It may be silly that sport affects politics, but it does. In 1966, England won the soccer World Cup, and it definitely did rub off on the Labour Government then in power and on Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. British proles can do it, who needs the bloody toffs?, etc. etc. Wilson certainly milked that win all he could for his political team.
So when, in the quarter-finals of the next World Cup in 1970, the England soccer team was gut-wrenchingly beaten 3-2 (after being 2-0 up) by the very same opponents they’d beaten in the 1966 final, West Germany, they were widely debited/credited with tipping the balance in favour of the Conservatives at the general election held very soon afterwards. The proles weren’t so cool after all, you see.
The England soccer team has never since scaled the heights of 1966, but the infusion of television money and foreign stars nevertheless gave English soccer in the 1990s a glamour and a cultural clout that it had probably never had before. Soccer now completely dominates the sports pages, having utterly routed the now very forlorn cricket as England’s “national game”. And (“New”) Labour has once again made use of all that in its propaganda about rebranding and modernising and generally being Cool Britannia.
There is now another World Cup approaching which may have a similar, although more muted, political effect, in the form of the Rugby Word Cup, which kicks off next Friday when host nation Australia plays Argentina in Sydney. England are strongly fancied to win this, although the truth is that any one of about half a dozen closely matched teams could win, of whom England are just one. If England do win or at least do very well (by winning through to the final in grand style and then being heroically and narrowly beaten, say), this could have party political vibes back here in Britain. If England disappoint, ditto, in the sense that the dog I am about to describe won’t have barked after all.
Basically, it would suit the Conservatives if the England rugby team were to triumph, while many Labour supporters would probably prefer England to make a humiliatingly early exit. I’ve already alluded to the class nature of Britain and of British sport, when referring to the proles who are – and the toffs who are not – involved in British soccer. Something equal and … not opposite exactly, but very distinct, can be said about rugby. Here the class that dominates is what is called the “middle” class, although by middle what is really meant is the class of people who are upper, but then not too far upper. The class I’m getting at is the “upper half” class, the class sufficiently numerous to hold its own numerically when set beside beside the working class.
To be sure, there are toffs who play rugby, or “rugger” as such people call it. But the people from whom this England team come are not toffs. They come from the people who keep the wheels of British society turning by turning up themselves every morning for work and making sure that the wheels turn, rather than merely by owning the wheels and complaining about them in unattractive accents as they read the financial pages.
The England rugby team is widely regarded – certainly among British sports people – as the best major sports team in these islands just now, and it is a middling class, middle managerial atmosphere that this excellent team now gives off. They are professional in their economic status (without being as outrageously paid as the soccer stars), and they are professional in their social attitudes. They practice hard, and play hard, and almost always these days, they win. The England cricket people observe the rugby guys with unconcealed envy, and the soccer people are starting to pay serious attention also.
After they’ve won a game, the England rugby players talk in managerial clichés about how “I was lucky enough to get on the end of” a score, which was really created by a huge team effort, blah blah. What is absent is either any yobbish, prole-ish childishness, or any upper-class ironic detachment. They are not very wordy, and when they are it’s generally rather dull and you wish they’d stop. Humour, when they do display it, tends to be of the laconic variety. They prefer to let their upper and lower body strength do the talking.
It isn’t that these guys are without feelings. They have powerful feelings, but they also have an ability bordering on genius to control and to channel those feelings into the “job” (a favourite England rugby word nowadays), rather than, say, into quarrelling with referees or smashing up hotels. They are “Middle England”, to use a politically potent phrase. During World War 2, their grandfathers would have been officers and NCOs in the civilian and conscripted bit of the Army. They aren’t squaddies, but neither are they Guards officers. Nowadays, blokes like this go to universities, but not to the posh ones.
Professionalism has definitely made a difference to all this. The general run of amateur rugby players are a rowdier and more off-putting bunch than the top internationals, a lot more like professional soccer players. But behaviour like that doesn’t win you good press coverage and hence good sponsorship deals, and more to the point, it gets you hurt and fat and it doesn’t win you games.
