Why Does the Conservative Government Hate Footballers?

From Marcus Rashford to Gary Lineker, the Tories are getting infuriated by footballers

You know who people like? Footballers.

It makes sense; if you’re professionally accomplished at a sport that half the human race loves, you’re very likely to be admired by a great many.

You know who people don’t like? Politicians. The UK population regularly votes politician to be the least trustworthy profession. And that was before… [gestures wildly at the sewage ridden, tomato bereft, slavery enabling bonfire of collapsing infrastructure and corruption that is British society at present]… all this.

The thing is, a politician’s job depends on people liking (or at least tolerating) you enough to support what you’re doing, by voting for you. If you can’t manage that, you don’t get to be a politician anymore (not officially, anyway).

The Conservative party have long had a reputation for doing whatever it takes to win over voters, regardless of whether it conflicts with their own beliefs, or even whether or not it’s true. Until  recently, these efforts were bleakly effective.

But one area where Conservative politicians keep coming a cropper is football. The current furore over Gary Lineker pointing out that a fascist policy is a bit fascist is just the latest example. You’d think, given how they’re meant to be ruthless when it comes to keeping their jobs, and footballers are considerably more popular than them, that Tory politicians would keep well away from them.

But no, they can’t seem to help lashing out at footballers, and doing themselves damage in the process, like Sideshow Bob with the rakes.

It’s weird. It’s illogical. But it keeps happening. Why?

Conservative politicians taking on footballers: a humiliating historical tradition

The Conservative party has a surreal history of being at odds with football.

Will Magee summarised this in an excellent article for Vice magazine, which goes from the despicable saga of Thatcher and Hillsborough, to David Cameron’s humiliating Aston Villa/West Ham debacle.

This article was written in 2017. The Conservatives have ended up disgracing themselves by publicly tangling with footballers many times since.

There was the time that Matt Hancock, perennial punchbag of the Tory party and a man who seems to think self-awareness is a commie conspiracy, inexplicably singled out premier league footballers for not ‘playing their part’ at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

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Then we had the Conservative government being humiliatingly browbeaten into adopting the ludicrous lefty policy of… [checks notes] making sure children don’t starve, by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. Twice!

Then came the edifying spectacle of prominent Tories publicly condemning the successful England football team for the ludicrous wokery of… [checks notes again] publicly opposing racism, which ended about as well as you’d expect, with the home secretary being publicly ‘owned’ by player Tyrone Mings.

And now we’ve got the Gary Lineker non-issue taking up column inches and parliamentary time while our health service collapses around us. It’s like football is a rotten tooth of the Conservative party; every time they poke it, it hurts, but they just can’t stop themselves.

It’s so persistent yet self-defeating, it almost looks pathological. So, what’s behind this surreal behaviour?

Conservatives V Footballers: the underlying psychology.

In simple psychological terms, both politics and football invariably end up being very tribal affairs.

Both football and politics involve you picking ‘a side’, and supporting it against rivals and competitors, alongside like-minded others on the same side. That’s just how they work. And when you find yourself as part of a like-minded community that is competing against opponents for big rewards, it inevitably leads to ingroup and outgroup thinking.

We value and support identifiable members of our ingroup (the community we belong to), while treating members of an outgroup (a community that you don’t belong to, that usually competes with or threatens yours) with paranoia, suspicion, prejudice, and often outright hostility. That’s why rival team supporters end up fighting in pubs, and why MP’s offices are vandalised by opposition party activists.

It’s very easy to see why Conservative politicians so often view footballers as an outgroup. Tory politicians tend to come from affluent backgrounds, are often wealthy privately educated, Oxbridge graduates. None of these things are inherently bad or wrong per se, but it certainly can’t help but lead to a certain ‘conformity of thought or ideology’. He said, as diplomatically as possible.

Footballers, in the UK at least, tend to come from much more diverse backgrounds. Thanks to, amongst other things, it’s historical industrial origins and the inherent athletic meritocratic factors, football tends to include far more lower class and ethnic minority individuals (which is a much more genuine reflection of UK society than the upper echelons of the Conservative party).

So, you can see how the Conservative party could end up viewing footballers as a very different group. And vice versa.

This need not lead to conflict (although right-wing ideology, like that embraced by the Conservative party, does seem to be linked to greater inherent hostility to ‘the other’), but it would if the two distinct groups were competing for the same resources. And from a Conservative perspective, this may be the case.

As stated, politicians depend on public support for their survival. And footballers have that in spades. Could you blame Tory MPs for noticing this, feeling resentful, and trying to wrestle it from them?

You absolutely can, and you should. Because that’s stupid. The approval and support of the public that footballers enjoy comes from a wide range of complex cultural and socio-psychological factors. It’s not some crude resource that can be readily diverted elsewhere. But I suppose if you’ve spent most of your life getting whatever you want thanks to some useful connections and the right school tie, this will be a tricky concept to get to grips with.

But even taking all this into account, surely Conservative MPs would have learned by now that tangling with footballers ends badly for them. So, what compels them to keep doing it? Basic classical conditioning would suggest they’d learn to stop by now, but they haven’t. I’m not suggesting the Conservative government are less intelligent than the typical dog. I’m just thinking it pretty hard.

So, why don’t Conservative politicians just leave footballers be, purely for their own sakes?

Well, if there’s one thing an ideological group hates more than a rival, it’s a traitor. A threat to your group is one thing, but someone from your own group turning against it/you? That can provoke an even more hostile reaction, inducing a desire for revenge that can veer into self-sabotage

Perhaps it’s not the differences, but their similarities that so vexes Conservative when it comes to footballers. After all, a successful footballer is invariably a wealthy individual with an inherent desire to succeed over others. They enjoy positions of great power and influence. They move in privileged circles. They are involved with institutions that seem very prone to greed and corruption. They owe a great deal to Rupert Murdoch.

Looked at this way, Footballers should obvious supporters of the Conservative party. But… they aren’t. Not usually, anyway. Perhaps this bothers Conservatives so much that they can’t help but lash out, even though all the evidence shows this is never a good idea.

Or maybe this whole thing is just me speculating wildly, as a flimsy excuse for what is essentially a cathartic rant about the bonfire of humanity that is currently running the country I call home?

That is the case, yes.

Dean discusses group dynamics and relationships, and more, in his new book Emotional Ignorance, out now

Main picture of Marcus Rashford by Кирилл Венедиктов

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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