Sol Campbell in action for England during Euro 2008. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Sol Campbell is wrong - for most England fans, race is irrelevant

When it comes to choosing an England captain, fans are more likely to have a biased opinion based on club colours than skin colour.

The former England footballer Sol Campbell believes he was prevented from captaining his country more often because of the colour of his skin. He told the Sunday Times: “I don’t fit the FA’s image of an England captain. I’d done enough to be captain. I’ve asked myself many times why I wasn’t. I keep coming up with the same answer. It was the colour of my skin”. Campbell argues that both the FA and most England fans prefer the captain of the national side to be white. “I don’t think it will change because they don’t want it to, and probably the majority of fans don’t want it, either. It’s all right to have black captains and mixed-race in the under-18s and under-21s but not for the full side. There is a ceiling and although no one has ever said it, I believe it’s made of glass.”

Campbell’s views reflect the amount of prejudice and abuse that he has faced in his career. Though he is straight, the player faced significant amounts of homophobic abuse, which the game was much slower to crack down on than racist monkey chants. The arguments about who should have been England captain when in the late 1990s are inevitably subjective. But there is little evidence of an FA “glass ceiling”. After all, Campbell was himself selected to be captain of the full side, and at a younger age than any England captain, except Bobby Moore. Paul Ince and Rio Ferdinand were also England captains in this era, with little public discussion or controversy of this. The Sunday Times’s front-page story reported that he captained England on only that occasion, though Campbell captained England three times in his 70 appearances, as was corrected in the final editions. By chance, Sir Bobby Charlton was also captain three times in his 106 games, which shows that any England team will usually contain many potential leaders. Campbell’s experience probably had more to do with the choices of England managers than with an FA policy. He was asked to captain the side twice, when very young, by Glenn Hoddle in 1998. But Hoddle was forced to resign early the next year and his successors chose other players.

Whatever the merits of the choices that England managers, or the FA made, Campbell is on weakest ground in suggesting that most England fans would prefer a white captain to a black captain. This seems extremely unlikely. The vast majority of England fans see nothing remarkable in our multi-ethnic football team or its leadership. The question of whether you could be black and equally English was a publicly contested issue in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. When Viv Anderson first put on the England shirt as a full international in 1978, and Paul Ince first captained the team in 1993, it was worth marking the breaking of a glass ceiling. The racists were probably in a minority even in the 1980s. The problem was that a vocal National Front-associated group of extremists dominated the England travelling support, to the extent that they put everybody else off. When John Barnes scored that crazy, mazy goal in Brazil’s Maracanã stadium in 1984 to put England two-nil up, the NF contingent in the stadium chanted one-nil. But the nation watching at home knew the real score – and celebrated the goal.

By the time that Campbell or Ferdinand were leading England out, the idea of a non-white captain went unremarked – because it had become enough of a norm for us to barely notice. We don’t discriminate over the race of our sporting heroes. At the last Olympics, three-quarters of people rejected the notion that we should cheer more loudly for British-born Team GB athletes to those who had come to this country to wear our flag. At least that proportion would find the idea of a race bar on picking the England captain bizarre. This goes for Englishness outside the stadium too. Sometimes liberals wonder and worry about whether English remains a racially exclusive category, even though British identity is more inclusive. But this is an idea that most people in England reject. There is still a sizeable minority – of one in five - who say it is very (12 per cent) or fairly (10 per cent) important to be white to be English. But most say it does not matter at all, as YouGov polling for British Future has shown. France did have a rather tortuous and embarrassing debate about whether the Republic of equality and fraternity should have a policy to make sure there weren’t too many black players in the national team. Such a conversation would struggle to get off the ground in England today and would be laughed out of court in the post-match phone-ins. Most England fans will want the team, and the captain, chosen on merit. Football being a matter of opinion, of course fans will argue about who the best captain should be. When it comes to choosing an England captain, most of us are now rather more likely to have a biased opinion based on club colours – who plays for the teams we support, or that we love to loathe – than skin colour.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.