I conquered Africa, with my Man Utd wristbands

Fill in the gap in the following well-known chant. "X* ** ** is the greatest team the world has ever seen." It's a strange chant, which you can hear being sung by the supporters of each of our 92 league clubs. Strange, because it doesn't rhyme and, for at least 99 per cent of our teams, it isn't remotely true; yet, I've heard fans from Carlisle to Colchester lustily belting it out as if they truly, sincerely, madly believe it.

It's a tribal chant, traditional grunting, received posturing, which nobody takes literally, and nobody stops to think about the words. A bit like "We hate Nottingham Forest, we hate [etc]". Now that is totally meaningless. I mean, who could muster the energy to hate Notts Forest? One of the most boring teams the world has ever seen, tra la. There is, however, one team that can make a claim to being the greatest the world has ever seen: Manchester United.

Bugger it. In an instant, I've lost 80 per cent of any possible readers. From Carlisle to Colchester, via Chelsea and Charlton, just the mention of Man U makes your average Brit fan not just switch off, but scream and shout: "Oh, not them again. Give us a break. The telly loves them; the papers love them; advertisers love them; even the refs love them (oh yes, they do). If Hunt is now going to slobber over them, that is the giddy limit."

They are not the world's greatest team. How can they be, when we can't even agree on the terms? Do you measure a club's greatness by the size of its crowds? In that case, Barcelona is miles ahead. Do you measure it in transfer fees, in who can pay most for a star player? In that case, there are about six clubs, in Italy and Spain, that have paid more. Man Utd, the club, is the richest on paper, now worth a billion pounds; but given that so much of its income is generated by merchandising, this is an unfair comparison. A club like Barcelona does not stoop to such vulgar, moneymaking methods, being too proud to sell its soul or shirts to sponsors.

Man U's best claim to world greatness rests mainly on armchair followers. Hard to compute how many there might be, but it's usually assumed that Man Utd has around six million fans in the UK, most of whom will never see the team in the flesh. They can't get tickets. Around the world, the estimate is 20 million fans, who can only ever follow them from afar.

In the past three weeks, I met two of these far-flung fans. First, there was Andy in Botswana. I was there visiting our daughter Caitlin who is married to Ron, and they've just had a baby called Ruby. (Since my return, I've met two babies called Ruby. Is it something in the air? Do mothers of a certain age, certain type, even 10,000 miles apart, get brainwashed into thinking they have chosen a totally original, unusual name?)

Last year, Caitlin happened to mention that the mechanic who services her car was a Man U fan. I sent her a signed photo of Dwight Yorke, whom Caitlin had never heard of, but she reported that Andy was now the most envied mechanic in Maun.

So when we set off for this trip, instead of taking beads for the natives, as we did in the old colonial days, I took some Man Utd sweatbands - you know, those things in your club colours that you put on your wrists. I was coming out of my dentist's in Archway and was passing a charity shop when I saw them in the window. A bargain at only 30p each. I bought the entire stock. Just the thing for any poor people I might meet in Africa, having had a baby up a tree, or homeless after the floods. Bound to cheer them up.

And it was true, more or less. Andy was knocked out, made up, over the moon when I gave him a Man Utd wristband. He would have serviced my car free for life, or longer, if only I'd had my car with me. He was aged about 40 and had fallen in love with Man Utd as a boy, at a time when they were not doing very well. He knew the name and life story of every player who had ever turned out for the club in the past 20 years. Now, you might say, well, Botswana, ex-Brit colonial-type country, once called Bechuanaland; even though it didn't have white settlers, you might expect some residual relationships with Britain. But we then moved on to Namibia, a country with no British connections, formerly a German colony.

We went on safari on the edge of the Namib Desert: absolutely awesome. Our guide up a sand dune was Isiah, a Namibian aged about 30. He grew up speaking his own tribal language, plus Afrikaans, then had to learn English ten years ago, when Namibia went independent. Yup. He was a Man Utd fan as well. In a Wilderness Safari camp, stuck out in the back of beyond, with all mod cons for the guests, the staff are isolated for three months at a time, with no radio, TV or newspapers. Following football, or showing your allegiance, is therefore rather limited.

But last year, while at home in Windhoek, Isiah did watch the Euro final, shouting all the way through for Man Utd. Sitting beside him was his younger brother - shouting for Bayern Munich. I presumed that this was due to the German connection, from their country's colonial past. But no, said Isiah, his brother's team is in fact Leeds Utd, and his favourite player is Lucas Radebe. Now that was interesting. It showed that the Man Utd syndrome we have noted in England - whereby every football fan who doesn't support Man Utd hates them - has spread round the world. There was a Namibian, who happened to be a Leeds supporter, reacting like any good Leeds supporter anywhere round the world: wanting Man Utd to get stuffed.

I gave Isiah two sweatbands, one for each wrist, just to annoy his brother next time he is home on leave.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide