Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. He is the author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation.


The beautiful Pelé
Tuesday, 10 January 2023 12:29

The beautiful Pelé

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman goes in search of what the game has lost

This week Brazil is recovering from a large crowd of Bolsonaro supporters storming presidential  and government buildings in an attempt to overthrow Lula. Despite almost the entire crowd wearing Brazil shirts this was anything but the beautiful game that the kit has come to symbolise. Brazilian right-wing populism if it wasn't ugly enough already, turned uglier.

Meanwhile last week at Pelé’s funeral it was noticeable how few of his surviving team-mates from the 1970 World Cup squad were present, only a few of those who followed him to Brazilian global superstardom, in particular Ronaldo and Ronaldinho both absent, and not many of Brazil's current stars either, Neymar the most high-profile absentee. What was it about Pelé they had failed to notice the game had lost and needed marking?

World Cup Final 1970, just round the corner my childhood friend Grant Ashworth's family had recently acquired a colour TV, the first in the neighbourhood. Grant invited all his friends round for a Sunday afternoon, the game on the TV, his mum had baked a delicious cake. I don't have any distinct memories of the game but I do remember the fun we had, the excitement of watching, in colour, this extraordinarily gifted team, the players' joy at winning Brazil's third World Cup, which meant they got to keep it, oh, and that cake. Afterwards we all piled out into the sunshine, Brazil fans, for life.

This was Pelé's fourth World Cup but it is the one that frames almost all our memories of him and what he came to mean. Sweden 1958, his debut tournament as a 17-year old was unarguably his greatest tournament as an individual player, and after the ignominy of Brazil losing their 1950 home final to Uruguay the country's first World Cup win too. This was also the first, and to date only, World Cup all four home nations qualified for, Wales the most successful , until the teenage Pelé famously  'broke Welsh hearts' after holding out, if anything looking like the likely winners, until Pelé scores the only goal of the match. A game few if any back home would have watched on the TV, let alone in colour, grainy after-the-event newsreel footage down the local cinema, at best. 1962 Chile, Pelé was injured in the Group stage and played no further part in the tournament, Brazil's second successive World Cup win. A promising England team made it through to the Quarters, this time it was England's turn to have their hearts broken, by a Pelé-less, Brazil. And so 1966, three-on-the-bounce with Pelé in his prime? Pre-tournament favourites, in both senses of the word, for many, the brutal, clearly targeted and unpunished tackling of Pelé by opposition players put him, and Brazil out of the tournament at the group stage. A long forgotten footnote to England's triumph.

Brazil's 1970 victory was something else, a team, not just Pelé but Gerson, Jairzinho, Rivelino too, for once they even had a decent goalkeeper, Felix, and the finest World Cup Final goal, of all time scored, not by Pelé, but Carlos Alberto.  This was the beginning of the era of televised football, for the lucky few in colour, but the access to watch at home pretty much universal, in the UK 93% of homes had a TV. The stage for Pelé's triumph, global TV.

No other team sport comes remotely close to football's global appeal, as an individual sport boxing, well until the bastardisation of what constitutes a World Heavyweight Championship, the only sport that comes close in terms of popular reach. It is no accident that when citing the biggest icons of twentieth century sport Pelé would often be coupled with Muhammad Ali. They both meant, and mean, so much for many countless billions. It is futile to juggle an argument of the two who was the 'greatest' of them all, they are equals but different.

I sometimes pose the question to students, name eleven past or present Brazilian footballers. Easy-peasy. Now name the current Brazilian President, blank faces. OK Lula has his well-deserved appeal, Bolsinaro his well-deserved notoriety, but even with this week's attempted coup in Brasília both are names instantly familiar only to a select group outside of their own country and continent. Brazil's status around the world almost entirely reduced to its football. Of course this isn't right, since 2001 Brazil has been grouped with Russia, India and China, the four fastest growing economies, with South Africa added in 2010 to become 'BRICS'.  The survival of the Amazon rain forest, which is estimated to absorb a quarter of the world's C02  is central to our global climate's future prospects. The Brazilian city Porto Alegre pioneered participatory budgeting, for a while a hugely influential, idea on how to build economics , and politics, from the 'bottom up'.   And that, for a non-Brazil expert, is my just for starters.

So why does Pelé matter? If I was to choose the world's three most popular figures of the latter part of the twentieth century my choice would be Mandela, Marley and Pelé. OK we can argue over the particularities of my threesome but few would dispute each had a worldwide popularity of considerable magnitude.  Three black men, from the global south. Politics, music and football, but each had so much more than 'just' this to scale that appeal. 1970 Mexico,  Brazil v England, Group stage. Tournament favourites vs reigning world champions. In typically English style, a game we lost yet celebrated for the miraculous Gordon Banks of Stoke City save of what was otherwise a certain goal from then the world's most famous player Pelé. A game that ended with the iconic picture of Bobby Moore and Pelé, stripped to their white and black chests, swapping shirts.

Today we might think nothing of it, but it meant the world back then. Rivals, very different individuals, neither campaigners in the mould of two years previously, also in Mexico, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and their Olympic podium black power salutes. Yet in another way a sight, a picture, every bit as, arguably more so, significant. What can be an ugly game, part and parcel of a society in Brazil this week displaying its uglier side, made beautiful, the hope of a more beautiful society too. Pelé, Obrigado

 Further reading      

Alex Bellos Futebol: The Brazilian  Way of Life

David Goldblatt  Futebol Nation: A Football history of Brazil 

Tony Mason Passion of the People? Football in South America

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Limited edition Philosophy Football Pelé memorial shirt and print available from here.


Sports Politics Of The Year
Tuesday, 20 December 2022 11:06

Sports Politics Of The Year

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman reworks the BBC's 'Sports Personality Of The Year' programme into ' Sports Politics Of The Year', and joins up those controversial dots between sport and politics

Nowadays, there's not a lot I agree with Julie Burchill about. Her and her partner Tony Parsons' decline and fall from 1970s verbal punk vitriol  to 21C reactionary bugbears is deservedly notorious. However when Julie in her customary barbed style declared 'Sport. Personality. Now there's an interesting idea' - well, I had to laugh, and agree with her.

Wednesday night's  primetime slot for the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year is, and always has been, a platform for celebritising sport. For entrenching the entirely false division between sport and the social, cultural, and political worlds that frame it. For denying the existence of a sporting economy run on capitalist principles that is a key factor in success and failure. For ignoring how all sports are socially constructed. Perhaps it isn't the job of Gary Lineker and Clare Balding to tackle any of this during the show, but the enduring resistance to doing so by too much of the sports establishment and media deprives sport of meaning, of its context. As CLR James in his 1963 book Beyond a Boundary famously put it:

What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?

This insight was further developed by Garry Whannel, whose 1983 book Blowing the Whistle: The Politics of Sport sought to establish a socio-cultural understanding  of the games we watch and play and avoid narrowing it down to something you just did:

Sport is marked down as a natural, taken-for-granted activity. You don’t need to talk or write about it. You just do it.

It was Garry's book that started me thinking about the sport I just 'did', which at the time was road running, and within a year I'd had my first piece published in Marxism Today on the London Marathon as a participatory spectacle. 

So almost 60 years on from Beyond a Boundary, almost 40 years on from Blowing The Whistle, let's rearrange S-P-O-T-Y to spell 'Sports Politics Of The Year' and think about what 2022 might look like through such a lens.

To start off with, theWorld Cup for men's football, in Qatar. A groundbreaking recognition that 'sport isn't political' is oxymoronic? No, not quite. The approach of the Guardian, liberal opinion and the wider sports media more widely, was frankly embarrassing. The Guardian declared this was 'a World Cup like no other', which was an entirely ahistorical approach. It ignored the host of the 1934 tournament - one Benito Mussolini - the brutal Argentinian dictatorship hosting 1978, Vladimir Putin's Russia hosting 2018 only 4 years after his invasion of Ukraine's Crimea region - and that's just for starters.  

Once the games kicked off, the Guardian's grandly titled coverage 'Qatar: Beyond the Football' became a mere footnote to the match reports, as it was always destined to be. Meanwhile the England team's protest amounted to wearing an armband, until it was decided in the face of FIFA opposition that even this was too much.

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Fans before the Brazil vs Portugal match. Wiki commons image by Marcello Casal Jr.

Far more significant than any of these damp squibs was the widespread popularisation of the Palestine flag and cause by fans and players, in particular Morocco's - and on this, the biggest global sporting stage of all. Perhaps now European FAs, commentators, pundits and football journalists might question why the Israeli team competed in the European World Cup and Euro's qualifying groups and their clubs compete in UEFA European competitions, but Palestine compete in the Asian confederation contests because Israel was expelled, due to their militarised mistreatment of Palestinians. Will the aforementioned ever mention this salient fact? Let's not hold our breath.  

And then the Cup Final. England's rivalry with Argentina, on and off the pitch, is every bit as bitter as ours with Germany. Rivalries constructed by playing each other in crucial and incident-strewn World Cup games: England v Argentina World Cup '66 Quarter Final, Argentina captain Rattin sent off; World Cup '86 Quarter Final England v Argentina, the infamous 'Hand of God' Maradona goal; World Cup '98  last sixteen game, England v Argentina, David Beckham sent off; World Cup '02 group stage, Beckham's redemption, his penalty securing England's victory. But of course, just like Germany, the rivalry is about something else too, the Falklands/ Malvinas. In the immediate aftermath of that war 40 years ago Eric Hobsbawm rather neatly summed up the mood at the time:

Everybody's looking down on us and if anything pitying us, we can't even beat the Argentinians or anyone else at football anymore.

Of course Eric wasn't approving of such attitudes, but he was realistic enough to recognise how widespread they were - arguably even more so four decades on. So how to explain the widespread recognition that last Sunday's World Cup Final was the best ever,  and Lionel Messi entirely deserving of the accolade 'Greatest of all time'? Because football represents easily the most popular version of both nationalism and internationalism.

All sports are socially constructed

How does the Women's Euros fit in? Well, England won it beating Germany to boot! There's nothing that boosts sport in England like domestic success, in two ways. 

First, it's a very different way for fans to parade our Englishness, free of toxic masculinity. As someone who has followed England to 4 World Cups I'd argue that this 'soft Englishness' has always existed and been majoritarian in England fan culture but when a coked-up lad stuffs a flaming flare up his arse the afternoon England men are in a Euros final, the framing by the media makes it appear we're all like that. The absence of such enabled England women's fans to establish a different framing, but a gut patriotism lacking such softening still exists and won't be entirely reversed by England women winning the Euros alone. This is a version of Englishness embedded in a martial and imperial tradition mixed with 'fuck-you' anti-social behaviour, which 'toxic masculinity' alone isn't enough to account for. 

Second, the impact on women's participation in playing football. Attendance levels for England women, the October game versus USA at Wembley sold out, the April game versus Brazil will likely do the same. The top women's clubs - Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd, Arsenal - can fill Stamford Bridge, the Etihad, the Emirates, and Old Trafford with tens of thousands of fans. Good, but this is spectating, not sport, and the key to a healthier society is doing sport not just watching it. Elite success boosts the latter but has next to no lasting effect on the former. Transforming school sport to enable all girls (and boys) to play football from the earliest possible age is essential, with crucially such opportunities to be vastly expanded for post-school years. But don't bet your house on any of this happening on the scale required.  

Across October to December uniquely England were competing in 4 World Cups. Men's football World Cup - England exited at the Quarter Final stage, so statistically top 8 is our ranking in this tournament. The men's rugby league - semi-final, exit. The England women's rugby team came oh so close to lifting their World Cup trophy but ended up losing finalists. Only the men's T20 triumphed to be crowned World Cup winners.

Those of us who share the Jamesian philosophy, however, would ask that apart from football, are any of the others truly World Cups? Sure they have the title, but the contenders are restricted to ex-British Empire states with assorted hangers-on doing not much more than making up the numbers for the group stages.

Two factors account for this. One, football was spread worldwide by trade, unlike cricket and rugby by empire. Two, football requires next to no facilities, simple rules, all body shapes can excel, and there's a global path to a professional career. In other words, all sports are socially constructed. 

Sport and politics are indivisible

Ireland's test series triumph over the All Blacks absolutely deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest team sport achievements of all time, never mind 2022. But Irish rugby is a bit of a curiosity. Unlike in football and the Olympics, there's a united Ireland team. The all-Ireland Irish Rugby Football Union predates 1916 and despite partition was never dissolved. This most English, and certainly not Gaelic of sports with its heartland clubs Leinster and Munster were never cast out, nor those that stick with the Union, Ulster another rugby heartland club, and in every other regard rejecting any notion of a united Ireland. And just like the football with Jack Charlton, the team's greatest success came under an English manager, Andy Farrell. We shouldn't overstate the significance of a team that unites both sides, given the centrality of republicanism vs. unionism to politics north of the border and a resurgent Sinn Fein south of the border, but we shouldn't ignore this most unexpected symbol of what a united Ireland could look like.  

So there we have it, a first stab at an alternative SPOTY. Not to ruin our enjoyment of sport, either watching or doing, but to enjoy, enrich and empower us. I'm sure Messi and Mbappé, Beth Mead, Ben Stokes, and Andy Farrell will enjoy the 'other' SPOTY night out and if they win them, their gongs are entirely deserved. But both sport and politics are all the poorer when they are treated as anything but indivisible from each other.  

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Philosophy Football's 'alternative SPOTY' T-shirt selection is available here.

Steve Bell, the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his generation
Monday, 19 December 2022 22:41

Steve Bell, the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his generation

Published in Visual Arts

Mark  Perryman shows how Steve Bell's visual dissent targets the entire establishment. All cartoons are courtesy of the man himself

Politics can be an ugly business. There is a nasty habit of refusing to listen to those we disagree with, a failure to recognise that through difference we can learn from each other. Such inbuilt attitudes are common across left, right, in-between and green. Nor are sections of social movements immune either. So where lies the political cartoonist's right to offend?

