Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister.
Social cohesion issues surface regularly in commentaries on modern life, and in reports from the Social Mobility Commission. It has become easier than ever to live, work and socialise only with people like us. Society’s atomisation, whilst massively increasing individual choice, can accelerate that trend.
Politics suffers as a result. Our own shrunk membership from the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s (though it is now rising once again) leaves us less broadly based than we should be. As ConservativeHome fans kindly asked me on the way to Rochester once again this week “Gaffer! What kicks against such growing insularity in British life?”
Well, of course, it’s football. And I am not talking specifically about the elite, the Premier League and the better supported clubs. In one sense, they also make the point, because they have an extensive fan base, across the social spectrum, and their fortunes are the subject of much wider discussion than almost any political issue.
But the changing nature of the game at that level is also taking it away from the closest relationships it used to have. The local background to a team is scarce. The players are no longer accessible in terms of wage, make of car or often, language. Or sometimes what they advertise. And the pricing structure which goes with the modern elite game can make it much harder for the family habit of regular, and thus passed on, attendance to be affordable.
However, your local club is probably different. During September, we celebrated Non League Day, during which, on a rest day from the senior professional game due to internationals, crowds were encouraged to try the game at a different level.
The current revival of the non-league game is an antidote to the gripes above. With an extensive football pyramid of leagues, there is a competitive element almost everywhere. The crowd may be scores or hundreds, but there is a closeness of involvement which is hard to beat. The club chairman will either be larger than life, or careworn – sometimes both, but pretty available to all, as will be all the other volunteers who keep the show on the road.
Typically you may pay a tenner, with a few extra quid for a programme, the raffle and golden goal ticket. I don’t say you’ll make the tea, but if you want to, there will be a place for you. You will have an identification with your players that will remind you why you fell in love with the game in the first place. Like three o-clock Saturday kick offs.
And the quality is getting better all the time, as my constituency teams in North-East Bedfordshire regularly demonstrate. Do recall also the sheer scale of public involvement with the game. For instance, it is claimed that one and a half million people play five a side football every week! And perhaps as many as four million play during the course of a year – let alone all those playing the eleven a side version, or coaching and running the youth game for girls and boys.
Playing or watching, football is still a game for everyone, a place where rich and poor share the same joys and frustrations, and unite behind the dream every week – walking away when fortune isn’t smiling, but living on the moments of success until the next time. So if you are looking for social cohesion in modern day Britain, follow the crowd. And if you haven’t been down your local recently, do give it a go!