Alex Ferguson: the last great Briton?

From shipyard socialism to the pioneer spirit of the American dream, the evolution of Alex Ferguson’s political thought.

Illustration: Ralph Steadman

What defines Alex Ferguson? Success. How does one achieve success? Now, there is a question.

It is understandable why we might look to Ferguson for the answer. He has been the dominant figure in the national sport for the past three decades, presiding over arguably the best known and most successful of British cultural and commercial institutions. His name is entwined with the lives of megastars such as Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, both of whom have described him as a “father figure”. He steered Aberdeen to improbable domestic and European success in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1986, he arrived at Manchester United to awaken a slumbering giant. By the time he left the club in May this year, United were not only the most successful team in England but the most popular and valuable sports team in the world. His second book of memoirs, Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, launched in October, is one of the fastest-selling books in British publishing history.

We are not used to individuals who combine professional dominance with such longevity. Most political careers end in failure. Ferguson was able to step down in triumph at the time of his volition after winning the Premier League, the last of 49 major trophies. Our statesmen are lucky to have ten years at the top – a time span not dissimilar to the career of the average footballer. Managers have an ever-decreasing shelf life. Newcastle United’s Alan Pardew is now the second-longest-serving manager in the Premier League, having been in the job for just three years. When the longest-serving manager, Arsène Wenger, first arrived at Arsenal in 1996 as a relative unknown, Ferguson had already spent a decade in charge at Manchester United and had been a manager for a continuous period of 22 years. There has been no shortage of efforts to clone his creed. At the last count, more than 30 of his former players have followed him into management.

Are there lessons from Ferguson’s success that can be transferred to politics or business? Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell liked to seek Ferguson’s counsel from time to time but were more interested in the association with success than his views on policy. A couple of years ago, the Economist suggested that Ferguson “could reasonably be described as Britain’s Steve Jobs, given his unorthodox, talent-obsessed and sometimes bruising approach to making something beautiful”. In the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, Professor Anita Elberse – following a series of interviews with the man – presented “Ferguson’s formula” as a case study of successful management.

Yet a “lessons learned” approach to Ferguson’s career is a largely speculative exercise. As Ed Smith recently noted in these pages, as much as any guiding precepts, Ferguson possesses skills that are innate to the individual – a force of personality that defies categorisation and cannot easily be replicated. Just ask his replacement at Manchester United, David Moyes. At the time of writing, Moyes’s team languishes in ninth place in the Premier League table.

Ferguson was always at his desk at United’s training ground by 7am. A Stakha­novite ethic of hard work was a crucial commodity but also an obvious one. His view of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: the Story of Success suggests a suspicion of any grand theory. The book “could just have been called Graft,” he writes in his new autobiography. “Hard Graft.” He continues: “People try to apply to football the usual principles of business. But it’s not a lathe, it’s not a milling machine, it’s a collection of human beings. That’s the difference.”

In May, when news broke about his retirement, the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, suggested on the Today programme that the man who had managed Manchester United for 27 years could be considered “the greatest living Briton”. However, there is another way of looking at Ferguson: not as the greatest living Briton but as the last authentic example of that phenomenon.

What constitutes “greatness” is highly subjective but the idea of a “great Briton” – if momentarily revived at the 2012 London Olympics – evokes something of yesteryear. This is not least because of the fragmentation of the United Kingdom and the drift of Ferguson’s Scottish countrymen away from a sense of collective identity that they once shared with similar communities in England or Wales.

The Ferguson formula is not transferable because he is a product of a British world that is almost extinct. What he embodied was a non-southern version of success, born in Britain’s industrial heartlands and tied closely to the values and self-image of the skilled industrial working class. The binds of family and community were the bedrock, particularly through hard times. Within this, there was room for individual force of will and the possibility of social mobility – through a combination of learned expertise and personal responsibility. It was a creed grounded in the specific locale but – and this was particularly notable in Ferguson’s case – it could transcend both sectarianism and provincialism. This form of Britishness, which once had a natural home on the left, played a great role in the shaping of this nation but as a result of social, economic and political changes, it has dwindled and almost disappeared.