Copyright Steve Bell 2016/All Rights Reserved e.mail: tel: 00 44 (0)1273 500664

Steve Bell is without much doubt the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his generation, or in other words from Thatcher to Sunak. He mercilessly caricatures the lot of them, not a physical, or political feature is spared. This is The Political Establishment and they deserve everything they get, but Steve's work is never hateful. It’s sharply critical certainly but almost warmly appreciative of the make-believe characters he crafts out of their reality.

This year marked the fortieth anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War. With Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out Out! Out! plumbing the depths of unpopularity the Argentine invasion of these faraway and half-forgotten island with considerably more sheep than human occupants the opportunity to wrap herself in what Stuart Hall described as:

A rampant and virulent patriotism. Once unleashed, it is an apparently unstoppable, populist mobiliser - in part, because it feeds off the disappointed hopes of the present and the deep and unrequited traces of the past, imperial splendour penetrated into the bone and marrow of the national culture.

Steve draws in outright opposition to such ideas but with a humour almost entirely lacking in conventional so-called activism. His militancy represented by his penguins, reducing Thatcher's militarism to the sheer stupidity of the idea that the Empire was back, the 'Great' put back into Great Britain and you can stuff that up yer Argies.

The necessity for such dissent couldn't have been more obvious at the time with Labour led by  Michael Foot, once a key figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in hot pursuit of the Tories' march to war. Stuart Hall, again: 

More scandalous than the sight of Mrs Thatcher's best hopes going out with the navy has been the demeaning spectacle of the Labour front-bench leadership rowing its dinghy as rapidly as it can in hot pursuit. Only of course - here the voice of moderation - 'Not so far! Slow down! Not so fast!'

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Penguins, John Major with his underpants on the outside, Tony Blair as the manic moderniser, a condom-headed David Cameron accompanied by an S&M clad George Osborne, Bumface Boris Johnson and most recently Sir Cardboard Starmer. This is the political establishment, but as we're used to knowing it.

Copyright Steve Bell 2022/All Rights Reserved e.mail: tel: 00 44 (0)1273 500664

And then there's the British monarchy. Sainted, any critique beyond the pale. What better target for Steve's visual dissent? But why should the monarchist majority have all the fun of the royal family merch and tat? Philosophy Football first worked with Steve on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, his Damian Hirst-inspired 'Diamond Liz' mug perfect for raising a disloyal toast. Since then we've 'celebrated' a Royal Wedding, birth, another Jubilee, and of course next year for many the first royal coronation of our lifetime. With each and every subvertised Royal Crest he creates for these occasions as always with Steve the opposition is sharply obvious, the human warmth of his caricature conjuring humour out of dissent.

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When the Guardian made the ludicrous decision to axe Steve's If... cartoon strip he marked his final week with those much-loved penguins. Anti-establishment to the last, a quiet rebellion in the face of all that's wrong in politics, an exposure of the limits of a commonsense discourse that is anything but commonsensical, by penguins! Nothing could represent  Steve Bell's artistic genius of visual dissent better, and whatever 2023 holds, King Chuck the Third with the crown on his head,  Sir Cardboard Starmer knocking on the door of Number Ten, we'll need plenty more of that. 

Steve Bell's King Charles III Coronation Mug (below) is available from Philosophy Football. Tons of Steve Bell's brilliant cartoons can be viewed and purchased here.

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A much-maligned minority: In defence of the Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati
Monday, 05 December 2022 10:11

A much-maligned minority: In defence of the Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati

OK I can think of a fair few minorities in more urgent need to mount the barricades for. And yes, it's easy to mock, or if the intellectual fancy takes us critique too. But when Suella Braverman, of the planeful of refugees and asylum seekers jetting off towards deportation to Rwanda dream, uttered these words her politically malicious intent was obvious to all, or at least it should have been. 

Guardian readers, lower-case liberals and for the most part middle-class too. At a recent Labour Party event in Lewes that Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland spoke at, the audience was asked how many read the paper. Almost the entire room of 200 hands went up in the air. We all had a good laugh at our own expense, but then this is a town which boasts not a single Tory councillor and hasn't had one in years. The Labour Party, currently enjoying a surge in membership, has a longstanding problem of a narrowing social base of those who join. This certainly needs addressing, but if it is done as some would seem to advocate from the workerist  left as an act of class conscious  self-harm – another Guardian reader, no thanks! – what precisely does this achieve?

Suella knew exactly what she was doing when she conjured up her trilogy of targets. This was a nakedly right-wing populism to seek to pin liberal values, environmentalism, anti-racism on a middle-class sock puppet and give it a good bashing. But all three actually have support  which is cross-class, politically plural and of a magnitude which is her worst nightmare. Hence her, and others, ambition to stereotype and in the process marginalise the opposition. 

Britain has changed hugely from the days of Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher and other purveyors of this kind of right-wing populism. Nigel Farage did his worst to resurrect it via UKIP and Brexit. But the true success of this campaign belongs to the brilliant manoeuvre of Dominic Cummings to pitch the referendum vote as 'Take Back Control ' vs. 'Remain, keep everything as it is'. In the process exposing a Guardian-reading liberal shortcoming, an inability to engage with the reasons why others might disagree with our particular world view in order to construct a populist progressive bloc that includes those who retain their misgivings. Remain? Leave it as it is, an institution with next to no popular support or sense of identification, across British society, was a campaign doomed to failure from the start. A self-referential liberalism at its worst. 

But there is another way. I religiously read the Guardian from the sports pages backwards. Every day whatever is on the front pages I turn to the match reports, sporting commentary, news and opinion first. Here I read writers, Jonathan Liew in particular, who by exploring the indivisibility of sport from the political help to construct in my mind and political practice the basis of a radical-popular politics. Carrying out  Stuart Hall's maxim so vital for any such project:  “It is through culture that processes of social change make themselves most dramatically visible.”

The most Europeanised institution in English society? A Premier League football club, increasingly Championship and lower divisions too.  Manager and coaching staff, players, sponsors and advertisers, fan-base, 'getting into Europe' the ultimate competitive ambition for clubs and fans, the Euros second only to the World Cup the ambition for England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland. Tap into this and Leave would have lost, the failure to do so and posing the alternative as the uncritical, status quo, wrapped in an EU flag hitherto only seen in public worn by the European Ryder Cup team - yes, another popular dimension missed – Remain doomed to defeat.

Race, national identity and Englishness, the break-up of the Union, globalisation, petro-dollar funded soft power, in Stuart Hall's words through sport made 'dramatically visible'. Debating the complexities of transgender women's rights vs all women's rights minus the overheated polarisation which only serves to obscure and obstruct. Or to get a tad philosophical as the Qatar World Cup fills the Guardian sports pages, page after page, be I ever so humble a rather good article situating  the tournament both historically and betwixt universalism vs cultural relativism. All of this informed by what should be the foundation of a radical politics, the cultural and social indivisible from the political and economic.  The Guardian as a newspaper does this better than most, getting up the nose of both reactionaries and class reductionists.  

A bit woke? Yes can be, the self-referential does no cause any political favours. But at its best, connects the popular to the political to help us understand, and act. Give me that over either  Suella's hateful stereotyping  or an overdose of liberal guilt every time. So no Suella I'll stick with the Guardian-reading wokerati if you don't mind.

But there is one item on her list I'm in agreement with. Vegetarian yes, but I really can't stand tofu.

