Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
One of the most easily disproved, yet oddly persistent, myths of British politics is that England’s World Cup victory in 1966 helped Harold Wilson win the election of that year.
It only takes a quick glance at the calendar to debunk this notion; the election was at the end of March while the World Cup was in July. It would be beyond even Wilson’s powers of political management to arrange a feelgood factor that ripples backwards through time.
And yet, one cannot entirely disregard the politics of the 1966 World Cup. There was never a golden age of ‘non-political’ sport – the Olympics and international football were already thoroughly politicised in the 1930s as the historian Peter Beck has demonstrated. Even at the time, July 1966 was recognised as a particular moment in English cultural history.
Football was fashionable – we were in a charmed period. After the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961 there came the rise of ‘Swinging London’ and the Chelsea stars of the 1960s, working class lads made good and the Mersey scene in football, music and politics, with which Wilson was associated, and we were well before the rise of hooliganism on the terraces. The first minister for sport, slightly ludicrously, was Lord Hailsham in 1962 (among other responsibilities) but when Labour won in 1964 Denis Howell, a qualified football referee and Birmingham MP, became the full-time Minister of Sport, a position he had until 1979 with an interruption in 1970-74.
Wilson welcomed the FIFA congress to London on 8 July, announcing that – as reported in the Guardian – it was not Howell’s personal responsibility, nor his for that matter, for the selection of the England team or how they played: “But if they lose I don’t doubt we shall be blamed.” But the World Cup hosted in England went well, as spectacle and as a focus of patriotic emotion. As the Observer recorded on 31 July 1966:
‘Britain erupted with joy last night after England had won football’s World Cup final at Wembley. Patriotic fervour, unequalled since VE Day, spread all over London in celebration of the 4-2 victory over West Germany. An AA spokesman said “It’s like VE night, election night and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one.” “Why be modest?” asked a City office clerk. “It was a damned fine victory. We have not had much to boast about since Harold Wilson came to power. But he’s a football fan if nothing else, and he ought to give Alf Ramsey a knighthood for this”.’
Wilson was not one to miss a trick like that, and Ramsey got his knighthood in January 1967. More confident with the press and public than the England manager, Wilson had encouraged Ramsey to pose in triumph with the ill-starred Jules Rimet trophy (as recovered in north Croydon by Pickles the dog before the competition). ‘It’s only once in a lifetime, you know.’
And it was, for Ramsey and arguably for Wilson, who never rode as high again as he did in spring and summer 1966. The Cabinet diaries of the time are more concerned with the economic troubles that led to the ‘July Measures’ – cuts that avoided a devaluation for another year and a bit at the cost of trashing the government’s planning for growth.
By summer 1970 the enthusiasm seemed to be back, both for Harold Wilson and for English football. England headed to Mexico with high hopes. Back home, the weather was beautiful and confidence in the economy and the future were recovering after a bumpy few years. Labour’s poll ratings improved rapidly, and Wilson went for an election on 18 June.
Wilson wanted to run a ‘quiet, happy campaign in the blessed sunshine with England moving towards the World Cup Final’, as Patrick Sergeant put it on 6 June. The Daily Mail was infuriated by the calmness that descended over Britain, warning somewhat patronisingly and shrilly that the next few days:
“will decide whether Britain is to sink further into the impotence, somnolence and decadence of the past five and a half years or whether the nation can shake off its lethargy and make that dash for freedom which is its only hope of rescue. The word ‘lethargy’ is used with deliberation. It is as though the people had been half put to sleep by a massive dose of chloroform. They are, in truth, under the influence of dope as they were in 1966.”
From a footballing point of view, it all went horribly wrong three quarters of the way through the 14 June match against West Germany when England surrendered a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2. It was the same for Labour in the election campaign: along with the England result the weather turned, the balance of payments figures were bad, and the good mood was punctured. The election campaign in 1970 was a matter of mood as much as policy, with Labour trying to win on general and the idea that things were getting better, while the Conservatives plugged away with their criticisms of the state of the economy.
Although there was a lot more going on in politics at the time, it is interesting that Scotland and Wales swung less than England to the Conservatives in 1970 but the reverse happened in February 1974, as if there was some England-specific downward bump in Labour’s performance in June 1970.