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Ferguson’s stated political stance is on “the left of the Labour Party”. In his youth, he acquired “not so much a range of ideological views as a way of seeing life, a set of values”. He has never been a close follower of contemporary politics and the opinions he expresses are not uncommon among tribal Labour supporters.

Parents, background and upbringing, to Ferguson, maketh the man. “How can it be class war to say the guy went to Eton, or that he was part of some dreadful right-wing social club at Oxford?” he has said of David Cameron. “Where you come from does matter, you know. His policies are about helping his own sort.”

On Margaret Thatcher, as one might expect, he has stronger views: “The images of decay and neglect have remained with me and I have never ceased to curse the Tory government for vandalising the National Health Service . . . Her policies ruined people’s lives and stripped them of their dignity.” He counts his dying mother’s poor experience in an NHS hospital in 1986 – the year he took over at Manchester United – as an important moment in reaffirming his belief in the importance of the state’s role in public services.

Ferguson has a predictable preference for substance over style. In the run-up to the last election, he declared himself rather perplexed by the media’s drooling over Nick Clegg’s performance in the leadership debates. “He was fine and spoke well enough but I was no clearer what he was about than I was at the beginning.”

Beyond that, Ferguson refuses to be drawn into specifics. Despite his friendship with Alastair Campbell, who interviewed him for this magazine in 2009, he makes no pretence of knowing the secrets of electoral success. His major contribution to Labour’s 1997 campaign was to suggest that Tony Blair employ a physiotherapist on his “battle bus” in order to keep his muscles limber.

Intuitively, Ferguson is more Brown than Blair. “I know people go on about him being a dour Scot and not having Tony’s charisma and so on but I think maybe the country needs a bit of that dour Scottishness,” he once said of Gordon Brown. He also expresses his admiration for another of that dying breed – a Scottish Labour titan – John Smith. Yet he has no complaints with the Blairite path. “His positioning was correct,” he writes in his autobiography, acknowledging the importance of Blair’s charisma.

His loyalty is to the Labour Party as an institution – as the representative of the working man – rather than to an individual or a specific programme. He seems mildly horrified by a suggestion that he once advised Blair to get rid of his troublesome chancellor. In stressing the importance of his total control of Manchester United, he claims to have kept his comments general, rather than commenting directly on the Blair-Brown rivalry.

Ferguson has often used the word “socialist” to describe himself – a label that is as little used in contemporary British politics as it is understood. The story of his background in the once bustling shipbuilding hub of Govan, Glasgow, has often been told. His father, Alexander, and younger brother, Martin, both worked in the shipyards. As he tried to make the break into professional football, Ferguson worked as an apprentice toolmaker at an engineering firm and acted as the shop steward, once casting the deciding vote to lead his colleagues in an apprentice’s strike. At the time, he was informed that his mother prayed every night that he had not become a communist. Ferguson found the suggestion preposterous.

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It seems no coincidence that three of the great British managers before Ferguson – Matt Busby, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly – were all raised in the Scottish working class (though in mining districts, rather than shipyards). In temperament and his fierce visage, David Moyes is the most comparable modern incarnation of this creed. However, it is notable, as Ferguson has pointed out, that he is from Bearsden, a relatively affluent suburb of Glasgow. Moyes’s assistant Jimmy Lumsden has something of a Govan connection, having been born just a mile from Ferguson’s place of birth.

In 2010, Ferguson spoke at the funeral of the Glasgow trade unionist and fellow Govanite Jimmy Reid, who led the “work-in” of shipbuilders on the Clyde in 1971-72. Most of all, he admired Reid’s discipline and leadership of the campaign. There was no vandalism, hooliganism or “bevvying”; it was a dignified attempt to save the jobs of thousands of highly skilled working men. As Ferguson put it simply, “We were producing craftsmen par excellence – why should we give up on them?”