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The Philosophy Football Guardian-reading Tofu-eating Wokerati T-shirt range is available from here.

Love Football not FIFA
Thursday, 17 November 2022 11:54

Love Football not FIFA

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman argues that to understand the politics of Qatar, we need to start with how the World Cup has always been political

Sunday's Qatar World Cup kick-off approaches. 'Stadiums of Shame' screamed the Guardian back page sports headline on Tuesday, while inside there were two pages of facts and figures featuring the plight of migrant workers, former German international Philipp Lahm saying he won't be going because the World Cup doesn't belong in Qatar, and the launch of a new online resource beyond the football.        

All of this is being framed by the editorial self-justification that 'This is a World Cup like no other.' Meanwhile on Saturday – as with every Saturday preceding a World Cup for as long as I can remember – there will be free with the Guardian a 56-page guide to the tournament, full of 'inimitable team-by-team guides' And on Sunday in the Observer there’s a free World Cup 'brilliant wallchart'. Confused? We might well be.   

Mmmm....or as the terrace chant goes 'If you know your history...' because the idea that Qatar is 'like no other' is wrong, the product of a deep-seated ahistoricism. Qatar is simply the latest World Cup to be used as a political platform, and we can cut through both the cultural relativism and the liberal platitudes to recognise there is nothing remotely 'like no other' about this World Cup. It simply follows the well-worn norm, of mixing politics with sport.

To begin at the beginning, in 1930. It was the first World Cup, hosted by Uruguay. The tournament was invented by a Frenchman, Jules Rimet, and organised by FIFA, which was founded by another Frenchman, Robert Guérin. The Football Association, which never called itself the English FA – because after all we invented the game – promptly announced they would be boycotting it. Nothing to do with human rights in Uruguay or anything like that, rather it was the very idea that these Johnny Foreigners might think they can run our game.

England also boycotted the next two tournaments, in 1934 and 1938, before finally entering the 1950 World Cup. A squad of England legends, including Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, were promptly knocked out at the group stage, including a loss to the USA, at the time a team of amateurs. No, football didn't come back home (sic) back then either, and we've had to live with the ideological legacy ever since.

The 1934 World Cup was hosted by Mussolini's Italy and his Blackshirts explicitly used the Italian national team to build support for fascism. Italy won their home tournament, and the 1938 tournament in France too, becoming the first team to win an away World Cup. In 1966, Prime Minister Harold Wilson turned England 's win into a reason to vote Labour: 'Have you noticed we only win the Word Cup under a Labour government'. One old Labour pledge that has stood the test of time, more's the pity.

In 1970, Israel qualified for the World Cup via its membership of the Asian Football Federation (AFC). One World Cup later, Israel is forced to leave the AFC because most member countries refuse to play a nation that mistreats Palestine in the way Israel does. UEFA on the other hand welcomed Israel with open arms, the only non-European country that has been allowed to join UEFA.

In the 1974 World Cup, the USSR team were expelled from the tournament for refusing to play Chile following Pinochet's coup – and Chile promptly take their place.

The last World Cup in 2018 was Putin's World Cup, just four years after his annexation, aka invasion, of Crimea; this time round, all Russian participation has been banned. Qatar, a World Cup 'like no other'? No it isn’t, it’s just like all the others, framed by politics, and most of it is bad politics.

For this World Cup, the England team flew out to Qatar in a plane which has been renamed ‘Rainbow’. A powerful and very public statement of LGBT solidarity, in the face of widespread laws in Qatar outlawing both LGBT relationships and a variety of women's rights that we take for granted. The solidarity on show has been amplified by widespread coverage of the issue in the sports media too – good! However, there wasn't a single out gay male player on that plane, nor do any of the squad play alongside any out gay men, and none are managed by an out gay man. To be gay and out in England isn't illegal, yet to play professional football it might as well be. Perhaps a degree of self-reflection wouldn't go amiss?      

Qatar are using and abusing the World Cup, and it was ever thus. This is the downside of football as the one truly global sport. Yes Rugby (both versions) and cricket (all versions) have their World Cups but they're not truly global, are they? They are sports fundamentally framed by the British Empire with a few other international hangers-on who can score upsets but never get remotely close to the latter stages of the tournament. The winners of football's World Cup are likewise a select few from Europe and South America, but in contrast to the cricket and rugby World Cups semi-finalists and quarter-finalists come from every continent and from every corner of the world.

A festival of popular internationalism

This is the upside of every World Cup, including the one in Qatar – it’s a festival of popular internationalism. I've travelled as an England fan to four World Cups including Asia's first, Japan and in Korea 2002, and Africa's first, South Africa in 2010. Never mind – well actually I do mind a lot – that England didn't come close to lifting the trophy, the experience was utterly unforgettable. Yes it's a holiday of privilege, but being there was despite all the differences also  mixed with what we shared as visitors with our hosts – the love of football. Not as tourists, but as fans, united.

That's what Qatar should be about. The first Middle Eastern World Cup – good! The first in a majority Muslim country – good! The first that recognises not the entire world follows the European (in fact not even all of Europe) league season calendar from August to May – good! But of course, we all know it won't be about those things, and that is a huge loss, barely recognised by the media.

There are certainly plenty of good reasons to give this World Cup a miss. There is the mistreatment and appalling deaths of migrant workers who bult the magnificent stadiums that teams are so much looking forward to playing in. There is the corrupt way in which the bid was secured, too, though England were part of that round of bidding and played an international in Trinidad and Tobago with the sole intention of getting that country's vote. England won the game, lost the vote, and the moral high ground was abandoned.

To boycott or not to boycott?  In the 1970s protests and disruption stopped overseas tours from apartheid South Africa and led directly to South Africa being banned from international football sport by FIFA, as well as the Olympics. Good result! But let's be honest, for Qatar it's a non-question. Despite all the coverage from a media determined to expose Qatar as an unsuitable host and at the same time give the tournament huge amounts of coverage, there is no mass, popular movement for boycott. Why? Because this contradiction is shared by all those looking forward to the games but not having much time for a wide variety of reasons – not all good – for the country where they're being played, and next to no time for the organisation that chose that country as the host.

So – what’s the best chance of a boycott? England exit in ignominy at the Group stage and the boycott will be unstoppable. Prospects for solidarity? Wales march on triumphantly to the knockout stages and there's a tidal wave of solidarity for their team. Basically, for the next four weeks any moral gymnastics can be reduced to four words – love football not FIFA!

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. The Philosophy Football World Cup 2022 Love Football not FIFA badge and T-shirt range is available from here.


The Poppy and the Politics: Remembering the First World War
Friday, 11 November 2022 10:19

The Poppy and the Politics: Remembering the First World War

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football tries to untangle the poppy from the political undergrowth 

This weekend, Premier League footballers will be sporting a poppy embroidered into their kits, as they have for several years now. Up and down the divisions, clubs will precede kick off with a scrupulously well-observed minute's silence, if they haven't done so already.

But what precisely is being remembered here? Unlike the Second World War, the First World War's causes and effects have largely been lost in the mists of history. Even the most diligent regime of revision by those preparing for their GCSE History might struggle to come up with a reasonable explanation. The Blackadder version of class division in the trenches together with a mix of superhuman courage and senseless sacrifice fits awkwardly with official versions that cannot bear to admit the latter half of the origins of the poppy myth. 

