Play Up, Play Up and Play The Game: The Strange Intermingling of Sport and Politics

Starmer’s professed love for Arsenal may seem like cheap political electoral pandering to the masses. In fact, he is following an ancient British tradition.  

Photo by Nelson Ndongala on Unsplash

On the 2nd of May 1997, John Major ceased to be Britain’s Prime Minister. He had led his party to one of the most damaging defeats in modern British political history, one that saw the Conservative Party swept from office after 18 years of governance. What did John Major do on that historic day, as Tony Blair walked to Downing Street to claim his prize? He went to the Oval to watch cricket, of course.

Major’s reaction to his party’s loss says something not only about his character and the way it was perceived by the public but also politics in Britain in general. For centuries, politics and sport have been interlinked. In part this was because for many of the aristocrats that dominated British politics, there was little to distinguish politics from sportsmanship. The idea of fair play applying as much to politics as to sport is one that isn’t uniquely British, but it is one that has perhaps seen its greatest flowering in Britain; cricket in particular despite its appeal around the world is seen as uniquely British and, perhaps more relevant to the 1997 election, a bit old fashioned.

Major himself in his autobiography argued that for him the appeal of cricket was down to the fact that “It is, I think, a very English game, that still encapsulate old values.” This was core to the problem Major faced at the 1997 election. Cricket, like the Conservative Party, was viewed as an artefact of the elite – a game that was of old England at a time when the country desperately yearned for something new. The image of the slightly toffy nosed cricketer in his whites wandering down to the pavilion to have a cream tea was by ‘97 an image that the Conservatives could not fully shake.

Cricket did, of course, also have unfortunate resonances for the recent past of the party. Geoffrey Howe’s brutal resignation speech in 1990 still resonates with us today because of its simple but effective imagery. Howe said of Britain’s approach in negotiating on the EMU with other European countries:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

Thatcher’s seeming continual undermining of ministers chimed well with this cricketing simile. It would prove to be a hammer blow to Thatcher’s reputation. In the same year, Norman Tebbit bowled out any chance of a revival of his career by suggesting that there needed to be a “cricket test” as to the loyalty of South Asian and Caribbean immigrants to Britain. Tebbit’s racist remarks were a sign that the gilded frontage of Thatcherism, that the Thatcher Revolution purportedly represented social mobility (a leg up onto the housing ladder via the right to buy, reform to the city and trading to allow the growth of new companies etc.) for all, was slowly falling off. Although 1990 would not spell the end for the Conservatives it did represent the beginning of it and the language of sport, a sport that was seen as a sign of the establishment, was a not insignificant indicator of that.

John Major’s love of cricket, whilst to many reflective of his rather old-fashioned personality (and by proximity old fashioned way of running the country), was not without its appeal. As the cultural historian Alwyn Turner once remarked to me, the 1990s was the era when The Darling Buds of May dominated the airways. Major’s appeal at the 92 election stemmed from the sense he was a “safe pair of hands”, that in other words he knew how to play the game. When his wickets were sent flying by Black Wednesday this image was tarnished and further battered by the various sleazy revelations that soon engulfed his party. The Conservatives were no longer a party that to most of the public seemed endearing in its old-fashioned values but rather one that was hypercritical about them without moving with the times.

In contrast, New Labour’s relationship with sport on that hot May day was very different. Tony Blair’s media presence was cultivated in all areas to be associated with “coolness” and not least in the realm of sport. The previous year Blair’s famous photo call in which he practised headers with Kevin Keegan resonated with a sense of optimism about Britain’s future as once again the dominate football team in Europe. At that same year’s party conference Blair adapted the lyrics of Baddiel and Skinner’s Euros anthem to declare to an enthusiastic conference “Labour’s coming home.” As Blair’s former election campaign advertising manager, Simon Buckley wrote in 1999 in his essay The People’s Party’s Game for Dirt a compilation of the year’s best writing about football, “Football is essential to New Labour’s new patriotism.” Buckley goes on to argue that the Conservatives were still seen as the party of cricket and rugby, sports that were in the late 90s frankly a bit unsexy as compared to football. By allying himself with the hopes and aspirations of England’s millions of football fans and channelling their optimism into the optimism that was a core part of New Labour’s appeal, Blair was to use the culture wave of hope that powered Cool Britannia to his advantage.

It would however be remiss not to make clear that in both instances the love of the game was real. It wasn’t artificial. Major was and is a true enthusiast of cricket – his wrote a masterfully book on the game in 2009 and has long enjoyed visiting Lord’s. Similarly, Blair’s enthusiasm for football is borne of a real love of it rather than an artificial attempt to create a political identity – something that cannot perhaps be said for David Cameron, who famously momentarily forgot which team he supported.

Cameron’s slight enjoyment of football played into the belief many had that he was, essentially, artificial – the Conservative Party’s central office casting’s answer to Blair. Indeed, Blair’s love of the sport led to him spending an apparently inordinate amount of time speculating on how it would be possible to create a British football league to reinforce the bonds of the union.[1] This perhaps cuts to why Boris Johnson’s exuberant desire to connect himself to any sport that he could find (even if it did mean accidentally crushing a small Japanese boy in the process) and Keir Starmer’s earnest love of Arsenal have gained their own respective audiences. Through sport we can see a reflection of a person’s character and of their inner most desires and indeed their approach to teamwork. Being a football fan is very much like being a member of a political party (something Alistair Campbell has certainly been able to attest to) and so a politician’s attachment to sport can often be seen to show their true self, ungarnished and without any spin – despite it often being present.

It is, as Buckley acutely sums up, especially important because “These days the media and the public want to know more about the habits than the beliefs of their MPs.”[2] Since 1997 the importance of the internet and in particular the rise of social media has changed our perception of politicians. No longer are great orations in the Commons chamber viewed with the same reverence as they once were; rather if you can make a witty repost on Twitter or perfect the art of performing the latest dance move on TikTok then you will gain the attention that a once great speech would have garnered. That is why, for many politicians, sport has  grown more important. It is easy to share in and easy to reproduce for social media to prove that they are like they people they represent.

Yet, mixed in with the sometimes-cynical use of sport is a genuine love of it. Like politics itself, the cynicism around sport can often detract from the heartfelt passion that those that follow it and work in it feel for the subject. Both invoke a team mentality; both have star players, and both can induce great depression at defeats, even if you aren’t directly involved in the contest. It is for this reason that sport and politics are so intertwined – they both feed a human need for hope. You can be as hopeful that your team win the Premier League or the Ashes as you are if your favoured party wins an election. Humans need hope as part of their lives; in the often dark abyss of our collective struggle for existence, sport and politics offer that hope and sometimes fulfil it. They are therefore appropriate bedfellows for those that love them both, the dream of victory for their team never dies.

Will Barber Taylor is a freelance writer and a recent History graduate from the University of Warwick. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Labour List and Family Tree Magazine.

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