Politicians, football and the search for authenticity

Authenticity is something of a double-bind in politics. Joe and Josephine Public are regularly heard to call on their elected representatives to be less out of touch. And yet, the harder politicians try to respond to such calls, the greater the reaction against them. As Jennifer Szalai recently put it in the New York Times: ‘We’re so accustomed to politicians finely honing their “authentic” personas that anything smacking of relatability is probably too relatable to be true.’

To politicians, football often looks like an El Dorado of authenticity. A YouGov poll from August 2017 found that Premier League fans were, on average, more likely to describe themselves as ‘proud to be British’, have nostalgic TV viewing habits and believe that ‘people were too easily offended these days’. It’s easy to see the lure of football in this light, since a connection with the game can easily be conflated with a connection to a masculine, no-nonsense Britishness that many in the electorate identify with.

Nonetheless the political rewards in the UK have been patchy. David Cameron’s everyman credentials came into question in 2015 when he suffered a self-confessed ‘brain fade’ and forgot that he supported Aston Villa, citing a preference for the eerily similar claret of West Ham in a jokey aside at a speech. Surprisingly, Cameron’s apology (in which he detailed his largely lapsed support of Villa since the 1980s) managed to sound more authentic than the joke ever had.

Paul Nuttall similarly suffered in the quest for football earthiness. After his election as UKIP leader, he was forced to disavow claims on his website that he had been a professional footballer at Tranmere Rovers. The party’s press officer later stepped down after claiming that Nuttall had lost a close personal friend in the Hillsborough disaster. Jeremy Corbyn has (to date) been more successful. He clearly is a lifelong Arsenal fan and even had a Premier League policy for taxing TV rights and putting them into the grassroots game. But his interview with Copa90 prior to the 2017 election also featured an excruciating Istanbul-86th-minute metaphor for the Labour campaign. The lesson is clear: even those with genuine links to the game, struggle to convey it.

Football’s divisiveness – its intense rivalries and operatic emotions – as much as its broad appeal, may explain why few ex-footballers have themselves succeeded in breaking into UK politics as they have in other parts of the world (think George Weah and Socrates). In recent times, both Sol Campbell and the former Hearts player, Michael Stewart, failed in their bids to be nominated for respective Tory and SNP campaigns.

In fact, the only MP with a significant football link is the SNP’s Douglas Ross. Ross attempted to combine his parliamentary work and refereeing career until autumn this year when he came under fire for missing a debate on Universal Credit to run the line in a Champions League fixture. Ironically then, it may be that only the most hated man on the pitch is in any way qualified for the realities of political life.


(Sources: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/08/11/marketing-football-fans-british-brands-and-sense-n/; https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/10/national-football-teams-and-personality/)

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