The man who epitomises all this is England’s star fly half and goal-kicking automaton Jonny Wilkinson, and it speaks volumes that David Beckham has been so content to share a pre World Cup photoshoot with Wilkinson. Wilkinson is now making a small fortune as the face of half a dozen advertising campaigns, from Tweed jackets to Lucozade.
You can see where I’m going with this. The England rugby team now gives off the precise atmosphere of teamwork, toughness, modesty, effectiveness, confidence-without-arrogance, upward economic mobility, emotional commitment, patriotism and yet non-toffness and non-ghastliness that the Conservative Party is trying to radiate, or ought to be trying to radiate if it knows what’s good for it. If England do shine as brightly as they well could in this World Cup, it will be one more little boost for the Conservatives, and one more little nail in the coffin of the New Labour project.
Which is not the same as saying that seemingly very ineffectual person who now leads the Conservatives will make any worthwhile use of whatever rugby card he gets dealt. In fact, there is no better way of summing up what’s wrong with the current Conservative Leader, a man called the Iain Duncan Smith (this has to keep being spelled out because it is a name that many, many millions of Brits continue to have trouble with), is that he doesn’t look or sound or feel like anything remotely resembling an England rugby international, but that in order to do his job properly he should. There’s a bloke called, I believe, David Davis, who, I further believe, passes what one might call the “rugby test”. There are probably some younger Conservative MPs who likewise give off that rugby pro vibe. Most of the Conservatives fail the rugby test dismally, being varying mixtures of inbred toff genetic failure and soccer referee. They come across as privileged but undeserving of their privileges, and too weak and silly even to cling on to them.
Don’t get this wrong. I’m not saying that the England rugby team consists entirely of Conservative supporters, any more than the England soccer team all votes Labour. I’m talking about whose people these people are, who identifies with them, who went to school with them, and would like their sisters to marry them.
Tony Blair’s political triumph has been built on his ability to split Middle England down the middle and bite off a great chunk of it, without offending the proles and their various representatives too much, and there’s plenty more mileage yet in that political bandwagon. But an England rugby win would suggest, perhaps subliminally, that if you want England (the country) to do well (and by extension Britain), then it ought to be run by the kind of people who now run the England rugby team, and by the sort of political party that most resembles the people in the England rugby team.
Soccer just now, by comparison, is suddenly looking threadbare and unappealing. It has been paid too much but has delivered too little. Following a traumatic slump in TV revenue, the latest infusion of money is now coming from the Russian oil tycoon/politician/gangster who has bought Chelsea. Soccer is not now Britain, or England, at its best. Stories like this or this really do not help. Coming as they do just before the Rugby World Cup, they point up the current contrast between England soccer and England rugby with particular force.
And as for soccer’s supporters … While the rugby players dream of World Cup glory, the England soccer team is on the verge of being kicked out of the next European Championships because of the fear and hatred aroused throughout Europe by the aggressively drunken yobbishness of the working class louts who support it, and of the inability of the Soccer bosses either to control or to dissociate themselves from this mayhem.
The totemic David Beckham, as much Mr Cool Britannia as Tony Blair has ever been, has now moved to Spain, to play for Real Madrid. Coincidence? Probably. But there’s definitely an air of fading glory about England soccer just now, and what is more of glory that never quite was glory in the first place.
So, a lot is riding on the England rugby team as they sweat through their final preparations in the heat of Australia. England’s first game is against the unfancied Georgians, but, taking nothing for granted, they have picked their best team.
Meanwhile, Ireland also have a decent side, and are a good outside bet to get all Irish and fervent about everything and win the entire thing. What the political vibes of that would be, I haven’t really given much thought to. I think it would probably weaken the case for Britain staying out of the Euro by “proving” that the enthusiastically European Irish are doing fine with the Euro. That’s what would be said, anyway. But that’s another argument.