When the editor asked me to write about the possible impact of England’s World Cup successes on British politics, the Government was still just about holding together. Now, it’s imploding. If the question can no longer credibly be “will it help the Government sell a Brexit deal?”, or even, “could success build a platform for a Conservative campaign”, it’s possible to still ask whether big events like national footballing success ever make a difference to how people view the country and therefore British politics. Will Theresa May’s Government be able to secure any comfort from English progress?
Let’s begin by looking at the history books. Perhaps the best test case is 1996. Here, despite the wave of euphoria that met England’s progress in the European Championships, amid a summer festival of football on home soil, the Conservatives failed to see any meaningful change in the polls and were hit by a landslide defeat the following May. The World Cup win in 1966 is a less useful test because four years elapsed between the sporting triumph and the next election, but Labour still lost that 1970 election despite having been in power when England secured their only ever victory. It was no platform for electoral victory.
Thinking about things from the other perspective, it’s not clear failure makes much difference either, which has been England’s default setting in recent decades. The Conservatives won a majority in 2015, a year after the England team’s failure in Brazil; they also won a majority in 1987, a year after being dumped out at the Quarter Final stage by eventual winners Argentina; and they won in 1983 after a poor performance in the 1982 World Cup.
Of course, in 1982, there were other, more important, things going on: namely, Britain’s conflict with Argentina over the Falklands. But the point is, there are always more important things going on that determine how people view politics. The public can – and do – completely compartmentalise how they view politics and other events, like England’s performance at the World Cup. Just as they draw a distinction between their own work life, which they might view with apathy, and their home life, which they might view with affection, so they draw a distinction between politics and recreation. Those of us that work in politics have a tendency to think that everyone must view everything through a political prism and that every major event is ultimately, in some way, political. Not true.
Fundamentally, people think that politicians are purely responsible for what happens in the political realm – the economy, the state of the NHS, crime rates, and so on. Correspondingly, and rightly, people give politicians no credit for nice things that might happen outside of the political world. If England do win the World Cup, people are perfectly capable of celebrating for days and weeks after – perhaps gaining confidence that we can win the European Championships in 2020 – while thinking the country is going down the tubes. Whether England beat Croatia and then either France or Belgium will make zero difference for how anyone views anything politically. If England meet Belgium, there will be no “Brexit derby” in the minds of the public – just a high-stakes game.
As such, there is no such thing as a political “feel good factor” resulting from football. The best politicians can ever hope for is that happy people spend more and that the economy is improved – while also hoping that the number of sick days doesn’t rocket the day after a big game. All the photos that politicians secure with victorious teams is essentially a waste of time too. While people think it is appropriate that real heroes get nationally and formally recognised, again nobody thinks that politicians are in any way responsible for victory and none of their star dust rubs off.
If England were to win the World Cup, it might knock of some of the smaller bad stories from the front pages for a few days. Perhaps that’s enough for Theresa May.