The world that Ferguson evokes – of a skilled industrial and manufacturing working class – has been in rapid decline for decades. Yet even in its heyday, the section of the workforce to which he belonged was sometimes referred to as a “labour aristocracy”. Some Marxists disparaged it for not being inclined to proletarian revolution and for having failed fully to develop “class consciousness”, partly because it received higher wages than unskilled labourers. On the other hand, these skilled labourers also formed the vanguard of the trade union movement in the United Kingdom – mobilising in defence of a system of apprenticeship, in which the key to one’s progression was learning one’s trade at the feet of an expert and honing those skills through practice and graft.

The irony of modern football is that it is one of the few worlds in which the apprenticeship system still (just about) exists, albeit in a drastically altered form. Modern Britain is a place where the word “gaffer” is more likely to be uttered by a multimillionaire footballer than a factory worker. Skills are passed from one generation to another “on the job”, in a way that no longer happens in most industries.

One could push the logic further. For all the sniping at the extreme wealth of modern footballers, you could say that it is one of the few areas of modern British life where working-class boys with unfashionable accents achieve top-level professional success. It is a world that is entirely open to a version of merit that does not depend on educational achievement (something that Ferguson, to his chagrin, never attained in his school days).

This is all the more notable as changes to the education system over the same period have done little to enhance social mobility. It is a small but not insignificant fact that Manchester United’s star intellectual – Jonny Evans, who holds nine GCSEs, all at A* or A – is a product of Northern Ireland’s grammar school system, which is still based around a version of the eleven-plus.

It is this odd ethos that Ferguson has somehow preserved at Manchester United and managed to maintain, despite the commercial transformation of the game. “We were working class. The boys today aren’t. Some of them might think they are, but they’re not. Their fathers and their grandfathers might have been, but times have changed,” he said in 2011. “What you have to do, though, is make them believe in working-class principles, to make them think like they’re working class. You have to make them realise the privilege of working. I tell them working hard all your life isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.”

If he has a criticism of the younger generation, it is not directed at the wealth they enjoy but their flashiness – anything outside football that deflects them from a proper attitude to their work.

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It is not just the players who have become multimillionaires but Ferguson, too. Nor has he been afraid to use his elbows to reach the top (as was once said of his playing style). The charge sheet of hypocrisy has been laid at his door.

From the outside looking in, it seems hard to reconcile his accumulated personal wealth with his professed socialist principles. His mansion in Cheshire is called Fairfields, after the shipyard where his father worked, and his first racehorse was called Queensland Star, after a ship that his father had helped build. For some, the two do not sit naturally together.

Michael Crick’s 2002 Ferguson biography, The Boss, painted an unflattering portrait of a manager who ruled by fear and bullying and who was at least partly driven by a desire for financial gain. In a recent interview with Channel 4 News, Jon Snow asked how Ferguson could reconcile his socialist principles with his unwillingness to criticise the Glazer family, his “rampant capitalist” employers at Manchester United.

“The rat race is for rats,” Ferguson’s friend Jimmy Reid once said, at his inaugural speech as rector of Glasgow University. “We’re not rats. We’re human beings.” In the same year that Reid led his “work-in”, during the 1972-73 season, Ferguson, in the twilight of his playing career at Falkirk, had been the spokesman for a “mutinous crew” who threatened to strike against the management over wages. As a young manager at St Mirren, he is reported to have asked the chairman for a Jaguar on the grounds that a less successful counterpart at Motherwell had one. In If You’re Second You Are Nothing (2006), a joint biography of Ferguson and the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, Oliver Holt suggests that the fundamental difference between the two men was that Shankly was not so seduced by the trappings of wealth. As late as 1999, Ferguson ended his first autobiography, Managing My Life, by strongly stating his opinion that his wages at United had not reflected his importance to the club.

Yet Ferguson does not admit any contradiction or even recognise it. In his view, a desire to be paid what one was worth was – and is – not an ignoble instinct. It was inherent to the rationale of the trade union movement in the first place. He recalls, interestingly, that the US firm in which he trained as a toolmaker was more intolerant of union activity than many of its competitors but paid higher wages.

More broadly, British socialism was not driven by a desire for equality or a taste for “levelling down” but by the conviction that skill and hard work deserved esteem, protection and renumeration. To be rewarded for exceptional hard work or outstanding skill was not a betrayal of where one was from, but the ultimate testament to the rules of life that one learned there.

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As a fraternal creed, socialism had another important quality. It transcended the other modes of identification that could force working-class communities to turn in on themselves. In this respect, another central theme in Ferguson’s life and family upbringing was an acute awareness of the scourge of sectarianism.

Both he and his father were raised as Protestants; both married Catholic women. Notably, his father, whom Ferguson describes as a “humanitarian socialist” who moved away from religion in later life, spent time in the shipyards of east Belfast. There, he also played for the (predominantly Protestant) shipyard workers’ team Glentoran alongside the great Peter Doherty, who went on to manage the Northern Ireland team that reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup.

Alex Snr supported Celtic, despite raising his family less than a third of a mile away from the Rangers’ home ground, Ibrox Stadium. As the chairman of the local Celtic supporters branch, “Big Fergie” organised buses from the supporters’ club to Parkhead but banned the singing of IRA songs on the premises. Indeed, he even forbade the wearing of tribal colours in his own home (to the extent that his younger son, Martin, had to hide his Rangers scarf behind the toilet cistern).

Alex Ferguson personally experienced the sharp end of bigotry. Though he was a lifelong Rangers fan, he believes that he was poorly treated as a player at the club when it became known that both his mother and his wife came from Catholic backgrounds. “Since sectarianism is at the centre of that blood feud,” he has written of the “Old Firm” rivalry, “it is not something on which Scots can congratulate themselves.”

Alongside this anti-sectarianism was a larger view of what made the British nation and its component parts – a view that was once unremarkable, but now seems strangely antiquated. It is easier to understand if we consider Ferguson as a man whose self- image was forged in one regional power base (Glasgow), who was attuned to the importance of others (such as Aberdeen and Belfast) and whose great career success coincided with – and was linked to – the cultural and economic revival of another (Manchester). The last part of this story is one of the themes of the recently released film Class of ’92, the tale of “Fergie’s fledglings” – Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary and Phil Neville – who came to prominence against the backdrop of a revived Manchester music scene in the early 1990s.

That is not to say that Scottishness is any less a part of Ferguson’s identity. He is said to have “Scotland the Brave” as a ringtone on his phone and regularly invokes Scottish qualities of determination and drive. Yet unlike Jimmy Reid, who moved from the Communist Party to the Labour Party and finally to the SNP, Fergie remains committed to both Labour and the Union. “I won’t change that ever. I’ve never been tempted to go to the National Party,” he says. He admits to being surprised by the success of Alex Salmond but believes that Scots will ultimately opt for Union at the forthcoming referendum. “I really hope they don’t win the argument,” he says of the nationalists. “I feel very strongly that Scotland does better by being part of the UK.”

There is a sense that he regards Scottish nationalism as something of an indulgence – an immature position. While his nationalist friend Sean Connery tells the story of one of Ferguson’s young sons refusing to swap his Scotland shirt with a Brazil fan at the 1982 World Cup, Ferguson labelled it simple “boyish patriotism”.

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Both in his professional conduct and his personal world-view, Ferguson has demonstrated an ability to look beyond his immediate world without rejecting it. Indeed, he has harnessed the best qualities from whichever locale he has operated in but never followed a mantra to the point of subservience and superstition.

More than anything, the defining characteristic of his managerial technique has been his approach to change. This has not simply been to accept it as a fact of life, but to anticipate and shape the future. It has been evident in his early embrace of player rotation, innovations in training and sports science and perhaps above all in his repeatedly avant-garde choice of assistant manager.