When Philosophy Football commissioned the renowned illustrator Dan Murrell to come up with an image to combine these varied contradictions, Dan didn't disappoint. He drew a silhouette of those countless hundreds of thousands who in death became a single unknown soldier, with place and date unspecified. The poppy represents not today's far-off commemorations but the bloody carnage to come in a matter of days, if nor hours, and the football in his hands symbolises what he'd rather be doing, away from brutal war at the front.

On Christmas Day 1914 soldiers from both sides did just that – the 'football truce' was a brief but hugely symbolic episode of rank-and-file resistance on both sides to the juggernaut of war which left 22 million dead. He'd rather be playing football but all his mates who would play in his team will soon be dead at Loos, Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Passchendaele – and for what?

IWM Image 624x389

British and German troops meeting in No-Man’s Land during the unofficial truce. (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector). Copyright © Harold Robson/IWM (Q 50719). 

The Christmas Truce game took place on the Western Front, at Pont Rouge. On Christmas Eve 1914, German troops had decorated their frontline with Christmas trees and candles. They sang Stille Nacht, a carol that most of the British troops knew too, as Silent Night. Astonished, they applauded and then joined in with songs of their own. Christmas Day, dawned, the guns are silent. A German NCO advances across No Man's Land carrying a Christmas tree towards the British lines. A British soldier goes to meet him, soon others join him, gifts are exchanged. A football is produced. Caps and helmets for goals. The match ends 3-2 to the Germans.

By lunchtime on Christmas Day the guns had fallen silent on two-thirds of the British sector. More games were played before hostilities recommenced. The fact that football was the means of connection amidst such conflict is the perfect illustration of its centrality to working-class life in Britain, and to a lesser extent mainland Europe, by the early 20th century.

Two and a half years later a very different expression of football's centrality to early twentieth century class culture was at the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, when Captain Nevill of the East Surreys offered a prize for the first platoon to kick a football up to the enemy trenches:

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them,
Is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them,
The Surreys played the game.

This was the way a poet writing under the pseudonym 'Touchstone' described for the Daily Mail the 420,000 losses the British Army suffered. A game? Even the most committed militarist might struggle to comprehend this particular emotional response. But such was the iron will at the time of those who backed the war, no questions were asked and no answers were given.

All of this sits rather awkwardly with the twenty-first century status of the poppy. A remembrance that provides little space for why such a war was fought, to what ends. The words of the war poets, most famously Wilfred Owen, almost entirely absent from institutionalised memorializing: 

Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.
Be careful; can’t shake hands now; never shall.
Both arms have mutinied against me,-brutes.
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats.

This was written while Owen served on the frontline with The Manchester Regiment and published posthumously following him being killed in action in November 1918. Of course, remembrance is tinged with the mournful. The minute's silence is an incredibly powerful statement of this, whether observed in silent unison in a crowd of thousands before a football match, or in the quietness of solitary observation of the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, the eleventh month.

Those who pour scorn on such emotions do themselves no favours. But neither do those who embrace the moment to divorce themselves from all critical faculties. The Christmas truce, the verses versus the war, the dashed hopes of those who returned home to look forward to a society fit for heroes and found anything but – if we cannot provide the space for such faultlines in our collective memory then what precisely is the good of that poppy we're wearing?

Further Reading Douglas Newton The Darkest Days : The Truth Behind Britain's Rush to War 1914

The Philosophy Football 1914-18 Remembrance collection is available here.

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Culture is ordinary: One hundred years of the Beeb
Monday, 17 October 2022 10:45

Culture is ordinary: One hundred years of the Beeb

From Daleks to Strictly, Mark Perryman explores the meaning of the BBC at 100

For decades those of us of a certain age have been able to measure our lives out with episodes from the BBC. Playschool for early years (remember them?) with Brian Cant and Floella Benjamin looking after our every need – so long as the TV was on.  Not forgetting the best maths teacher we never had, Johnny Ball.  The fact Johnny 's daughter Zoe came to be the media face of 1990s ladettes via her stint on BBC Radio One, before graduating in the 2010s to presenting on Radio 2, only adds to this sense of us as listeners and viewers growing up and old with this great British institution.

Characters from the original Magic Roundabout

Primary school years coincided with the Magic Roundabout, a five-minute dose of the magical just before tea time. An extraordinary, and total, reinvention of the original French animation to give Dougal, Zebedee, Brian and more, an entirely new, and much-loved, meaning.  'Time for bed?' Yes please, leave all the nasty news for the grown-ups to endure!


Blue Peter was more didactic, though in a kindly way. From the 'Get down Shep!' of John Noakes via that elephant dropping an almighty poo on the studio floor, to creating all kind of d-i-y artefacts with 'sticky-back plastic' when all of us trying it at home knew it was Sellotape! Achieving a Blue Peter badge became the not-so-secret ambition of the aspirational child.


Teendom dawned along with the Thursday night post-supper treat of Top of the Pops. This was Glastonbury, The Brixton Academy, and looking good, before most of The Arctic Monkeys were born, not on the dance floor but in our living rooms. Dictated by whatever was topping, rising, bubbling under the week's charts as broadcast live by Radio One the preceding Sunday evening, TOTP was broad enough to be the first introduction for many to Bowie, reggae, punk, Two Tone and a lot more. 

But the real insight into all that music had to offer beyond the charts was provided for punky-indie adolescents by the incomparable John Peel broadcasting on Radio One from 10pm, a strictly under-the-bedclothes night-time pleasure for those still of school age.

The BBC had a knack of conjuring up shows which were perfect for growing up with. Doctor Who has changed an awful lot from the era of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Via regeneration, after regeneration, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker and Ncuti Gatwa are not the same as their Whovian forebears. Yet so many continuities exist to provide reassurance. Daleks, exterminate! Where would we be without them? Modernisation, as we've learned from politics, has its limits.

bbc Monty Python rev

Not only that, change can also serve to disappoint. Monty Python existed on the outer edges of English surrealism. It was a miracle the show was ever broadcast – there had never been anything quite like it before, nor anything like it since either. The dead parrot, the four Yorkshiremen, the People's Front of Judaea not the Judaean People's Front achieving a crossover on the big screen to the popular that few of a surrealist disposition achieve, or more likely even seek. John Cleese, Minister of Python's Silly Walks, with Fawlty Towers moved this Pythonesque caricature of Englishness to an even bigger and broader audience. The fact John has now himself become a caricature of Basil, his most famous character, is for many a grave disappointment. Or is it perhaps rather the most surreal, ridiculous consequence imaginable? 

1968 was a year of revolt. The Mai events in Paris, the Prague Spring, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, with communist revolutionaries reaching the very edge of the Saigon US Embassy compound. Meanwhile in good old Blighty something is stirring on the seafront of Walmington-on-Sea. Yes, '68 really did mark the first broadcast of Dad's Army, a defiantly and most particular English version of anti-fascism. The bank manager, his assistant manager and junior clerk were united across class and status divisions with the local butcher, funeral director, seaside retiree, local spiv and more, against Hitler and what his stormtroopers would do to their beloved town.

