What Thatcher did for football: How a new generation of sports writers have embraced politics

Margaret Thatcher hated football - and sport in general - but her legacy to the game was to turn a generation of sports writers, who had previously dodged any analysis of their sports' significance, onto politics.

Prison inmates playing football.
Inmates have a kick around at San Vittore Prison, Milan. Photograph: Francescococco/Contrasto/Eyevine.

One of the more preposterous claims put forward by Thatcherites after the passing of their heroine was the notion that she had been football’s saviour. According to Jeff Powell, back in the 1980s the then prime minister “took up arms against the mob who were killing the game”. Where would soccer be now, the veteran Daily Mail sports writer wondered, if she had allowed it “to wither on the vine of feral violence and tribal hooliganism”?

As any fool knows, the baroness hated the sport. Indeed, she hated sport in general. Left-wing critics are keen to point out how such loathing (Kenneth Clarke has described how Thatcher considered football fans, like the miners, to be the enemy within) was symptomatic of her own – and more generally the right’s – disdain for popular culture. And yet, historically, the left has been no less disdainful. “Bourgeois sport has a single clearcut purpose,” wrote Maxim Gorky: “to make men even more stupid than they are.”

Football in particular was demonised as the opium of the masses, a prophylactic against workers’ revolution. In a superb new history, Sport in Capitalist Society, Tony Collins recounts how the early British socialist movement poured scorn on the professionalisation of football and rugby. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) dismissed soccer, as it was called in the 19th century, deeming it a “debasing spectacle”. One ILP member, a certain George Orwell, argued that “serious sport” was “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting”. Even a liberal historian such as G M Trevelyan could assert, without challenge, that the aristocracy of France would not have had their châteaux burned by the peasantry in 1789 if the French had played cricket.

The great irony is that, up until the Thatcher era, sport had acted, by and large, as a bulwark against incisive analysis of its own political significance. The mantra adopted by right and left alike was: “Keep politics out of sport.” When Thatcher broke this golden rule by calling for a British boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it opened the floodgates. Stuart Hall’s New Left Review and Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop had paved the way by carrying out some pioneering research, but sports writing before Thatcher – with the magisterial exceptions of C L R James’s Beyond a Boundary (“Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it”) and Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Man (“Football was not so much an opiate of the people as a flag run up against the gaffer bolting his gates and the landlord armed with his bailiffs”) –had usually turned its nose up at politics. So it would be no exaggeration to describe the keen interest of the new generation of writers, bordering at times on obsession, as a profound change.

David Peace’s recently published Red or Dead is a paean to Bill Shankly, one of football’s greatest gaffers, and it has socialist politics at its core. The novel retains the repetitive, Beckettian rhythms that have become his trademark, but also adds another dimension to a body of work that has exposed the social and political evils of 1970s Britain relentlessly: in particular, optimism. Or more accurately, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, to quote the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci.

In an interview in the forthcoming edition of the Blizzard, a quarterly in the vanguard of the new, post-Hornby football writing, Peace describes Red or Dead as “a Socialist Book. I think Shankly’s socialism was fundamental and integral to every aspect of his life and work. It was about equality, on and off the pitch, and working for the people and the supporters of Liverpool. It was about communal work for communal success. And I do admire this and lament its absence.” But this is no tiresome jumpers-for-goalposts pining for the muddy pitches, questionable tackling and even more questionable haircuts of a purer, irrecoverable past. As one reviewer has pointed out: “This isn’t a book about the way things were or the way things are. This is a book about the way things should be.”

Peace’s Gramscian approach to sport is shared by Mark Perryman, the editor of London 2012: How Was It for Us?. The contributors to this collection include Mark Steel, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Billy Bragg and Zoe Williams, none of whom could be considered, by any stretch of the imagination, a sports writer. But then some of the best recent writing on the world’s most popular recreational activity has popped up beyond the boundary of sports writing. Whether it’s Jonathan Freedland, arguing in the Guardian that last summer’s Olympics reflected a kinder, gentler and more inclusive country, or a Daily Telegraph iconoclast such as Peter Oborne, taking issue with his paper’s appropriation of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory as a national triumph and declaring that “tennis is not a national sport. It is a middleclass game”, it is now virtually obligatory for cultural commentators to regard sport as a prism through which to view society.

Perryman, like Tony Collins, seeks to distance himself from Freedland’s view. “London 2012 was one big party . . .” he writes in his introductory essay. “For a precious few it will have changed their lives. For most it hasn’t.” But both writers avoid the snottiness of Gorky, Orwell and those party-poopers at the Socialist Workers Party who, even before the Games had closed, were gleefully insisting that, “whatever brief effect the Olympics have, it won’t last. Team GB medals won’t be much of a consolation when news of crisis, cuts, job losses and pay curbs returns to the front of people’s consciousness.” Collins, who traces the history of modern sport from its origins in the burgeoning capitalist economy of mid-18th-century England, believes it is as much a product of that economic system as the factory, the stock exchange and the unemployment line. Sport’s redeeming feature, however, is that it can “play a positive role in helping men and women to reach the fullest extent of their mental and physical potential”.

And yet, in a distorted way, Jeff Powell may be right. Thatcherism has triumphed, in the sense that much of the globalised sporting entertainment we now take for granted was founded on Thatcher’s free-market, neoliberal principles. Just as she gave new life, inadvertently, to politically motivated comedy and protest music, so she helped radicalise a young generation of football writers, from When Saturday Comes contributors and creators of fanzines to Hillsborough pamphleteers and magazine editors such as Jason Cowley, of the NS, with his 2009 memoir, The Last Game. So perhaps we should be thankful that her moves to politicise sport saved it from the sour-faced condescension of the miserabilist left. Certainly, the “Thatcherisation” of the Premier League has provoked a wave of sports writers, inspired by the two Davids, Conn and Goldblatt, into performing socio-economic dissections of Sky’s brave new world of rocketing ticket prices, mega TV contracts and pampered prima donnas.

Sadly, the Anti-Sport Brigade has not withered away. In last year’s Barbaric Sport: a Global Plague, Marc Perelman announced himself as the miserabilist left’s answer to Ronny Rosenthal – just a few yards out, with the goal gaping, the lad only goes and clips the bar. Perelman disparages an activity that engages the time, money and emotional commitment of millions around the world as “pestilential” and asks: “What can critical theory come up with today against sport now it has become the visible face of every society? The only possible critical response is a firm assertion: there should be no sport.”

Try telling that to Lizo Sitoto, who wrote so movingly of how football “saved the lives” of political prisoners during apartheid. “A person locked up and doing nothing cannot think,” explained Sitoto, an organiser of the Robben Island soccer league. “When football was there it gave us something to talk about. That’s why it’s more than just a game.”

Anthony Clavane is the author of “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?”, a history of Jews in English football, published in paperback by Quercus (£9.99)