Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?
Globalisation, the Third Way, the Premier League and the Brexit backlash against elites
My Brexit epiphany took place outside the Dun Cow Inn on a bleak January evening some 18 months after the referendum. To escape the heavy rain and dark grey skies over Sedgefield I was about to take refuge in the cosy-looking gastropub when I noticed a plaque attached to its outside wall. “Rt Hon Charles Anthony Lynton Blair,” it read, “while touring his constituency welcomed the President of the USA George W Bush Friday 21st November 2003.”
It was a moment of revelation. Here I was, in the Land of Blair – at the heart of the pre-eminent Remainer’s heavily-Leave-voting constituency – finally coming to an understanding of a major cause of the biggest political earthquake to hit this country since the war.
I was on assignment for the New European, a pro-EU newspaper whose editor-at-large is Alastair Campbell. In a recent piece for the Guardian, the former spin doctor for Blair had been honest enough to admit that the toxic legacy of the New Labour years had sowed the seeds of the Leave vote. And he had urged fellow Remainers, in a memorable phrase deliberately echoing Blair’s famous approach to crime, to be “tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit”.
One of those causes was surely a deep disillusionment, particularly in post-industrial, Labour strongholds like Sedgefield, with a political class – epitomised by the shadowy spads and think-tankers who re-invented the socialist party back in the 1990s – perceived to be elitist, fork-tongued and out of touch.
The Sedgefield resident who had recommended the Dun Cow Inn, a retired, Hartlepool United-supporting ex-Labour voter whom I had vox-popped moments earlier in the cafe opposite the green, recalled the exact moment the scales had fallen from his eyes. As soon as he uttered the words “Peter Mandelson” I assumed he was going to reel off the well-worn yarn about the New Labour grandee – a former Hartlepool MP who, like Campbell, was a close ally of Blair – mistaking a local fish and chip shop's mushy peas for guacamole.
Instead he told me the tale of the knitted blue-and-white football scarf, thrown Oxbridge-style over Mandelson’s shoulder, which had attracted some unwelcome chanting during a United home game. “That showed he was such a fake,” he explained. “They all were really. Pretending to be a football fan. That mushy peas story, I believe, never happened. It’s a myth. I can tell you what did happen though: people in the crowd at the Hartlepool game saw him and started to chant ‘who’s the wanker in the scarf?’ It was hilarious.”
By contrast, the Dun Cow Inn regulars, I was told, cheered loudly when Bush opened the door to be greeted by Blair’s “welcome to my local”. Many remember Dubya enthusiastically dipping his chips into a big dollop of tomato ketchup as the two leaders discussed their plans for the new world order. This was eight months after Blair had sent British troops to join the US-led invasion of Iraq, six months after Bush had declared victory – and a month before Saddam Hussein was captured.
Which is where my epiphany comes in. In 2003, six years into New Labour, Blair’s modernisation project was in full swing, with stuffy old Britain being transformed into a more go-ahead world power and the Great Persuader on course to winning a historic third term in government. But 14 years on, at the epicentre of the party’s north-east power base – Sedgefield has been Labour since 1935, achieving a 25,000 majority at the height of Blair’s popularity – it was hard to find anyone who had a good word to say about the once-iconic figure who had put the town on the map, frequently bringing it to the attention of the global media, especially on the day the Leader of the Free World popped in to say hello.
The triumphalism of 2003 had given way to the cynicism of 2018. As the Hartlepool fan had said – and this was a point repeatedly made during my subsequent session in the pub – they were all fakes. They had all sold out and then gone off to feather their own nests. They had all turned out to be liars. Blair typified the arrogant British elite at its worst. The narrative in the Dun Cow Inn was that Brexit had been, in part, a revolt against his disastrous misjudgements. He had flung open our borders. He had let Gordon Brown’s borrowing wreck the economy, triggering austerity. He had misled us all and invaded Iraq: the final straw.
The toxicity of that calamitous military escapade had surely been a major factor in helping create the conditions for Britain leaving the EU. The £11.8bn conflict led to the deaths of 179 British troops and more than 150,000 Iraqis and left the region in chaos and despair.
The Bush plaque made me think more clearly about the disconnection between rulers and ruled which had set Britain on the path to Brexit. But the scarf story reminded me how, for a few years at least, the rulers had tried so desperately hard to connect to the ruled.
