football and the tories

Remembering All The Times The Tories Failed To Understand Football

Over the past few decades, Conservative politicians have intermittently attempted to appropriate football and use it to their own ends. This has led to much embarrassment for everyone, but most of all them.

by Will Magee
05 June 2017, 11:57am

If we were being charitable, we could assume that much of Conservatism is based on misunderstanding. Take, for instance, the misunderstanding that 6.8p can feed a schoolchild a nutritious breakfast, or the misunderstanding that typical foodbank users just have "a cash-flow problem episodically", which makes them sound like trainee bankers trying to convince their mums to lend them money for cocaine. Then there's the misunderstanding that anyone who disagrees with the Tories' high-handed form of plutocracy is either a seditious anti-British Europhile, a Maoist or a mentally deficient person who just doesn't 'get' economics, a position widely espoused by their supporters via such reputable outlets as The Spectator and 'Reem memes with a right-wing theme'. These are just a few of the common misconceptions associated with Conservatism, and listing the rest would most likely take all day.

Tories tend to save their most spectacular moments of misapprehension for their forays into the world of football. With many of the professional football clubs in this country born out of industry, works teams and working-class neighbourhoods, the terraces were once natural breeding grounds for socialists and Labour men, or at least the sort of Conservative voters that old-fashioned Tories would have avoided fraternising with. Accordingly, the Conservative Party – and especially their wealthier and more privileged members – largely stuck to other sports and rarely mixed football and politics, with cricket the traditional game of choice for Tory frontbenchers, MPs and grandees.

John Major was a notorious cricket fan, as was fellow Conservative Norman Tebbit, who in 1990 charmingly suggested that ethnic minorities could not be loyal to Britain until they supported the England cricket team. Then there are Tories like Nicholas Soames, who probably thinks cricket is for plebs and commoners, let alone football. According to former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, Soames once told him he preferred fox hunting to the beautiful game, which is at least good, honest Conservatism in that it is unrelatable, brutal, cruel and aloof but – in a way that is somehow perversely admirable – also uncontrived and unashamed. Considering that this is a man who canvasses on horseback like a minor villain from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the idea of Soames drinking cans on the Megabus to an away day up north seems a little far-fetched.

READ MORE: A Potted History of Tory and Labour Footballers

When, in more recent times, Conservatives have feigned football fandom in order to appeal to the common man, it has almost always ended in embarrassment for all involved. Believe it or not, this even applies to that most venerated of Tories, the Right Honourable Baroness Thatcher. While Thatcher responded to both eighties hooliganism and the Hillsborough disaster – a tragedy which was intrinsically tied up with the policing culture she helped to foster in South Yorkshire – with robust political attacks on football fans, she also attempted to woo them north of the border by appearing at the 1988 Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Dundee United. What she had failed to understand was that, by its very nature, football in Scotland is highly political, and that tens of thousands of working-class Glaswegians would not take kindly to her presence. Not only did Celtic supporters greet her with a sea of Irish tricolours – much of their predominantly Catholic fanbase was vehemently opposed to her policies in Northern Ireland – fans of both clubs booed and brandished red cards at her before kick-off, these handed out by union men who had already seen her policies decimate Scotland's industrial heartlands.

If Thatcher's appearance at a high-profile match wasn't the public relations coup she was hoping for, the same could be said of David Cameron's bumbling flirtations with football. Much like Nicholas Soames, Cameron used to enjoy fox hunting, and told the House of Commons during a 2001 debate on hooliganism: "Many of those who have spoken in the debate or have written about the subject are either lawyers or football fans, but I have to confess that I am neither." By the time he was prime minister, however, he was suddenly an avid Aston Villa fan, and even gritted his teeth through several matches in order to seem like an authentic supporter. Unfortunately, as we all know, the facade came tumbling down eventually, when in one of the most excruciating Conservative gaffes ever he got his claret-and-blue home strips mixed up and accidentally declared his love of West Ham.

Considering how painful it is to watch Cameron's West Ham gaffe back – the chummy tone, the scripted badinage, the self-conscious stammer as he realises he has royally fucked up and forgotten the team he supposedly supports – it is amazing to think that this is arguably his second-most embarrassing dalliance with football. The first is when he was at the G8 with other world leaders in 2012, and celebrated Chelsea winning the Champions League Final while managing to look like an off-duty city worker watching Oxford win the boat race. Not only did Cameron find himself supporting yet another football team and hence absolutely not understanding how fan culture works, he also found himself implicitly espousing the philosophy of 'liking English clubs to do well in Europe', possibly the most Tory mentality ever. There is one defining photo of his cameo as a Chelsea supporter, and it is the spitting image of Roger Nouveau.

"Associa-tion football! Associa-tion football!" // PA Images

In 2016, during his disastrous and divisive bid to become London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith made a similarly cringeworthy attempt to prove his football fan credentials. With his campaign focused largely on suggesting that Sadiq Khan was a security threat and terrorist sympathiser by association, Goldsmith seemed to realise that he was coming across as enormously unsympathetic, and so scrambled to change tack late on. In the days before the mayoral election, he appeared on Nick Ferrari's LBC Radio show and compared himself to that season's soon-to-be Premier League champions, saying: "I'm hoping to do a Leicester City here, to zoom in from behind and win on May 5th." Unfortunately for Zac Goldsmith, the underdog son of a billionaire financier, he had failed to understand that Leicester had in fact been top of the table since January, and in the running since early November. That perhaps explains why, when it came to polling day, he ended up looking more like Arsenal, the team with many times the resources of Leicester who ended their campaign in an underwhelming second place.

Though Thatcher, Cameron, Goldsmith and co. may have failed to understand the norms and mores of the beautiful game, we can only think of one Conservative who has flaunted the rules in a participatory sense. Foreshadowing his approach to the role of foreign secretary, Boris Johnson donned an England shirt for an international charity match in 2006 and, as one of his first contributions of the game, ploughed headfirst into a German counterpart in a moment of gratuitous idiocy. Clearly, Johnson is a man so imbued with the spirit of Eton that the word 'football' simply does not register with him, and is substituted instead for 'A SPOT OF RUGGER' by his bombastic internal monologue. Then again, he seems to struggle even with the rules of rugby, as exemplified by the time he body checked a child in a game of touch on the streets of Tokyo. Again, this man is in charge of Britain's overseas diplomacy, which suggests that not only do the Tories struggle with understanding football but also with basic competency as well.

@W_F_Magee