Of all the things to affect the outcome of the European referendum on Thursday, football might seem remote, distant and trivial. The economic fear-mongering, the toxicity surrounding immigration, the death of an MP: Britain seems to have plunged down a dark hole, edgy, confused, angry and bitter. But when the country goes to the polls later this week, it will be doing so with England, Wales and, quite possibly, Northern Ireland still in the European Championships. Football – beautiful, unpredictable, rage-fuelling football – with its tendency to inflame passions and stir up nationalism might just end up influencing voters enough to change the outcome of the vote.
Perhaps watching our lads suffering at the hands of European regulation, AKA refereeing, will send us off to the polls muttering about how a free-born man of Britain can't even throw a good honest elbow without some Belgian telling him he's run afoul of the law.
Then again, perhaps watching Europe come together for a feast of football will send us off to the polls singing about the beautiful dream that is our continent. Maybe those cameramen whose job it is to find stunning women in the crowd and film them will swing the votes of some red-blooded lads.
As Will Straw, the executive director of Britain Stronger in Europe, put it to VICE: "People are immersed in teams around Europe, they're meeting other Europeans, going to bars and taking part in a festival of football and the ties that bind. A feel-good tournament chimes with the positive campaign we're running." The Leave campaign, which can't be accused of championing things like "the ties that bind", did not respond to a request for comment on the subject.
Still, the general political rule is that you don't get people voting when football is getting them worked up. "The idea is that you don't have crucial votes in the middle of football tournaments, because you just don't know what the mood of the country will be," said Simon Tate, senior lecturer in the school of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. "Often football tournaments bring out nationalism and produce divisive tribalism. The effect of the Euros on the vote is likely to only be marginal, but in a race this tight, that could be important."
The famous British precedent for this is 1970. Harold Wilson took the country to a General Election with his Labour government widely expected to hold onto power. Four days before the vote, England played West Germany in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. England, then world champions, let a 2-0 lead slip and crashed out of the tournament.
When Labour went on to lose the election to Ted Heath's Conservatives, a number of observers joined the dots: dejected England fans who'd helplessly watched their team get beaten by the old enemy had sought to reclaim some agency for themselves and voted for change. "It deflated the mood in the nation," Keir Radnedge, a young football reporter at the time, told the BBC, "they looked for something new. Something new, in that case, was voting in a new government."
With England and Wales qualified for the next round and no more games before the vote, there's unlikely to be a repeat of the deflated protest vote many believe swung the 1970 election. The group draw for England and Wales would seem to have favoured Remain. Wales and England are stuck with each other whatever happens; Russia isn't in the EU; and no one knows anything about Slovakia, who are in the EU but rarely mentioned in terms of the immigration debate. Matches against Romania or Poland would both have had the potential to stir up anti-immigrant feeling, just as meeting Germany or France would have stoked historical passions.
Nevertheless, the mood of the tournament, while not as poisonous as the mood of the referendum debate, has hardly been delightful. England fans have been filmed throwing coins at refugee children in France. They've been heard chanting, "Fuck off, Europe, we're all voting out." Russian hooligans have trampled through cities, taking apart everything in their path – including the bodies of British fans. France, paranoid and divided, the scene of recent terrorist attacks, is on lockdown. Policing has been heavy-handed. None of this speaks of European unity.
A comparison here with tournaments of the 1990s is telling. "As leader of the opposition, Tony Blair jumped on the back of the buoyant mood created by Euro '96," said Simon Tate. "The tournament helped him shape himself as a young, progressive and modern leader." Cool Britannia seems a long way away now. Where, during Euro '96, England flags waved free from past associations with the National Front, now they carry the air of division once again.
In France, too, the contrast is worth noting. The 1998 World Cup saw a multi-cultural French team celebrated on its way to victory. In 2016, a multi-cultural French team seems to serve only to highlight the divisions in French society: the children of the nation's former colonies have been ignored for too long by the French ruling class, and now they are angry – and rightly so.
In such a climate, the timing of the vote, in the middle of the Euros, seems to be a risk, in the way that scheduling the Scottish referendum so it coincided with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn seemed to be a risk. A poll taken before the Slovakia game found that nearly one in six adults would be encouraged to vote Leave should England win. A source in the Remain camp suggested that David Cameron recognised having the vote in the middle of a tournament was a risk, but feared that another summer of watching refugees heading to Europe would play on the fear of immigration and add fuel to the Brexit fire. Cameron, of course, is famous for not knowing whether he supports Aston Villa or West Ham.
Will Straw explained that because "most people know this is probably the biggest decision of their lifetimes", the Euros were unlikely to have an effect on the referendum. But sport is part of our cultural and political identity; it does strange things to people, particularly when nation is pitted against nation. And with the stakes this high and the race this close, thoughts of how well the British teams have played thus far may just skew the balance one way or the other.
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