Football had been hugely important to New Labour. After many years in the wilderness – like the party itself – it had become not just socially acceptable again but de rigueur. Mandelson was the exception that proved the rule. Blair impressed the then-Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, and millions of TV viewers, with his keepy-uppy skills during a party conference held between Euro 96 and the 1997 election, when Labour returned to power with a landslide after 18 years of Tory rule. His childhood memories of the Magpies were, despite being denounced as fake, very real indeed. He organised football matches at his Chequers residence. Campbell was, and remains, an ardent Burnley fan. Gordon Brown was, and remains, Raith Rovers through and through. Ed Balls never stopped blabbing on about Norwich City (he’s now chairman). Jack Straw gave Condoleeza Rice a Blackburn Rovers whirt while David Blunkett openly supported Sheffield Wednesday. In the 90s, a team of advisers to Blair and Brown, played in an FA league under the name of Demon Eyes, a reference to a Conservative poster attacking Blair.
This was the era that football “came home” – in the words of the Euro 96 Baddiel and Skinner song – after being, throughout the dark Satanic 80s, almost a dirty secret. According to Ken Clarke, Margaret Thatcher considered football fans, like the miners, to be the “Enemy Within”. She tried to introduce the Orwellian Football Spectator Act with its woefully misconceived ID scheme. Her friend David Evans who, when not being a Conservative MP, was running Luton Town, barred away fans from the Hatters’ home games.
Such contempt for football was seen as a symptom of Thatcher, and more generally the right’s, disdain for popular culture. No wonder man-of-the-people David Cameron was quick to declare his love for Aston Villa – or was it West Ham? – alongside his passion for The Jam and hot pasties.
Actually, before New Labour, a large part of the intellectual left had also been disdainful. Football was demonised as the opiate of the masses, a prophylactic against workers’ revolution. The early British socialist movement poured scorn on the professionalisation of “soccer”. The Independent Labour Party dismissed it as a “debasing spectacle” . One ILP member, George Orwell, argued that sport was “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence … it is war minus the shooting.”
Interestingly, in the light of opportunist right-wing politicians wrapping themselves in the flag of St George during the referendum debate, support for the Three Lions was a way Blairite progressives could redefine patriotism as something other than stately homes, nostalgia for the British Empire and booing foreign national anthems at Wembley.
In 1999, Blair’s former adviser Simon Buckby, who went on to become the director of Britain in Europe, wrote, “It is crucial to Blair to be patriotic, partly because Old Labour's unilateralism looked anti-patriotic and partly because he is vulnerable to accusations that he may give up the pound… so the party has thrown its weight behind England's bid to host the World Cup and Blair is quoted in support of England before every big game. This is safe, because being a football patriot is less confrontational to our partners in Europe and elsewhere than other kinds of flag-waving.”
It was not only important to be into football, but to be seen to be into it. The Premier League was launched in 1992 during a watershed era for the game. The euphoria generated by Bobby Robson’s national team, who reached the 1990 World Cup semi-finals, spilled over into rising attendances while English clubs were allowed back into Europe (following the deaths of 39 people at the 1985 European Cup final in Heysel, English clubs had been banned from all continental competitions).
The new football order virtually became a template for Blair’s new political order. Like New Labour ditching the party’s cloth cap image, the post-Hillsborough game saw a gradual change in the social composition of crowds; a shift from unskilled and manual workers to the skilled and professional classes. The FA’s 1991 document Blueprint for the Future of Football argued that the sport should follow the affluent middle-class consumer.
The soundtracks to this gentrified revival were Puccini’s soaring aria “Nessun dorma”, which the BBC used as its Italia 90 theme tune and New Order’s “World in Motion”, the first World Cup song to be halfway hummable. The defining moment was Paul Gascoigne’s big blub during England’s semi-final defeat, an uncontrollable sob which would be endlessly replayed and dissected by philosophers, cultural historians and TV pundits. And its bible was Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. The Arsenal fan’s best-selling, touchy-feely, confessional memoir touched a nerve. It sold more than a million copies in the UK and launched a thousand lad lit tomes.
In retrospect, Blair declaring “Labour’s coming home” at a party conference – like being on the front cover of the NME and sipping champagne with Noel Gallagher and Damon Albarn at Downing Street – looks like a wanker-in-the-scarf moment. But it was, at the time, accepted as yet another sign of his popular touch – and a reflection of the great New Labour-New Football love-in. Every time a thrusting young football chief emerged, whether it was Peter Ridsdale at Leeds or Adam Crozier at the FA, they would be instantly hailed as part of a new, go-ahead, outward-looking, modernising, Blairite breed. A golden age appeared to be at hand.