OK so it wasn’t exactly the Anti-Nazi League but for a comedic version of the breadth and reach of the wartime popular front against fascism, none will ever match Mainwaring, Wilson, Pike, Frazer, Godfrey, Walker but most of all Lance Corporal Jones. As Jones endlessly reminded us about fascists, 'they don't like it up 'em'!


Does any of this really matter? For some the BBC is a century-old voice of the Establishment. For others it’s a cabal of the woke. But as Raymond Williams sought to teach us, 'culture is ordinary'. For most people, it is in the nooks and crannies of children's TV, soaps, celebrity-led reality TV, and comedy that ideas are formed, dismantled, remade, rather than simply via the news. Stuart Hall (no, not the disgraced former BBC It's a Knockout Presenter, the other one, the cultural theorist) applied Williams's premise to an entirely new way of 'doing' politics:

It is through culture that processes of social change make themselves most dramatically visible. Culture is a constitutive dimension of society.

Hall believed that popular culture was the site where everyday struggles between dominant and subordinate groups are fought, won, and lost. Culture thus has to be thought of as an active, key part of society.  In the process politics becomes inseparable from popular culture, and traditional class alliances are eroded and new ones formed by the mass media. From Daleks to Strictly, this is why the BBC not only informs and entertains, but matters to us all. Happy hundredth, BBC!

Note: Philosophy Football has a BBC Centenary T-shirt range, including a half-price offer on David Hendy's The BBC: A People's History from here.

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Commonsense socialism: Liverpool, Shankly and solidarity
Saturday, 24 September 2022 08:14

Commonsense socialism: Liverpool, Shankly and solidarity

Published in Sport

The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That's how I see football, that's how I see life. 

- Bill Shankly.

In 1995 the newly elected Labour leader Tony Blair persuaded the party to drop 'common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange' from Clause Four of Labour's aims and values. The left intellectual, and huge Liverpool fan, Doreen Massey found Shankly's 'socialism' quote and urged us to produce it as one of our T-shirts in response. The fact that during his playing career Shankly wore Number 4 on his back at Preston North End – well how could we resist?

Shortly after its release the legendary DJ, and another huge Liverpool fan, John Peel, phoned me. Would I drop one round to his BBC studio, he was off to Glastonbury the next day to front the station's TV coverage of the festival. This was product placement from heaven! The following week our postbag, pre-internet, was bulging to overflowing with orders. One was from the other reds and deadly Liverpool rivals, Manchester United first teamer and legend Brian McLair. Shankly's socialism appeal is universal.              

Another left intellectual, Stuart Hall had been there when Doreen hunted out the Shankly quote from her bookshelves (this shirt had the most extraordinary of gestations). Almost a decade later in an essay co-written with Alan O'Shea, Stuart set out a view of common sense that in many ways explains both the Shankly version of socialism's appeal and its radical potential:

" The battle over what constitutes common sense is a key area of political contestation. Far from being a naturally evolved set of ideas, it is a terrain that is always being fought over."

Shankly's description is of a socialism located in a core value for any successful team, individuals working together as a collective, teamwork. And any rewards for the success that this delivers – it helps of course that Shankly led Liverpool to a lot of success – should be shared out equally too. Brilliantly he then connects these values he instilled in the Liverpool boot room, training ground, and on the pitch at Anfield, to life beyond the touchline too.

Commonsense socialism

This is a mix of common sense with a distinct politics. Unless the two are combined, however accessible the language is, it becomes devoid of any meaning in the thwarted ambition of seeking to appeal to all. This week's Labour conference meets under the platform slogan ' Fairer, greener, future'. What does that even mean? Is there anything in those three words anybody could possibly object to? In what sense does this amount to political contestation of the sheer scale of the crisis the Tories are plunging this country into? And for those who suggest none of this can be achieved by a single slogan, in their very different ways Margaret Thatcher 'There Is No Alternative' and Tony Blair 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' achieved precisely that, mapping out a distinct, easy to understand political position.

Hillsborough disaster main

By Hillsborough Justice campaign

As a footballing city Liverpool provides a single tragic moment to reveal the horrific consequences when common sense isn't contested.  On the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster Andrew Hussey wrote a New Statesman essay 'A city in mourning, a game in ruins' which made precisely this link: 

A crowd being killed live on television in front of your eyes. A crowd little different from the working-class Liverpudlians of the 1960s who had inspired Bill Shankly’s greatest teams with their passion and collective sense of belief. The scenes of singing and scarf-waving on the Kop had been shown in black and white newsreels across the world.

What did those pictures portray? Andrew's description of their impact is suitably evocative:

This was the mob, the crowd, the working class in a group and in action, but it was nothing to be feared. The humour and dignity of this crowd were iconic. These images announced to the world the cultural vibrancy of ordinary people and their pleasures. To this extent, Liverpool fans were as crucial a component of 1960s pop culture as the Beatles.

But within two decades an unsuccessfully contested commonsense Thatcherism had entirely transformed this sympathetic representation:

By the end of the Thatcherite 1980s this same crowd had become the object of scorn and derision. To be working-class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed and northern was to be scum.

And on 15th April 1989, for 97 who went to a football match, dead. The decades-long fight for justice for those 97, which still hasn't ended, has been as much as about contesting this lethal 'commonsense' meaning of the crowd that day, as exposing the ways they were appallingly treated, and killed. The two are inextricably linked.

And Shankly's socialism in practice? From the campaign for Hillsborough justice to Steve  McManaman and Robbie Fowler in '97 stripping off their Liverpool shirts to reveal underneath  T-shirts supporting the Liverpool dockers' strike – here's hoping the current squad do the same for the 2022 strike. The matchday collections outside Anfield and Goodison, uniquely uniting Liverpool and Everton fans as ' Fans Supporting Foodbanks' which Ian Byrne, now a Labour MP, helped found. Or the public campaigning work on issues including homophobia and Brexit, by Everton legends Neville Southall and Peter Reid. And Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson organising all his fellow, and rival, Premier League club captains to raise huge sums in support of NHS key workers throughout the pandemic.

The 2022 version of the Shankly Way, a commonsense socialism, contestation and solidarity, not a bad three to have at the back. But will Keir Starmer's Labour even allow that threesome on the conference pitch?

Further reading: David Peace's novelisation of Bill Shankly's life, career and politics Red or Dead.

The Philosophy Football Shankly 'socialism' T-shirt is available from here.

Right Red Reads for Labour Party Conference 2022
Thursday, 22 September 2022 10:12

Right Red Reads for Labour Party Conference 2022

Published in Cultural Commentary

The Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci described his ambition for a political party as the party itself becoming an 'organic intellectual.'  This was no elitist project, I have my own home-made Gramscian maxim: 'not all intellectuals are academics, not all academics are intellectuals.' Ouch!

Could Labour or Labourism ever fulfil Gramsci's ambition? Mmm. This requires both a party culture that is bottom-up, drawing on ideas and experiences every bit as much from below as from above – the world of special advisers and thinktanks. But it also requires critical thinking, a willingness to question the status quo. A willingness which is notably absent from any Labour discourse in the last ten days of ‘national mourning’ – period to be topped off by Labour opening conference not belting out the words of The Red Flag, The Internationale or Jerusalem but 'long to reign over us, happy and glorious’.

