Sol Campbell on the pitch. Photo: Getty
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Did Sol Campbell really miss out on the England captaincy because he was black?

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions – in this case, about institutional racism in football.

If Kanye West had played professional football, then he might have provided quotes like Sol Campbell. Campbell, who had a distinguished career for various clubs (most notably, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur) and his country, has contended that “if I was white, I would have been England captain for more than 10 years”. Campbell’s comments, which appear as extracts from his new biography in The Sunday Times, are damning of the Football Association, whom he describes as “institutionally racist”. He elaborates thus: “I think the FA wished I was white. I had the credibility, performance-wise, to be captain . . . I’ve asked myself many times why I wasn’t [captain]. I keep coming up with the same answer. It was the colour of my skin.”

Like Kanye West, Sol Campbell has the habit of making headline-hogging statements that allow us to evade wider and more uncomfortable questions. When Kanye, in an interview with BBC Radio One’s Zane Lowe, railed against racism in the fashion industry, his important point was lost in the familiar Kanye haze of outlandish egotism. Similarly, when Campbell remarked that racism has been and is a problem within football, he stated his case in a manner that has unfortunately made the entire issue far simpler to dismiss.

The thing about making accusations of racism, particularly those against organisations, is that it is very difficult to prove them at the best of times. Unfortunately for Campbell, who was wryly aware of the furore his remarks would attract, the facts as they stand are not strongly in his favour. He played for England for just over ten years, between 1996 and 2007, receiving 73 caps in that time; during that period, he played alongside David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Tony Adams, John Terry and Steven Gerrard, each of whom could at various times have considered themselves worthy of the captaincy. Campbell himself led England three times, more than Wayne Rooney or Frank Lampard, who have been handed the captain's armband twice each. Like Kanye, who imagines himself to be a visionary in the world of fashion, it may be that Campbell overestimates his ability as a leader in his chosen field.

But, but, but. There does still seem to be a persistent problem regarding racism within football; and that is evident from the cacophonous silence from many of Britain’s black footballers at vital moments. Let’s not forget that they felt so dismayed by their union’s handling of the issue that, as recently as October 2012, they were considering the launch of a breakaway organisation to represent their interests. It is unclear whether these preliminary discussions evolved into anything much more substantial but it is instructive that black footballers even thought them necessary. More interesting still is the secrecy in which they were conducted, as if they feared public reprisal if they voiced their grievances too openly. After all, this was 2012; a time when we should presumably be past such conversations, clandestine or otherwise. We have had black England captains; black English footballers are some of our most-loved characters and several of them may prove decisive in this season’s Premier League title race. What’s there to complain about?

Well, quite a lot, if we step back from the spectacle. As was pointed out to me on social media yesterday, it was only a handful of years before Campbell’s arrival as an international player that racism was alleged to be a factor in selection of the England team. As noted by Vivek Chaudhary in “Manager reveals England’s hidden racism”, an article that he wrote for the Guardian in 2004,

Wednesday’s lunch to mark the 10th anniversary of the football anti-racism group Kick It Out was buzzing with speculation about the identity of a former England manager who has alleged that during his tenure he was told by senior FA officials not to pick too many black players. The manager in question, whose identity is known to Digger and has a long history of closely working with some of England’s leading black players over the past 25 years, privately spoke about the incident at the lunch but refused to go public with his allegation. He claims that he was called into an office where two senior FA officials were present and they told him that his England team should be made up of predominantly white footballers. [My italics.]

It’s only a thought, but it’s worth wondering whether the only people who speak out are those who feel that they have nothing left to lose. Football is a very small world and those who consistently speak out of turn will find themselves swiftly excluded. It’s notable that this former England manager still did not feel comfortable, years after leaving his role, to say attach his name publicly to these allegations. Campbell’s claim that the FA is “institutionally racist” is not currently backed by the most compelling of evidence. However, it is a comment that has come at a particularly damaging time, following the FA’s award to Nicolas Anelka of a mere five-match ban for making the quenelle gesture. To quote the definition given in the Macpherson Report in 1999, institutional racism is:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people. [My italics.]

This is where allegations of institutional racism against the FA, and the sport of football in general, may gather some momentum. Many people may think that racism is merely the preserve of hooded men on horseback, but it’s not: it’s also something far more insidious, which is the failure to see people as suitable for positions of authority merely because of the colour of their skin. In some cases, it is a prejudice of which even those making such appointments may be unaware; but, of course, that does not make it any less detrimental to the ethnic-minority candidate in question. On this note, it was just last autumn that the FA faced implications of not only institutional racism but institutional sexism, having appointed a commission to consider the future of English football that consisted entirely of white men. As Heather Rabbatts, the FA’s first female director, objected in a letter to the commission’s chairman Greg Dyke:

By proceeding along this current path we are not only failing to reflect our national game but we are also letting down so many Black and Ethnic Minority people – players, ex-players, coaches and volunteers, who have so much to offer and are so often discouraged and disheartened by the attitudes they encounter. The FA should be leading by example not reinforcing entrenched attitudes. [My italics.]

Rabbatts’ letter, which is worth reading in full, is clearly something that she published as a last resort; which suggests that, for every Sol Campbell vaulting above the barricades in sensationalist fashion, there are very many more black people, very possibly with far more nuanced arguments than him, who are silent for fear of rocking the boat. However, looking at their under-representation in the game’s senior positions, it may well be that the boat could do with some rough seas. It is to be hoped that, lest Campbell be seen as a lone and poorly-substantiated voice of protest, they come forward to tell their stories.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood