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England’s Rugby World Cup win and the retreat from emotional incontinence

Many weeks ago I wrote a posting here about how (a) England just might win the forthcoming Rugby World Cup, and that (b) this might work to the advantage of the Conservative Party. Well, England did win the Rugby World Cup, so how might this help the Conservatives?

I certainly didn’t have in mind that England’s front rooms will now be echoing with the claim that “now we’ll all vote Conservative then”. No. This is more the sort of thing I had in mind, from Adam Parsons in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday.

It is easy in such times for the rest of us to fall prey to hyperbole, so let’s tread carefully here. But I think it is true to say this is an achievement of great importance, something that everybody can cherish. Not just because a British team has won the cup, nor that it is at last crossing from the bottom of the world and going to the top. It is something to do with the people who won it, and what they stand for.

England’s squad are a decent bunch of people. The likes of Josh Lewsey, Ben Cohen, Jason Leonard, Iain Balshaw – these are genuinely engaging characters, blokes you’d have a drink with.

In other words, they feel so very different from the image most footballers have come to represent over the past few years. On the one hand, we have people who have become the best in the world by training relentlessly, yet retain the level-headedness to acknowledge their supporters as their emotional crux; on the other, players who increasingly come to represent a streak of overpaid self-importance.

It is naive, I suppose, to hope that rugby could, even for a short time, replace football in the national affections, but I hope this victory will at least reverberate.

British soccer (as opposed to merely the English version) took two further knocks last week, when, in among all the England rugby fervour, both Wales (agonisingly) and Scotland (humiliatingly) failed to qualify for the European soccer championships next year.

This relative rise of rugby in the affections (England) and respect (elsewhere in Britain), and the relative decline in the esteem felt towards football, has, I feel, something of an end-of-era feel to it. It all adds to the sense of that New Labour/Princess Di/Things Can Only Get Better bubble bursting back into nothing whence it came. To put it rudely, that brief moment when the English told themselves (or were told by their newspaper columnists) that they preferred emotional incontinence to the old manly virtues of stoicism, calmness under stress, and grace and dignity whether one is victorious or defeated, to the uncontrolled emotional display of weeping copiously and in public when someone utterly unconnected with you dies, or running about like an escaped mental patient when you’ve scored a goal. How this all maps across to politics is that merely working yourself into a frenzy either of well-intentioned benevolence or of anti-Conservative rage won’t make the Welfare State, or the trains, or the schools, work any better, and that what is needed is a little clear thinking and competent execution. (We here at Samizdata would have a slightly different take on the kind of ‘execution’ that the Welfare State needs, but my point here is how British public opinion might now be changing, rather than about whether public opinion is about to become entirely sensible.)

I’m not sure that I like that Parsons’ reference to mere supporters being an “emotional crux” for our rugby players, but apart from that, this is surely the thrust of what Adams says.

Here’s Jasper Gerrard in the Sunday Times, saying similar things:

The attraction of rugby players is they are not football players: by this I mean they don’t wear Tiffany diamond earrings or drive Yank tanks bigger than a council house. If David Beckham is “metrosexual” (“secure enough to embrace his feminine side”, apparently) rugby players are full-fat, extra large heroes; they are neither secure nor insecure, it would just never occur to them to slip on a sarong.

Nor do they use steroids: muscle bound is how they come out of the packet. Some even make fine role models. Jason Robinson is unlikely to fail a random drugs test: a black Englishman from a broken home, he is also a rugby superstar, a born-again Christian and a gent.

They don’t forget that it doesn’t matter that much. Remember the gracious losing Aussie captain, George Gregan, or Go Jonny Go Wilkinson dropping the goal that won the World Cup? He merely smiled and patted someone else on the back. If a consolation goal dribbles off a footballer’s backside in the LDV Vans Trophy, he rips off his shirt, does six summersaults and hoists a V-sign at rival fans.

Yes. On Saturday it was the Aussies who gave the world a lesson in how to take the acute disappointment of defeat with dignity and generosity, which for me personally translated itself into getting a phone call just after the final whistle blew from Samizdata’s own Aussie Michael Jennings, congratulating me on my victory, and telling me something I’d not then fully grasped, which was what a hell of a good game it was. And trust me, the English won’t have missed this. Those Aussies are fair dinkum blokes, and not just when they’re winning everything.

All of which just adds the sense that the emotional/political centre of gravity of Britain may be shifting back towards its Anglosphere foundations and away from the metropolitan New Labour infatuation with holidays in Tuscany and fine wine instead of good beer, and Old Labour loathing for the middle-class competence and decency personified by people like England’s rugby players.

It won’t turn the next general election all by itself, but it will make a difference, I believe.

15 comments to England’s Rugby World Cup win and the retreat from emotional incontinence

  • Mark Holland

    If someone is feeling generous this Christmas:

    How to Mow the Lawn: The Lost Art of Being a Man

    A would be grateful recipient awaits…

  • Not entirely sure where this post goes, or is intended to go…

    Is what you’re saying ultimately that the success of a ‘middle class’ sport (rugby union) over the non-success of ‘working class’ sport (association football) means that the supposedly middle class, conservative values of restraint and humility in victory, are on the rise again?.