Two lines that express English (I use the term advisedly) subjecthood and are accepted uncritically by Labourism. So is all hope lost? On the fringes of conference The World Transformed Festival and the launch of the Compass Win as One campaign suggests there are at least some signs that Gramsci's concept of the party as an 'organic intellectual' isn't entirely dead.

To help nourish this hope, a heap of books are published every September, or thereabouts. They are mostly of a broadly Labour orientation, looking forward to the Labour version of 'what is to be done' (with apologies to Lenin) rather than as in previous years’ themes of 'what did we do wrong'. Agree or disagree with the conclusions, these are books designed to set readers thinking.

a murray

A kind of companion volume to his last book The Fall and Rise of  the British Left (published for the 2019 Labour Conference, after which 'rise' most definitely changed to 'fall') Andrew Murray's Is Socialism Possible in Britain? Reflections on the Corbyn Years is a critical read. Murray loses patience with Corbyn's indecision and caution, most of all on Brexit. He sees the backing of a second referendum as central to the 2019 defeat.

Murray was one of a triumvirate of key advisers to Corbyn, alongside Seumas Milne and Steve Howell, with a political background connected to traditions like the Communist Party, and his wide-ranging critique displays a thoughtfulness and openness to alternative views that this tradition wasn't exactly renowned for. However, since the overwhelming majority of Labour members were and are anti-Brexit, and in 2019 backed the second referendum option, this suggests that a 'politics from below' still has some way to go. As for answering the question 'Is socialism possible in Britain' most readers will surely answer, for good or ill, that's one 'ism' which is unlikely to be promised in the next Labour manifesto.

The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right by Oliver Eagleton attempts to explain the meaning for the shift from Corbynism to Starmerism via a potted political biography of Sir Keir. The book is certainly rich in well-researched detail, much of it previously unpublished and with the kind of details that Sir Keir would probably prefer remained unpublished. But the narrative is framed by a politics that borders on the conspiracist - there's this bloke called Starmer, he's not what he seems, he's fooled a lot of people and this needs to be exposed. Such a narrative writes off the reasons he won the leadership election, why so many who'd backed Jeremy - 60% is one reliable estimate - switched to Keir. The relative acquiescence by Labour to the shift to the right cannot be explained by a conspiracy. And Labour's prospects at the next General Election can't be accounted either simply by a yearning for the return of Corbynism.

b schneider

With Our Bloc: How We Win James Schneider attempts, via an extended polemic, something different. Citing Gramsci, Stuart Hall and Chantal Mouffe on hegemony and populism is a good start. However, the link between theory and practice tends to get lost in establishing the correctness of James' argument. A 'bloc' that extends beyond, but doesn't reject parliamentary socialism is absolutely correct. But I lost count of the number of times James said X, Y, Z  could do this, or that, for such a bloc to materialise but not much about either 'how'  or 'why' in the past initiatives such as Enough is Enough haven't become the kind of bloc of James describes. Perhaps this time it will be different? 

c chessum

Though the points of disagreement may be marginal to all but those most immersed in the marginalia of the left, Michael Chessum comes to the subject of the Labour Party with a different approach to Andrew Murray, Oliver Eagleton and James Schneider, who broadly share the same perspective on the Corbyn-Starmer shift. This is Only The Beginning: The Making of a New Left, From Anti-Austerity to The Fall of Corbyn is Michael's hugely impressive testament to the point of this disagreement. 

In the first half of his argument, he locates the core of Corbynism's support generationally in the anti-tuition fees movement of 2010-11 and after, the period when Paul Mason famously declared Whyit’s all kicking off everywhere. In the second half Michael connects this ferment to both the rise, and fall, of Corbynism. Shorn of conspiracism, full of depth and an understanding why the fact Labour members, including the 'kicking off' generation, are overwhelmingly anti-Brexit but not Remain dupes either, this is a must-read. What a shame then that it’s not a mass-market cheap paperback, and instead an expensive £20 hardback: a massive missed opportunity by the publisher.

d phipps

Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn  by Mike Phipps can almost be read as a companion, 'oldie version' to This is Only the Beginning. Mike's book deals in greater depth with the 'what happens next' which is the shortest section in Michael's, and all the better for it. No wild-eyed party romantic, Mike is in it for the long haul, with a powerful indictment of the flunking-out position. This is the politics that Murray, Eagleton and Schneider reject, personified by John McDonnell. Whether the space remains for such a left is an open question but Mike Phipps gives us the grounds for its possibility. And as an added bonus, the publisher chose a cheap(ish) paperback price of £13.   

Two books take a very different, and most compelling, approach to exploring the current state of Labour, both written by Labour candidates in the 2019 General Election (spoiler alert: neither won. Ali Milani The Unlikely Candidate: What Losing an Election Taught Me about How to Change Politics is Ali's account of his campaign to unseat  Boris Johnson in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Targeted by Momentum as a winnable seat, the campaign was both high profile and enjoyed considerable activist support. Winnable? If only! Defeated but unbowed, Ali weaves his experience into a portrayal of what the transformation of Labour into a community based, practical activism-led Labour Party would look like.

e durose

If Uxbridge might have seemed winnable Brentwood and Ongar was off the scale, a safe and solid Tory seat. Oly Durose came a very distant, second for Labour in 2019 but it spurred him to write a fascinatingly original book, Suburban Socialism (or Barbarism). 'Blue Wall' seats are where Labour and the Liberal Democrats, despite losing, did proportionately better than elsewhere. Oly has unearthed a new battle ground – suburbia. Too late for his own campaign, yet much informed by it, he mixes national identity, economic unrealities, Mark Fisher's 'capitalist realism' and more to summon 'suburban socialism' into existence. 

f poblet burnham

Both books draw on the Bernie Sanders campaign for inspiration. To win Democrat primaries against all odds house by house, street by street, block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood all the way up to the Democrat Presidential nomination, almost. Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections edited by Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum and Maria Poblet examines this model of highly localised organising with hugely radical purpose that has a rootedness in the US left which is mostly absent over here. 

Disruption and transformation

But to effect change, from the local to the global, means Labour needs policies that disrupt and transform the current consensus, which has been constructed by policing the boundaries of possibility. The growing plight of 'Generation Rent' exists outside of that consensus. Vicky Spratt's Tenants puts that right.

h hassan

The current basis of the British state, the Union, is an absolute pillar of consensus politics. Yet independence is a huge issue in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales too. But in England, by far the most populous of the three nations on this island, it scarcely figures except as a 'coalition of chaos' scare story. Labour, outside of parts of the Welsh party, supports the consensus, often through the politics of wilful omission. Thus, when Labour chooses to 'wrap itself in the flag' it is the Union Jack – England's St George, the Scottish Saltire, and the Welsh Dragon remain unwrapped, and the party doesn’t care what impact this has in Scotland, Wales and indeed England. To help correct Labour Unionism, Scotland Rising: The Case for Independence from the Scottish political commentator Gerry Hassan should be required reading for every Labour conference delegate and a major session at The World Transformed – but we all know it won't be, as a result Unionist Labour in Scotland trundles on towards self-destruction.