Surfing this Cool Britannia zeitgeist was, it turned out, a shallow exercise. New Labour, ever the opportunists, appeared to be making a clumsy attempt to capitalise on the growing popularity of the re-branded Beautiful Game.
But there was something much deeper going on. In the early 90s, there was a reshaping of the both the political and footballing landscapes, a Third Way approach, between unfettered capitalism and state socialism, which had placed its faith in an increasingly globalised economy’s ability to deliver both growth and fairness. Thatcherism had overseen the destruction of traditional, mutually self-sustaining communities following a manufacturing collapse that wiped out almost a fifth of Britain’s industrial base. It had also, arguably, in a decade overshadowed by the Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough tragedies, come close to sounding the death knell for football – described by the Sunday Times, in a notorious editorial, as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people”.
The 80s were characterised by falling attendances, racism, hooliganism and brutal policing of ordinary, law-abiding fans. Thatcher argued there were “too many football clubs – in any other industry the inefficient would have gone to the wall years ago”. As Matthew Engel observed in a 1988 Guardian piece “the Fourth Division of the Football League has come to seem like a repository of the Britain left behind in the 1980s: uneconomic, dated, provincial and kept going out of unfashionable sentiment.”
To its early supporters, the Premier League breathed new life into the game, rebranding it as a modernising, inclusive, upwardly-mobile and highly entertaining force for good. To New Labour it was a role model of the Third Way, reconciling the local with the global, grassroots communities with dynamic visionary elites, social responsibility with the free market. Phillip Collins, at one point Blair’s chief speechwriter, wrote in 2002 that the game’s recovery “like the recovery of the Labour Party, was led by the deliberate embourgeoisement of football. The game was rebranded with the creation of the Premier League, the listing of the clubs’ equity on the stock market, a huge increase in corporate hospitality and merchandising, and all-seater stadia in the wake of the Taylor Report.”
And yet he also noted that “as a consequence of recent changes the market for football, and the market for footballers, shows one of the characteristics of all markets, which is a large degree of inequality. This will be the first season in ten years that Manchester United have finished outside the top two. The gap between the top six in the Premiership and the rest is growing and the financial penalty for not making the Champions League is enormous.”
These days, no-one talks any more about the Third Way. Except, on occasion, leftist critics like Shirsho Dasgupta, who last year argued that, after the 1995 Bosman ruling, “football followed the Third Way’s emphasis on investment in capital rather than redistribution, elevating a few clubs into ‘giants’ and pushing others on to the path of decline.”
The game has become as lopsided as the economy. In a global entertainment industry dominated by rapacious mega-brands, many clubs are no longer the heartbeat of their communities; their players, an ever-decreasing number of whom are recruited locally, exist in a completely different financial orbit. The north-south divide, such a feature of the Thatcher years, has become more pronounced with London’s footballing base, like its economy, undergoing a profound change, becoming a place where overseas investors park their wealth; the richest city in the world provides some of its richest football teams, attracting the interest of oligarchs, sheikhs and American venture capitalists.
This is why the anti-modern-football noises coming out of football’s heartlands have distinct echoes in the take-back-control, populist rhetoric that emerged from Labour’s heartlands – often the same towns and cities – during the referendum. The embitterment towards New Labour goes far beyond the catastrophic Bush-Blair adventure in Iraq. It is a reflection of the alienation experienced by northern, post-industrial, working-class communities during that era. Like the new Blairite political order, with its embrace of free markets and the City – epitomised by Mandelson’s famous quote about being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" – the new football order – a brave new world of rocketing ticket prices, mega TV contracts and pampered prima donnas – is perceived to be skewed in favour of a powerful, moneyed elite. While the Premier League has received £8.3bn in broadcast deals over the last three years, local pitches and grassroots community facilities remain run down, many in a state of disrepair.
Only a year after its breathless endorsement of Blair, the NME was already complaining of being duped. In March 1998, it furiously accused the Prime Minister of selling out. Its cover story bore the legend: ”Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" 20 years on, as I discovered in Sedgefield, football’s apparently triumphant transformation during the Blair years had come to be viewed by the left behind as some kind of cynical betrayal.
*Anthony Clavane’s Moving the Goalposts: A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by Riverrun, is out in paperback.