The World Cup usually happens once every Parliament and is a chance for politicians to do their best to appear normal. But Prime Ministers who rely on a tide of patriotic good feeling are often let down by the England team.
Party leaders like to use football as a way of appearing to have interests beyond the political world. This effort at normalisation often rings a little phoney and you sometimes wonder whether they are trying a little hard.
In reality, David Cameron’s nodding acquaintance with the game and Ed Miliband’s seeming indifference are probably closer to the median voter than, say, Gordon Brown’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Raith Rovers FC.
But this will not stop them donning a scarf and making out their weeks are made or ruined by results on the pitch. All parties persevere with images of a politician with arms in the air as a televised goal is scored, despite such pictures having the same inauthentic air as those of MPs nervously pecking pints of ale in the pub.
In a World Cup year, this trend is even more pronounced. And sitting Prime Ministers probably feel they have the most to gain. In their ideal scenario there is such a glow of national good feeling that voters can’t see any reason to change the country they live in.
Of course the country has only ever mustered one such triumph, but in 1966 Harold Wilson had already strengthened the Labour majority before the finals. The disappointing sequel in 1970 saw England go out only four days before the country elected Ted Heath with a late swing, leaving Tony Crosland blaming in part the ‘disgruntled Match of the Day millions’.
By contrast, England’s grim years of failure in the 1970s saw them sit out two World Cups, prefacing Heath and Callaghan’s falls from power. During the Thatcher and Major years, the feeling of steady progress towards ultimate heroic defeat in a way matched the message of the Government.
It was during the 1994 tournament, in which England did not take part, that Tony Blair became Labour leader and began his inexorable march on Downing Street. The ejection of Gordon Brown came a month before South Africa 2010, although the underwhelming England effort in that tournament matched voters’ feeling about the last days of the Labour government.
Scotland, meanwhile, has not featured in a World Cup since 1998. While he has done his best to lay claim to Andy Murray’s Wimbledon success, First Minister Alex Salmond will not go into the independence referendum with the yes vote national pride in the football squad. Whether a (hugely unlikely) England victory would be good or bad for his cause is an entirely different question.
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