Wilson was Prime Minister again by June 1974 and was in his element when, straight after taking Prime Minister’s Questions, he flew out to Frankfurt to see Scotland play against Brazil (England had not qualified). Jaunty, garrulous and resplendent in a tartan tie, he saw Scotland draw against the holders, and as Nicholas Henderson, the British Ambassador, recalled in his diary:
“After the match, which was a draw, we went downstairs below the stand for sandwiches and drinks. Wilson, the polymath, was full of advice on how Scotland could have won. ‘I would have moved Bremner in from the left wing where he was wasting his time.’”
A lot of the image was cultivated – Wilson also avoided expressing a preference between Liverpool and Everton for fear of alienating one set or another of his Merseyside constituents – and Wilson’s claims to expertise could be wearing although when they concerned football they were fairly typical of the average voter in the pub, who always thinks they could do better than the England manager.
For all that, Wilson was probably the most committed football fan to have been the tenant of Number 10. After Wilson, the next Prime Minister to host an international football competition was John Major in 1996, when football came home (albeit with a return ticket back out again) for the European Championship.
Like 1970, it was a gilded summer in which England enthusiasm built up, but in 1970 expectations weighed heavily on England while by 1996 there had been enough defeats in those ‘thirty years of hurt’ for it all to be taken with a bit of defeatist irony. The government’s fortunes were not much affected when England bowed out, with an air of inevitability, to Germany on penalties. Major had been able to see three of the matches, although he missed England’s 4-1 triumph over the Netherlands. After the Germany match, he met some of the players in the tunnel and offered Gareth Southgate, who had missed a penalty, some kind-hearted and consoling words.
Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell had feared success for England would feed through into recovery for Major’s Government, but they need not have worried, because by that stage New Labour was probably more identified with football and Britpop than the government, rather as Wilson started to capture contemporary culture in 1963-64 while still in opposition. Blair hammered home the association by incorporating ‘it’s coming home’ into his conference speech in autumn 1996.
Political professionals and football managers both have unusual orders of priorities between ‘matters of life and death’, football and party politics. If we forgive Bill Shankly for this deformation professionnelle, we should be tolerant about the ambivalent feelings of opposition politicians about football success. In 1970 Wilson, naughtily, accused the Tories of not wanting England to win the World Cup – and there was some truth in it despite Heath’s indignant response.
Likewise in 1996 Blair’s entourage was divided between the euphoria of Ed Balls and the cynicism of Campbell, who saw Euro 96 through a political lens (and Scottish ancestry). Blair rebuked Campbell for being too obviously pleased that Germany had won, but Campbell accused him of, deep down, feeling the same.
One should also forgive a Scot for having limited sympathy with England’s complex of emotions about 1966 and those famous 30-to-52 years of hurt since. The Scottish experience of the collision of politics, nationalism, and football has been much more painful. They fell out of the group stage on goal difference in three successive World Cups in 1974-82, going undefeated in the group containing Brazil in 1974.
Scotland took a long time to process the trauma of 1978, when national feeling ran strong for Ally MacLeod and his team of talented players who travelled to Argentina with high hopes. But they came back after a mortifying performance against Peru and Iran, followed by a spectacular win against the Netherlands once they had recovered their underdog status.
MacLeod had seen part of his job as building confidence, and he did it too well, to the extent that the pre-Cup euphoria that consumed Scotland, and drew in many of the English and even the Argentine locals, ended in a sour hangover that lasted for years. The mid-1970s were also a peak for the SNP, and the confidence invested in the football team (and the oil coming on shore) spilled over into confidence in the future of Scotland as a presence in the world.
The Labour government had legislated for devolution in 1978, but the referendum on the Assembly took place in March 1979 after the collapse of Ally’s Army and the winter of discontent. Scotland voted 52-48 for its Assembly, but that was regarded as an insufficient margin to justify major constitutional change.
The distinct Scottish experience of 1978 (and the mid-1970s outbreak of tartanry across the UK stretching from the Bay City Rollers to Ally’s Army) is just as much a point of origin for the place of football in British politics as England’s triumph in 1966. After all, the crowds in England in 1966 had waved the Union flag while in 1996 the flag of England and St George had become widespread, although not as much as it has become in World Cup England in 2018.
A parting note: Scotland 78: A Love Story produced and directed by John MacLaverty is available on BBC iPlayer until 19 July. At the end of it, I think I must have got something in my eye…