavirus impacted the world, an event that has negatively affected almost everyone in some way, and only now are we starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. During this time, we have generally seen the best of humanity, with collaboration and compassion, but of course there has been plenty of recrimination too.



Most football leagues in Europe resumed their 2019/20 seasons last Autumn, after a pause of several months during the initial wave of the virus. For football fans this has been a small crumb of comfort, as at least the sport we love has continued to provide respite from the monotony of lockdowns, even if we were still not allowed to attend games in person. The Conservative party understand the value in this, which is why professional sport has been protected during subsequent ebbs and flows in the infection rate. They know that by allowing professional football to continue they can harness some goodwill from the public, just as they have, to a lesser extent, with rugby and cricket etc.


However, what has also been apparent over the last 12 months is that the Tories are keen to negatively politicise football when it suits them. Within the context of COVID-19 the scapegoating of footballers was swift. It began in April 2020, when the beleaguered Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, dominated the news cycle by saying that they should "take a pay cut and play their part".


This intervention served the purpose of deflecting attention away from the Govt. at a time of intense scrutiny, and it was a curious insight into some of the anti-working-class attitudes that can purvey amongst the Conservative party. Why for example were the hedge fund managers, banking CEOs or media moguls not directly called out by a prominent member of the Govt? Why were they given a free pass when footballers were to be made an example of; are we to assume that they were already diligently playing their part behind the scenes?!


The immediate fall-out did lead to some relevant debate, about how the football world could show solidarity at a time of great financial struggle for the nation, and whether or not the richest clubs should be taking advantage of the furlough scheme set up by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak. When the Govt. came up with their bail-out package for sports last November, it was at least recognised that the football pyramid could not sit idle and survive without fans, and so the non-league structure were provided with a package of £28M. As for the EFL, an agreement with the Premier League for up to £250M was reached at the start of last December.


All of this highlights the unprecedented nature of the past 12+ months, with compromise being essential in the efforts to stop all businesses and industries going under in the face of having their normal trading severely curtailed. And whilst plenty has rightfully been written about how different sectors are desperately struggling and crying out for more support, again it’s worth noting why and how football was put up on such a tenuous pedestal during the initial months of this pandemic.



Thatcher and Football


Our recent history is not an isolated event, politicians from all sides of the spectrum have done their best over the years to use football as a way of gaining favour with potential voters. Although, it doesn't always go off without a hitch, just ask David Cameron which team he supports!


Tory disdain for football is also far from being a recent phenomenon. When arguing the point about individual responsibility in 1987, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, famously said- "They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society". These days, football clubs are in some respects one of the last remaining guardians of society, they still mean a great deal to communities big and small, where people come together in great numbers to share experiences. Over the course of the 1980's, British football would go on to experience an increasingly dark period, where a rise in hooliganism reflected growing financial disparities within society.


In contrast, the decade had begun with English clubs continuing an unprecedented winning streak in the European Cup (now Champions League), as Aston Villa's victory in 1982 marked 6 successive wins. By the middle of 1984, levels of unemployment had reached almost 12% of the total labour force, figures not seen since the start of the Second World War. That same summer Liverpool edged out Roma to win their 4th European Cup, and at the time it would have been fanciful to think that an English club wouldn't claim the trophy again until 1999. However, it was also incomprehensible then, that just 12 months later, Liverpool's efforts at a 5th European Cup would end in tragic circumstances at Heysel.


The horror that occurred there led to a sweeping; one-size-fits-all punishment meted out by UEFA. Liverpool were banned from European competition for the next 6 seasons (reduced from 8 on appeal), whilst every other English club was eventually banned for the following 5 seasons. The Heysel Disaster also provided Thatcher with the impetus to prioritise new legislation, in an effort to restrain incidents of crowd violence at football matches, and this path led to the Football Spectators Act of 1989.


Included in this new law was the misguided concept of making ID cards compulsory for football supporters, an idea that seemingly flew in the face of the libertarian leanings within Thatcherism. This element would only be abandoned in light of the events of April 15th 1989, when the Hillsborough Disaster scarred English football forever, becoming an incident that would shine a horrific light on just how dismissive the attitudes of society had become towards football fans after a decade of Tory rule.


The Sun newspaper was of course the most infamous example of this, when Kelvin MacKenzie and co. peddled their disgusting lies about Liverpool fans and presented it as "The Truth". Less well known was how these stories came together, with the sources being cited as anonymous high-ranking officers within the South Yorkshire police force, and the then Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Patnick, who only apologised 3 months before his death in 2012. The web of deceit that was conjured up between these influential figures in the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough, can be attributed to the South Yorkshire police trying to cover up blame for their managing of the event, and the open disdain that the authorities had for football fans in general.



Dawn of the Premier League


The Tories public mellowing towards football coincided with the success of the England team at Italia '90, which brought with it a reconnection with the wider public after they so nearly reached their first World Cup final since 1966. As the 1990's began, and Thatcher was ousted from power, football was beginning to ride a new wave of popularity that, together with the financial implications of the recommendations by the Taylor Report, culminated in the creation of the Premier League at the top of the English football pyramid.


For better and, some would say, more for worse, the Premier League has changed the landscape of English football. Many aspects and traditions remain the same, but clearly the commercialisation of the top tier has led to a greater wealth divide between that and the rest of the English Football League. And it is true that a lot of traditional football fans have felt priced out of the game, with ticket prices and team shirts etc. However, despite this, I don't believe that it's as simple as some people think, to say that football is no longer a working-class sport. In fact, I'm sure that it remains working-class at the core, and that this is demonstrated by how it is still easily the most popular sport in the world, with an appeal that crosses all social divides and geographical borders.



Modern Football and Racism


And so, despite some of the economics having made football that much more palatable to Tories, there is still a classist snobbery that can rear up with just the slightest bit of encouragement. You only have to look at the current arguments over the England team taking to the knee before their matches, which has continued into Euro 2020. Members of the Govt. are unwilling to take sides on the booing that is coming from a minority of fans, who are convinced that the gesture by the England team is supporting Marxism and a quest to 'defund the police', rather than it simply being an act of solidarity against racism and discrimination.


Tories are also buying into this association and agreeing with the notion that 'taking the knee' directly supports 'Black Lives Matter', and therefore means that you support every headline-grabbing policy that has been attributed to some facet of it. Or you get someone like Priti Patel making accusations of 'gesture politics', a statement that's as misleading as her infamous, past opinions on the death penalty. This is all ludicrous stuff, but it is succeeding in whipping up a group of football fans who are complaining about politics being brought into football, by bringing politics into football.


It's difficult to evidence, but it is fair to assume that these booing fans are more likely to lean towards a Tory ethos than other political parties. Either way, it does feel like this latest 'controversy' in football is another example of the Tories choosing to weaponise football in the political arena, just like they did at the start of the Covid pandemic, and like they did under much of Thatcherism.


Besides, with regards to the kneeling, it's apparently escaped the attention of the naysayers that the gesture, this past season, has been made in support of the No Room For Racism campaign, not Black Lives Matter. Plus, it's strangely ignorant to reject footballers doing their bit to bring attention to the fact that racism is still prevalent in our modern society. That's been abundantly clear across the 2020/21 season, with racist attacks via social media being a depressingly regular occurrence. All of this begs the question as to what is the real motivation for openly deriding those that kneel, and who benefits from objecting to this picture of society?


Similar to the attempts to undermine footballers taking the knee, were the attacks on Marcus Rashford last year, when he put himself front and centre for the campaign to open up the provision of free school meals, and to tackle food poverty. The Tories spent months contorting back and forth, with ministers keen to praise Rashford, whilst simultaneously trying to defend the Govt. position in the first place. At the same time, you had affronted Tory backbenchers, such as Ben Bradley, desperately clamouring to take him down a peg.


We also saw that bastion of sub-standard journalism, the Daily Mail, dedicate a lot of time and effort into profiling the property portfolio that Rashford has built for himself. It was an insidious move that mirrored other Tory MPs dismissing his campaign because 'he's just a millionaire footballer'. Again, this was a curious thing, as the Conservatives and the Daily Mail are usually huge advocates of people maximising their profitability. We can only assume that Rashford was not the right kind of rich person to be challenging the political establishment.


As you can see, the relationship between the Tories and football has a fractured past, and whilst in the present it's not as divided as it used to be, it clearly remains more complicated than ever. The top footballers are now a part of the financial elite, and this has consistently been used as a stick to beat them with, particularly in the last 18 months, whenever they dare to enter into debates that concern the public (i.e. all of us). Whereas, at the same time we are supposed to trust in the elites that govern us, perhaps because the majority of the cabinet went to private schools and didn't grow up in a council house.


The suspicion is that many Tories would not only prefer a return to Thatcherism, but they would also like to see a return of the time when football fans were an afterthought, a section of society where the only pressing matter was having them locked behind cages inside grounds, and being heavily policed...

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