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17 August 2023

What Lee Anderson forgets about Brian Clough

The Tory MP keeps betraying his Labour roots.

By George Walker

Two weeks ago the MP and deputy Tory chairman Lee Anderson tweeted an innocuous picture of a new beer at his local pub, inspired by the English footballing great and Nottingham Forest managerial legend, Brian Clough. The beer tap picture was subtitled: “The greatest manager England never had.” The post was an attempt by Anderson to conjure up and burnish an authentic English identity. Here was a rose-tinted nostalgia for what football “used to be”. Anderson was flaunting an “every man” opinion.

Brian Clough was a part of an old guard of openly left-wing British football managers. Like Matt Busby and Bill Shankly who were forged in Scotland’s pit villages, Clough wore his socialist principles on his sleeve through his solidarity with the miners’ strikes and involvement with the anti-Nazi league. Interview clips and mythic anecdotes abound about not only Clough’s politics, but his wit and argumentation. Clough once marched his team down to the picket lines of Derbyshire to show them what real graft looks like. Few figures in popular football culture have become as storied as Clough.

For the left, pandering to the image and icon of Clough is akin to drawing on a genealogy of authentic, British socialist lineage, reclaiming football as a constituent part of the same working-class history stretching back to the Levellers and Diggers who first sought to reclaim the land from the aristocracy in the 17th century. Anderson, a former miner, long ago abandoned this collectivist heritage. Brian Clough never did.  

Anderson was born into a classically Labourite background in Ashfield. His political consciousness emerged against the backdrop of an epochal confrontation between his then beloved Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher. As the purported barometer for the authentic working-class Tory voice, Anderson has licence to say what “he really thinks”, a convenient release valve for the more effete parts of the Conservative Party.

In his book The North Will Rise Again, Alex Niven describes a rich tradition of embattled northern romantics fighting against the pangs of London-centric dominance. Anderson does not fit neatly into that lineage, but Brian Clough does. Niven describes Clough as “the quixotic Teesside-born football manager… who continued to drink diabolically even after he achieved glittering success”. (In many ways, Clough was the father to another of the north-east’s embattled footballing sons, Paul Gascoigne.) Clough is also indelibly associated with the “good old days” when British football was still competitive, and not the play-thing of the international tycoon class. Clough took Derby County and Nottingham Forest, respectively, from the Second Division to glittering successes in the First Division and European Cup. Neither club was very fashionable when he became their manager.

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What would Clough make of Anderson? I imagine he would laugh. A “real working-class” culture warrior purporting to speak for the country as inflation rockets is a joke first and a tragedy second. He would probably have had a low opinion of Keir Starmer too: for his lame propensity to give in to Tory attack lines, or for undermining the resurgent union movement that Clough supported during his life.

[See also: Keir Starmer is refusing to play Rishi Sunak’s game]

Nostalgia and authenticity are part of the Starmer project. He is always keen to ground his programme in the lineage of previous Labour governments, and the way they have since time immemorial cleaned up the Tories’ mess in times of national crisis. Speaking in May, he argued that “our job in 1997 was to rebuild a crumbling public realm, in 1964 it was to modernise an economy overly dependent on the kindness of strangers, in 1945 to build a new Britain… in 2024, it will have to be all three.” The problem with nostalgia, and all these esoteric references to Labour history rather than to the wider culture, is that it makes the party come across as enthusiastic fans rather than political practitioners.

The conjuring of the past is also bound by this desire to affect authenticity, or what the Teesside writer and academic Joe Kennedy refers to as “authentocracy”, as politicians lean on a purported rags-to-riches backstory to highlight their unique understanding of the “left-behind” working class. Today, Starmer’s endless repetitions of his childhood in a pebbledash semi and his parents’ occupations risk absurdity. The world knows that his father was a toolmaker.

When Anderson draws on Clough’s image and people on the left don’t like it, it’s the superior authentocracy that both sides are vying for. Clough was after all from Middlesbrough, the spiritual home of levelling up, and the floundering freeport project that was meant to signify the British right’s new commitment to the country’s deprived regions.

Summoning the image of Cloughie as a form of political capital is a particularly pertinent and personal issue to me. My dad, also Brian, was named after Clough, and my great-grandfather, a local bookmaker involved with Middlesbrough Football Club, forged a mentorship with Cloughie when he played for them in the Fifties. My dad recalls phone calls between the two regarding Clough’s decision to move to Sunderland as a player, and the moments before Forest won their first European Cup – my great-grandfather provided guidance and friendship at important times.

Anderson’s tweet speaks to the paucity of our politics. With both parties desperately shuffling to represent the same economic orthodoxy, the next general election could easily turn into a culture war, with Anderson playing the part of Tory general. There will be more battles like the one over Clough, or who can get the biggest Union Jack glaring behind them at their latest press conference. Clough might have asked: how stupid do they think we are?

[See also: Labour’s caution could turn to radicalism in office]

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