    If that’s the case, one could equally argue that soccer has benefited most from Tory – or even libertarian – values… the new age of tasteless, flashy football lifestyle was, after all, heralded with the inception of the premier league in 1993 – under a Tory government and effectively funded by Rupert Murdoch.

    Associating rugby union with conservatism is an oft-touted mythology which only sometimes holds true. But we do not live in an era of amateurism any more; English rugby players are now as likely to be the same kind of semi-educated professional sportsman as footballers have been for decades. Rugby players are no longer beneficiaries of an old school tie – just go to the west country to observe the popularity of club rugby, or the Welsh valleys to see how popular the game is among the working class. Also, many are converted rugby league players (like Jason Robinson) who were most likely brought up in traditional Labour heatlands of the industrial north.

    The assumption – that only the rightwing knows how to play fair, meaning the behaviour of rugby union team incolcates Tory values in the public, seems bizarre at best. Perhaps I made the wrong assumption, but I found it hard to actually ascertain what argument was being made…

  • Correct me if I’m wrong here Brian, because I’m sure you’ve read a great deal more von Mises than I have, but isn’t “overpaid” a non-concept according to Basic Libertarian Economics – i.e. if a market exists where somebody is willing to pay footballers X pounds a year (where X is large), then X is what their professional services are “worth” in that market?

    I know “overpaid” was in one of the articles you quoted, not in your own words – but you did quote it approvingly, and I wonder if your obvious aesthetic distaste for football culture might be blurring your perception of that very successful free market busines franchise, the Premier League. Football players get vastly more money than rugby players because (except for the last month and for reasons I personally don’t understand) a lot more people are interested in paying to watch football than rugby.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    When writing about how well I now believe the Conservative Party to be doing, I am liable to come across as more of a Conservative Party supporter than I am. I was quoting the kind of reaction to England’s win that I was expecting, rather than necessarily agreeing with it.

    See also the (current Conservative) point that what the Welfare State needs is competent instead of than “compassioniate” bossing, rather than (my preferred position) abolition and in the meantime as much reduction as possible.

    I actually quite like football, and my “aesthetic distaste” for it is milder than you have assumed. In particular, I have long admired England football captain David Beckham, who strikes me as a most admirable man, even though he does go rather mental when scoring a goal.

    But my basic answer is that this posting was about what (perhaps) is happening, or is about to happen, to British (more particularly English) public opinion. It is not nearly so much about my own preferences. I would prefer Labour to do less well politically, but fear many of the consequences of the Conservatives doing better.

  • Confused Yank

    You mean Rugby is a game? All these years I thought it was a school, like Harrow or Igglesford, whatever you call ’em. This is a revelation.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong here Brian, because I’m sure you’ve read a great deal more von Mises than I have, but isn’t “overpaid” a non-concept according to Basic Libertarian Economics

    But I would suggest that in this care it is not a purely ‘economic’ judgement regardless of the fact we are talking about an economic payment for services… a libertarian will never want to use force (i.e. a law of the regulatory state) to prevent a person being paid whatever they can convince another to pay them, but that does not mean a libertarian therefore has to also think all freely entered into economic decisions which people are agreeable or a good idea. Although I have no desire to see people prosecuted for buggering goats, I don’t happen to think buggering goats is a good idea or something I could care to try.

  • John Harrison

    Contrary to Brian’s assumptions I reckon the England Rugby win will prove a short term fillip for Labour. Blair will organise a massive ticker tape parade, pretend he was an avid fan all along and revel in the patriotic symbolism that New Labour like to ooze when they fear they could be losing their traditional blue collar support. Remember Peter Mandelson’s brilliant use of the British Bulldog in Labour’s 1997 broadcasts? It will serve to distract the masses from Iraq, foundation hospitals, tax rises and the fact that the Tories have got their act together.
    As for a shift in the esprit de jour that will benefit the Tories, I an not convinced. It could equally well be seen as the moment the Blair regime got over its wobbles.
    The real danger for New Labour will be Hutton. If Michael Howard is effective, the Tories will at least be seen to be a credible alternative.

  • Gold among the black

    As an Aussie living in the ‘Shaky Isles’ of New Zealand I have had the enviable privilege of seeing the All Blacks overwhelmed by the Wallabies in Sydney during the semi-finals. This immediately erupted in massed wrist slitting among the New Zealand general public. Yes Prime Minister Helen Clark the antipodean version of Blair …only worse…was blamed, as were her lesbian cabinet for castrating half the population of NZ beginning with the All Blacks.
    Actually traditionally Labour supporters play Rugby League and the conservatives play Rugby Union. Don’t worry ‘Confused Yank’ I’ll explain the subtle differences to you personally later! I digress however.
    It may actually be that Brian is on to something here. The difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union is analogous to that between draughts (Checkers for you Confused Yank) and chess. Sport appears to be getting a little more cerebral which bodes well for the political fortunes of the right. The old…..” you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time”…well it looks as if some of the people are awakening from their socialist slumber and actually beginning to think again. After all slogans only go so far. Perhaps the rise and rise of the Union game is merely a symptom of a general awakening. We can but hope!