Lurking behind it is an ingrained fear of failure and also a recognition, such as that which dawned on Clydeside in the 1970s and 1980s, that the world around you moves faster than you expect. “You say I’ve changed?” Ferguson once said as his relationship with his former captain Roy Keane broke down. “I hope I have. I would never have survived if I hadn’t changed.”

By such means, he has been able to transcend his immediate historical context while so many of his contemporaries were left behind or consigned to a previous era. The list of those who fell by the wayside is long: George Graham, Howard Kendall, Howard Wilkinson, Kevin Keegan, Graham Taylor and Kenny Dalglish are but a few.

Alongside this, another defining feature of Manchester United under Ferguson was that the core ethos of the team radiated outwards. The club was not geared to stifle, shadow or mimic its opponents. He was never a tactician in the mould of the great Italian coaches. In order to craft his teams’ identity in his image, Ferguson has often spoken of his need to establish complete “control” over his staff and players. Of all the criticisms levelled against him, he is perhaps most vulnerable and sensitive to the suggestion that he occasionally put control over loyalty. “Loyalty?” says Roy Keane. “He doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”

In the recent Channel 4 interview, Snow suggested to Ferguson that this obsession with control – which had led to fallouts with Keane, Beckham and others – was perhaps a little “Stalinist”. Ferguson, understandably for a man who has read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s books on the Soviet dictator, recoiled. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “that’s a bit extreme.”

There is, however, something reminiscent of Lenin in his approach: an emphasis on the absolute importance of leadership to drive the revolution that he instituted at Manchester United (not to mention the network of informers in the town’s watering holes who told him of the whereabouts of some of the heavier drinkers at the club).

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As I read this article back to myself, I realise that I am breaking one of my cardinal rules – to avoid the unnecessary intellectualisation of football, a simple game made complicated by idiots. But permit me one final indulgence in an effort to capture an elusive creed: what historians might call “the political thought of Sir Alex Ferguson”.

It is to apply what the French political philosopher Louis Althusser called a “symptomatic reading” in his attempt to understand Karl Marx. That was not simply to take Marx at his word but to examine what he left unsaid or unstated in a text: to draw out the implicit meaning of his thought and to consider both the silences and apparent contradictions within it.

So to the chapter in Ferguson’s second autobiography on “outside interests”. Aside from a passion for horse racing and vineyards, the catholicity of his reading tastes confirms the picture of a well-travelled and intellectually curious man. In addition to books about dictators, he has a library of works on “great men”: Mandela, Churchill, Mountbatten and even Gordon Brown’s workmanlike biography of James Maxton, the Clydeside socialist MP.

Above all, it is American history that dominates his intellectual interests. Muhammad Ali is his sporting hero. John F Kennedy is the politician who most fascinates him, closely followed by Abraham Lincoln. In his recent book and in interviews, he recalls a range of serious studies that he has read in the past few years: The Best and the Brightest by the Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam on the origins of the Vietnam war; Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy 1917-1963; Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin (also a favourite of President Obama); and Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era by the Princeton University professor James M McPherson, whom he has met. In addition to a copy of the autopsy report of JFK and a collection of audio lectures on the civil war sent to him by Gordon Brown, he has works on Kissinger, Nixon, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

Ferguson, who owns a flat in New York, admires America’s “energies and vastness, its variety”. He speaks of the role that Scots have played in the shaping of both the United States and Canada, where they found outlets to “better themselves” and demonstrated their “determination to get things done”. The US – not unlike the world of football – can be an unforgiving place, but to Ferguson it is an arena in which heroism, bravery, hard work and the force of will can be rewarded.

Ultimately, with Alex Ferguson, what we are left with is a hybrid world-view, somehow combining the shipyard socialism of Govan and a pioneer’s version of the American dream. It may not pass the test of consistency or socialist purity, but it is not without a certain allure. l

John Bew is an award-winning historian and a New Statesman contributing writer