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The fixture clash: Euro 2016 vs Euro Referendum

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reckons he knows the final score when European football coincides with a big vote on Europe


David Cameron, you know the one who gets his Villas and West Hams all in a muddle when professing his undying love for a team in claret and blue, obviously wasn’t checking the summer fixture lists when plumping for a date to have a Euro Referendum.

Not content to pee off the Scots and Welsh with a vote just weeks after their 5 May elections, and Londoners too who vote for a Mayor on the same day, Dave has also chosen to clash with football’s European Championships. And not only this summer time round will much of England be transfixed on the tournament but with Wales and Northern Ireland qualified three ‘home’ nations will be there together at a Euro or World Cup for the first time since World Cup ’82, more than thirty years ago. In anybody’s book this is an historic achievement likely to spur huge popular interest, woe betide any canvassers, from either side, who interrupt those with eyes, ears and emotions transfixed on the TV for the games. The TV schedules for debates will have to be arranged not to coincide with matches. Big rallies on any night our teams are playing will have row after row of empty seats .

And so as the argument, in or out, reaches the proverbial fever-pitch a decent chunk of the English, Welsh and Northern Irish population (with the Republic qualified as well both communities over there) will be maxing out their interest in all things European. And the Scots? Cheering on anyone but England, naturally!

This could be a fascinating mix. Those papers trumpeting get out of Europe on the front pages breathlessly reporting on results from being in Europe splashed across the back pages.

Such a football vs politics fixture clash has some form beyond just canvassers having doors slammed in their faces because they’ve interrupted a household watching a match on the TV.. In ’66, Wilson won a Labour landslide months ahead of England winning the World Cup and promptly draped his early version of Labour modernisation, the white-hot-technological variety, in all things football and Beatles. More than a generation before Blairite Cool Britannia Harold’s ‘Have you ever noticed England only ever win the World Cup under a Labour Government’ is surely the definitive football-politics soundbite.

Four years later Wilson decided not to call a General Election until after the Mexico ’70 World Cup because he fully expected an England team many considered to be better than the ’66 squad to retain the trophy. They didn’t, losing 3-2 to West Germany in the quarters. An England team that was past its glory days and a country looking for something different after six years of Labour proved a toxic mix for Labour’s election hopes. Instead, Edward Heath, a yachtsman not a football fan, led the Tories to victory.

In 1988 Jim Sillars scored a sensational by-election win for the SNP but lost his seat at the following 1992 General Election. This was in the midst of an era when Scotland qualified for Euros and World Cups including Italia ’90 and Sweden ’92. The Tartan Army were everywhere but no SNP breakthrough as a result. An angry Sillars derided the supporters as ‘ ninety-minute nationalists’. Now we have the obverse, no Scots team has qualified for a tournament since World Cup ‘98 , the SNP’s support has never been greater. Ninety-minute nationalism? The commitment is so all-consuming it seems like the Scots barely have time for the football.

In ’96 England hosted the European Championships. When England made it through to the semis (look away now if the score and manner of the exit is too painful to watch) there are well-substantiated rumours John Major considered calling a snap General Election if England should win the tournament and kill off new Labour before it was too late. A semi-final defeat to Germany, on penalties put paid to that idea.

Not to be outdone Blair delivered his 1996 Labour Conference in the footballing vocabulary straight out of Euro ’96 believing those words best described the opportunity beckoning for new Labour:

“Labour’s coming home! (Applause) Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming. Labour’s coming home! (Applause) As we did in 1945 and 1964, I know that was then, but it could be again – Labour’s coming home. (Applause) Labour’s coming home.”

Cringeworthy doesn’t even begin to do those words justice. Still, it didn’t seem to do Blair very much harm and the rest is history.

Thus history sends us rather mixed messages about the Euro football vs Euro Referendum fixture clash. The most likely outcome will depend on which campaign has the best popular vision to project the meaning of Europe. So far the signs are dismal from both camps, in fact the entire commentariat, not to mention ‘Villa fan’ Cameron himself, appear to have entirely missed the clash of dates, and these people call themselves well-informed, in touch?

My vision of Europe is rooted in popular culture not the Westminster bubble politics of which self-serving Tory is stabbing another self-serving Tory in the back. National teams competing against one another, an expanded competition to recognise the new Europe, the free travel and mixing of fans and fan cultures, at home with our own ways of supporting our team, excited to take these on our travels away too. And UEFA, or FIFA? Not much love lost between us and them, institutions in dire need of reform but we’re not walking away from the need to change them either. Sounds familiar? Europe as a place we can call home when we want to, abroad when we don’t.

And the final score? If England, Wales and Northern Ireland combine to disappoint I wouldn’t count on support for staying in Europe doing very well as a result. But as I fully expect England to top their group, Wales to come second, while Northern Ireland stage an upset or two, France 2016 could prove to be one big party of being part of Europe, not apart from it. Never mind the establishment campaigns, instead prepare for a populist wave of Euro-enthusiasm to sweep ‘In’ to victory.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. Mark’s new book on the 50th anniversary of England winning the World Cup, 1966 And Not All That, will be published in May by Repeater Books.

23rd February 2016