Wednesday, 20 January 2016


The first era of globalisation is considered to have run from 1850 to 1914. The former date is a convenience, though many historians consider the Great Exhibition of 1851 to be an emblematic (and reassuringly UK-centric) starting point. A better date might be 1863, the foundation of The Football Association. Within 30 years, the newly-codified (and from 1885 professionalised) game had been spread by British workers and expats around the world, testifying both to the growth of trade and the spread of industry. As the appearance of the game in South America and Japan in the 1870s indicates, this was much more than the consequence of imperial expansion and performative Britishness (that was more the tale of cricket). The rapid spread of the game, and the enthusiasm it generated, was a socio-cultural phenomenon that heralded modernity.

This is hardly an original observation. The idea of football as a metaphor for globalisation has been doing the rounds since Italia 90, with David Goldblatt's The Ball is Round of 2006 being perhaps the final word of the pre-2008 phase that excavated the 19th century roots of the "global game". Football is attractive to social historians because it is relatively discrete (there isn't too much original source material to deal with and it's usually well-archived), it can be made to reflect wider social theory (the collectivist crowds of the late-40s, hooligans in the 70s etc), and it serves as a focal point for economic history and geography because it is both an easily-understood industry and highly localised (Goldblatt's 2015 The Game of Our Lives provides a more rueful history of the game's recent evolution: itself a testament to football as a flexible theme).

That Alastair Campbell has taken to sharing his thoughts by equating the Labour Party and Manchester United should therefore come as no surprise. The synopsis is hilarious: "The two great institutions have much in common. After more than a decade of success under strong, charismatic leaders, they have struggled to maintain their winning ways. The thing they botched was the succession". As a trope, this associates "success" and "winning" with the "strong, charismatic leader", which would find favour with old Nazis, while the "botched succession" speaks of the chief fear that besets all monarchies, from the house of Apple to the house of Windsor. This is a perfectly reasonable template for someone planning a new career in motivational speaking ("great men I have known and to whom I was indispensable"), but it barely qualifies as political analysis.

Let us consider some alternative parallels. Just as Campbell has ignored the views of Labour Party members, so he appears to be oblivious to the criticisms voiced by many United fans, both before and after old red-nose's departure, namely that the squad had been progressively weakened by the Glazers for financial reasons with Ferguson's connivance. Labour Party membership halved between 1997 and 2007 as policy-formation was centralised, increasingly in the hands of unelected apparatchiks like Campbell. In other words, the "great institution" was gently collapsing from within due to the excessive managerialism and democratic neglect of the Blair years, just as United was suffering from the Glazers' financialisation. It's players on the pitch who win games, not the management or supporters, and likewise a political party needs members on the ground to win an election, particularly if it cannot count on a supportive media.

Campbell's tale is that of a courtier, with many amusing personal anecdotes showing the humanity of great men and his own centrality to events. This is most obvious in the discussion of the manoeuvring around the succession to the Sun King, where Tony Blair's reluctance to knife Gordon Brown and everyone else's focus on "winning for Labour" is presented as a Shakespearean tragedy of honourable men. He seems to forget that David Miliband failed to secure the leadership in 2010 because he didn't convince the wider membership (including those pesky trade unionists), not because he had been insufficiently groomed (as I read this, I had a surreal vision of The Prisoner of Zenda in which Campbell and Mandelson persuade David to secretly replace Ed - the plot's all wrong, but the mise-en-scene is convincing).

Perhaps the most amusing parallel is not between Ferguson and Blair but the Govan Gobshite and Jeremy Corbyn. Ferguson spent his first 3 years in Manchester, from 1986 to 1989, failing in the eyes of both fans and neutrals alike, culminating in the famous "Three years of excuses and it's still crap ... ta-ra Fergie" banner. This makes Campbell's judgement on Corbyn - "After four months, however, it does feel that what was once a winning machine is being turned into a losing one" - seem a tad premature. Ferguson eventually turned United's fortunes around, winning the FA Cup in 1990, the Cup Winners Cup in 1991, and finally the League in 1993 after the crucial purchase of Eric Cantona. In other words, it took him 4 seasons to win any silverware and 7 to land the big one. Corbyn didn't even have 7 hours before the Blairites were scrawling on bed-sheets with their flipchart markers.

What's depressingly predictable about this is not just Campbell's continuing failure to think about why most long-standing party members (and not just the 3-pounders) voted for Jeremy Corbyn, let alone his blindness to the historically-specific nature of the "third way" and why it cannot be revived now, but his commitment to a monarchical model of politics, from "charismatic leaders" to a "botched succession". It appears the lasting contribution of Blairism to British politics is an idolisation of managers coupled with a contempt for the crowd outside their contribution as consumers. The word "democracy" does not appear once in this Guardian "Long Read". Campbell may be "proud" of the head-tennis session he organised between Blair and Kevin Keegan, but he shows a greater affinity for the thinking of Mike Ashley than that of the perma-haired former Magpies manager.


  1. Campbell's piece is indeed risible, as is Michael White's.

    They don't hesitate to re-write history. Lest we forget, what actually happened is that in 2005 Blair was already electoral toast. In the middle of the campaign, Labour were in big trouble. Brown was considerably more popular with the voters, so was placed centre stage, with the implicit message "Vote Blair, get Brown". It worked. But this is apparently now whitewashed from history - 2005, to the Blairites, has become his third "triumph". As you say, their main legacy was to hollow out the party, as members left in droves.

  2. It would have made more of an impression if he had made an analogy between the fortunes of Burnley in the mid-1980s and the recent history of the Lib Dems.

    The argument doesn't even make sense from his own logic. If Blair and Ferguson were such god-like figures, then it stands to reason that they would be irreplaceable and decline and chaos would follow. So, considering that these skilled managers/secular gods are mortal, it would make sense not to invest them with too much power and authority.

  3. One thing that Blair and Ferguson shared was an ability to create their own myths. United have always been renowned as a club that developed their own players but, apart from the Neville/Scholes/Giggs group who were brought through by Kidd, they actually spent more than any other English team.

    One thing where Blair differed was that he was no bully, unlike "hairdrier" Ferguson. But then I guess he had Campbell to do that for him.