    By the bye. Could anyone Pom please explain to me why ‘football’ (soccer down under) is such as pansy game on field and so anarchist off field especially among fans? While Rugby is organised mayhem on field and displays good cheer bonhomie between both the winning and losing fans, post game?

  • Ron

    There was an surge of national pride when the “Fab Four” won the Olympic rowing (Sir Steve Redgrave winning gold in five consecutive Olympics). The last Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race (4.25 mile in 18 minutes rowing race in eights on the Thames) was exciting too.

    But I hear nothing about rowing any more these days. There’s no media mileage in months of self denial culminated in deep and precise effort.

  • Dave O'Neill

    It has long been quipped that Rugby is a game played by thugs but watched by Gentlemen, whereas, football is a game played by Gentlemen and watched by Thugs.

    I think that’s getting a big old now, but thats how it used to be.

    I’ve never seen a fight in town after a home game at the Rec.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Gold aong the Black

    Thanks for the for the support. It may be stupid for people to think like this, but I sincerely think they do. That’s my short answer to bobbie, and my answer to John Harrison is that he could be right, but that I reckon it’s diabolically difficult for governments to change their basic public image in mid-stream. The real problem with sport-influences-politics is that the causal direction is damn near impossible to tease out. Maybe people WILL associate the World Cup win with a Labour collapse, or for that matter (as John says) with a Labour come-back from problems, but all they could be doing is using the rugby to express their political thoughts. I.e. politics causes the talk, rather than vice versa. Nevertheless, I do speculate that there is a small effect. As I said in my original piece that I linked back to, lots of people including me, believe that when England got knocked out of the 1970 World Cup by Germany that did affect politics, a bit.

    As to why football, as we call it here, is so clean on the pitch but dirty off it, could it be that they cleaned it up on the pitch in an effort to make it less dirty off the pitch, but that the rugby people didn’t fell they had to bother, because their supporters were behaving well throughout? Again, whether there is much of an actual cause and effect relationship between violence on and violence of the pitch is hard to be sure about, but since they could control violence on the pitch easier than off it, they did.

    The factual point is that football circa 1970 was a much rougher and more aggressive game, with defenders called things like “Bite yer legs” Hunter. There was a fellow called Nobby Stiles in the England 1966 World Cup winning side who was quite rough also, I seem to remember.

    Now, if a defender looks at an attacker in a nasty way in the penalty area, it’s a penalty, and the defender gets sent off. I exaggerate, but not that much.

  • I understand the point that sport provides short term political boosts, Brian, but what I don’t understand is why you think the rugby win will prove a boost for the Tories.

    After all, England won the World Cup with Blair in office – in fact, Woodward’s team have only existed under Blair.

    I think the victory *will* boost political goodwill – but to the party in power, not in opposition.

  • harryj

    John Harrison judges the New Labour response about right. When they were elected in 1997 they decided that propaganda/information manipulation/media presentation was the whole of labour politics, and from this core principle they have never deviated. The victory of our rugby team in Australia presents them with an opportunity to divert the attention of the public at a time when the Hutton report and a raft of bad news needs to be buried. Any champagne reception should have been held by the Royal family, not 10 Downing Street. All those back bench labour MPs who rank rugby football with fox hunting, will jostle in front of the cameras and sound off in parliament hoping for a few of the prole votes, just as they pretend to support soccer clubs when the reporters are about. The spectacle of Tessa Jowell (of all people) flying out to Australia for the final match reveals the sudden realisation by the government of upcoming photo opportunities, having shown no real interest before then, other than as a ministerial excuse for a freeby trip to Australia. Expect a giant quango headed by some fortunate new labour supporter, and a raft of legislation, appeals tribunals, and related human rights pertaining to Rugby football. Exploitation by the government is the name of the game. Even Jaques Chirac got his pennyworth in, suggesting it was a victory for Europe, by which he presumably means France and Germany, since I know of no other Europe.

  • David Crawford

    After the Rugby World Cup, what will be the next boost for the Conservative Party? Easy, the movie “Master and Commander”. The basic premise of the movie is “this is our duty, let’s go”. And that thought is presented without sneers, or heavy “irony”, or eye-rolls to indicate “what misguided fools”. As a movie it rejects the past 30-35 years of how Hollywood presented wars and those who fought in them.

    (In the U.S., throughout the RWC, they had Russel Crowe on comparing the two groups — ship’s crew and rugby teams. What a coincidence.)

  • Gawain

    I remember a contretemps in the patrons bar after a rag doll match involving some Llanelli supporters, but I think that was an internal dispute involving an earlier selection descision/mistake.

    I also remember David Trick walking home along Walcott Street after a game in which he had scored 4 tries. A slight fellow, 4 thugs attemptted to mug him, mistake, not only did he knock them flying, but if my memory serves me right he also had the gumption to get them picked up by the plod.

    Overall I have to agree with Brian, but there are very slow wheels on this particular chariot