Football - the last bastion of Social Democracy?
I know what you’re already thinking. That I’m going to argue something entirely inarguable. That in between skimming the dressing room copies of Nuts and Zoo the average Premier League footballer is more likely to clutch a well thumbed copy of Ayn Rand’s hymn to self interest, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ than the collected writings of Tony Crosland.
And you’d be right of course. Modern football is awash with greed — with car swerving prima-donna Ashley Cole its own John Galt — a rifle toting poster boy for the ‘we’ll do what we like’ generation. By nature of their wealth, most footballers seem inherently conservative in both the social and political sense — the monogrammed bar gates of Wilmslow mansions hardly hark back 40 years to the time when you were as likely to find Stan Bowles and Frank McAvennie at the bar as on the pitch.
Frank Lampard, a more thoughtful player than most, declared strong support for the Cameron revolution in the run up to the 2010 general election and James Beattie once infamously and apocryphally gave in to probing on his political leanings with the almost satirical response ‘Which ones cut taxes? Conservatives? Yeah, I’m a Conservative’.
But let’s not kid ourselves, or indeed let footballers kid themselves either. They’re not ardent students of ‘Austrian School’ economics. They couldn’t tell supply side from goal side and to them red tape is something tied to the cup when United march on to their latest inevitable triumph. Perhaps most importantly though, footballers, and football as an institution, do care about people other than themselves.
In a fine article for ‘In Bed With Maradona’ last year, Andi Thomas argued that modern football was in the grips of the neo-liberal ideal — that the fates or otherwise of clubs like Portsmouth required fans to engage more politically and economically with an institution designed only to bring community and togetherness. The ‘religion’ of football as ‘opium laced with bullshit’.
In the continued wiles of Pompey themselves and of genuine global giants such as the still leveraged Manchester United and the beleaguered and bruised Glasgow Rangers his arguments gain even more credence. However, from the fates of the Glasgow giants has come a glimmer of that timeless leveller — humanity; caring instinct.
The decision of Gregg Wylde and Mervan Celik to leave Rangers deferring wages and redundancy packages on Tuesday this week was, quite rightly, lauded from every corner. Wylde’s statement that he “… volunteered to walk with no redundancy package today to help the other people in the club who have families, like the kitchen staff. I was so tired I couldn’t really sleep at night” showed a level of magnanimity and maturity which belied his tender age and, crucially, restored a little faith in the ability of footballers to do the right thing by others.
Cynics may argue that it is easy for a highly paid footballer to absorb the 75% pay cuts reputedly being taken by Rangers’ squad or that both Wylde and Celik will walk away undamaged into the arms of a throng of suitors. That may be so, but it still sits in stark contrast to the actions of some of the moneyed elites of the banking world as they saw the financial markets crash around them. Fred Goodwin may have lost his knighthood and his dignity but retains a £16.6million pension pot — it’s an inditement on society that Rangers’ actions seem so out of the ordinary, but that makes them no less refreshing.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that such an act should occur in the home city of two of the game’s great lefties in Alex Ferguson and Bill Shankly. Glasgow’s heart still beats red even as the twin ‘threats’ of Conservatism and Scottish Nationalism gain the edge nationally in the battle for political supremacy. So where else is football seeing a humanitarian urge?
Most obviously it is in the fates of the many fan owned clubs and the ‘Supporters Direct’ movement. I’ve argued in the past that a type of ‘benign dictatorship’ may be best placed to deliver the nirvana of sporting excellence and financial stability but there’s little argument that the forerunners of fan ownership — at AFC Wimbledon, at FC United of Manchester and at Premier League Swansea City are at the heart of a greater linking of football and community.
It’s been written about in far greater detail than I can muster here, by those who are closer to the point than I am ever likely to be — most pertinently by Gary Andrews whose excellent writings on the subject are collected in Pitch Invasion’s recent book. Fan ownership is social democracy in action. One person, one stake, one vote and a commitment to an endeavour which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Elsewhere a less likely candidate is keeping the flame of fairness alive in football. Enter perennial nitwit and scratch crazy golfer Craig Bellamy. You’ve probably heard about Bellamy’s Sierra Leonean football foundation which gives street kids in the war torn African republic an opportunity at self betterment through football and education. A recent ITV4 documentary series cast Bellamy in a new light to may wide eyed and open mouthed onlookers — here was a man far removed from the cartoon antics of his on pitch persona. A reserved, impassioned individual who brought a determination and resilience (much quieter, but no less effective, than that he shows for Liverpool) to his philanthropic endeavour.
Students of political thought may stop to coruscate here for philanthropy is, of course, the right’s sop to the poor. For the Rands, Milton Friedmans and Karl Roves of this world, assistance of ‘good’ causes is a matter of choice and vocation. So it seems for Bellamy, too. So how does that tie with the article’s central conceit, that football channels the thinking of a rather different political school?
I’d argue that the philanthropy shown by Bellamy and so many other footballers who support causes close to their heart is of a rather different hue to the patrician, corporate, guilt release valve assented by right leaning thinkers. At their very heart schemes like Bellamy’s and the ‘A-Star’ initiative (pioneered by Fitz Hall, Andy Johnson and Titus Bramble and other a few seasons back through three fingered ‘A’ salutes in goal celebrations), have fairness and disadvantage in mind. The Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone and ‘A-Star’, through its encouragement of poor children to meet their potential, are a far cry from the self-serving gallery sponsorships that pass for ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ in the City of London. Like the localised sentiments of Wylde, Celik and their Ibrox colleagues or the bigger picture views of Ferguson, Shankly or Clough they show ‘fairness’, that term so beloved of politicians, as a human instinct and football as a driver for changing attitudes.
In light of the financial crisis, the archdeacon of modern social democracy Lord Mandelson renounced his glib mid 90s boast that New Labour were ‘relaxed about people becoming filthy rich’ — the experiment with the ‘Third Way’, delivering socially democratic ends through neo-liberal means had failed and a saw a rare moment of mea culpa from the normally strident political big beast.
Were he to turn his gaze from the world of finance one wonders whether the world of football might give him cause for more succour. Perhaps we as fans should have cause to be more relaxed about our own filthy rich entertainers — some of them at least are doing a pretty good job of fostering fairness and redistributing their gains.
Is it social democracy in the truest sense? Perhaps not. Should it give pause to reconsider ones broad brush views of the social, societal and political good that can be done by those ‘heroes’ who have the right to bear such a moniker. Absolutely.
The Fourth Way? That may be pushing it.