Debate at conference is as carefully stage-managed as the leadership can get away with. Meanwhile the fringe strictly divides itself into the right and the left, dialogue next to non-existent, with pluralism a dirty word for both sides. It’s an unhealthy political culture. Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy provides a portent of what a Labour Party rooted in dialogue and pluralism might look and feel like. Despite being under-resourced and with a bog-standard design, Renewal is full of heterodox and original writing on Labour's identity. This year alone the politics of coalition and the Conservatives' political economy were treated with a depth and rigour unheard of in the rest of Labour's left media. It’s published quarterly, with much of it free to download too and supplemented by a blog. Subscribe here.  

Bit by bit an alternative to Starmerism is emerging, and any optimism lies with this coming almost entirely from a new generation of the left. The Labour Right have the numbers – and don't they know it – but for ideas all eyes swing leftwards.

i buller

Two very different books absolutely prove my point. Owning The Future: Power and Property in an Age of Crisis, co-authored by Adrienne Buller and Matthew Lawrence (respectively Director of Research and Director at the Common Wealth thinktank) could pretty much be the basis for the next Labour manifesto of our dreams. Beveridge, Keynes and Cripps are rewritten, updated, and transformed, with a bit of 21st century Bevan thrown in. Vital, because without Labour addressing the role of the state and public ownership in reversing four and a half decades worth of neoliberalism triumphant, what would a Labour victory amount to in 2024? A very welcome defeat of the Tories on the basis of the lowest expectations imaginable?

j gilbert

If Adrienne and Matthew raise our expectations to the policies of the possible, Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams' Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (and How We Win It Back) do the same with the politics of the possible. Power and agency, a strategy towards effecting radical change via the broadest coalition of support imaginable, the breadth of support being an organic part of that process – this is what Jeremy and Alex describe.  

I started with Gramsci and so it seems fitting to finish with Gramsci too. It was in the 1980s, via Stuart Hall and the magazine Marxism Today in particular, that Gramsci’s ideas about the war of position and hegemony achieved a purchase on parts of the Left. It is the measure of Jeremy and Alex's achievement that they have managed to reinvent this most creative of left intellectual legacies for an entirely new generation, scarred by the consequences of the failure of these ideas to become a majoritarian left tendency the last time. Better luck next time?

Whether in Liverpool for Labour Conference or observing with interest, Owning the Future and Hegemony Now provide the signposts for a Left equipped to help shift despair to hope, and in the process prepare ourselves for the two years until the 2024 General Election.

Note No links in this review are to Amazon. Please avoid buying from corporate tax dodgersMark Perryman is an events organiser for Lewes CLP. Their next event, with Adrienne Buller and Gerry Hassan, is Building Blocs: A Day of Ideas to Dismantle the Blue Wall. Details and tickets here.

'The future is unwritten' - The Clash, 40 years on
Thursday, 15 September 2022 16:00

'The future is unwritten' - The Clash, 40 years on

Published in Music

Philosophy Football's Mark Perryman remembers the day Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper broke up

1982, the year of the Falklands War, Gotcha! And when the ships returned to Blighty, the troops greeted us with the banner 'Call Off the Rail Strike or We'll Call In An Airstrike'. A Thatcherite version of patriotism triumphant, complete with Michael Foot's Labour Party in tow, backing the war.

Grim times, and for those of a certain musical-political disposition, the soundtrack that gave us hope, The Clash, split up. The 17 September '82 release of their single Should I Stay or Should I Go marked the end of the band's classic line up: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. Various versions struggled on for a while, and both Mick with Big Audio Dynamite and Joe with The Mescaleros went on to produce some great material. But for The Clash as we knew them, it was The End.

Four decades have passed but nothing will ever replace the sounds and the culture we associate with what seems now a remarkably short time that The Clash were together, 1976-82.

Bad ideas can be displaced

In the aftermath of the Falklands War the leading left intellectual of the time, Stuart Hall described the mood and the political consequences:

We are up against the wall of a rampant and virulent gut patriotism. Once unleashed, it is an apparently unstoppable, populist mobiliser – in part because it feeds off the disappointed hopes of the present and the deep and unrequited traces of the past, imperial splendour penetrated into the bone and marrow of the national culture.

But Stuart was not a determinist, and he also outlined why it didn't have to be this way:

The traces of ancient, stone-age ideas cannot be expunged. But neither is their influence and infection permanent and immutable. The culture of an old empire is an imperial culture; but that is not all it is, and these are not necessarily the only ideas in which to invent a future for British people. Imperialism lives on – but is not printed in an English gene. In the struggle for ideas, the battle for hearts and minds which the Right has been conducting with such considerable effect, bad ideas can only be displaced by better, more appropriate ones.

The Clash did that 'displacing' in a manner we could sing along with, dance to, and wear as a badge with pride. Mixing Notting Hill and Brixton with Rocking against Racism and Working for the Clampdown this was a band that stood defiantly for a very different version of Englishness to Thatcherism. Robin Hood, the Levellers, Cable Street all wrapped up in black leather jackets, bandanas and Doctor Martens. English Civil War The Clash belted out English Civil War, but not for even a fleeting moment petty-minded nationalism, instead theirs' was the popular internationalism of the triple album Sandinista! A rebel music, home and abroad too, quite different to the more than occasionally twee so-called 'World Music' that emerged at the time.

To what extent was this a model for that long-awaited mix of radical politics with popular culture? For a brief moment punk was both counter-cultural and filling venues, storming the charts while Burchill and Parsons provide weekly bulletins from the front line of this heady mix in the pages of a radicalised NME.

When Rock against Racism folded in '81 there wasn't much in the way to replace the kind of platform, audience and political context it provided for The Clash, and those who followed in their wake – most notably The Ruts. The 1984-85 Miners’ Strike was a time of huge benefit concerts, something Enough is Enough would do well to replicate. The Redskins, for many a band who came closest to what The Clash meant were a big part of this. And perhaps most surprisingly of all Labour launched 'Red Wedge'. Without really knowing what they were doing, it was the most ambitious effort at popular cultural politics in the party's history. But it was closed down after the '87 defeats, because Labour wrongly thought that there weren't enough votes in it.                      

But despite this huge gap ever since The Clash ended in '82, for a certain generation they will always be the best band of all time – they might not have changed the world but they certainly changed us. They started off as a 'garage band' as proudly proclaimed on their 1977 debut album track Garageland (decades later brilliantly rewritten by punk poet Attila the Stockbroker as Farageland).

The future is unwritten

Attila is one of those who keeps the diy rebellious spirit of The Clash alive, like Joe Solo, Jess Silk, Captain Ska, The Commoners Choir, and the grassroots and local musical and poetic solidarity of We Shall Overcome and Poetry on the Picketline – and for a precious moment in 2017, Grime4Corbyn too. But none of them have achieved the scale of breakthrough The Clash once managed with a musical-political legacy that four decades on remains every bit as potent today.

In the space of six years, they graduated from playing in the garage to selling out Shea Stadium, with U2 as support. What if The Clash were still with us, like The Rolling Stones, The Who and U2? We'll never know, but for as long as their legacy remains, one thing is certain: in the words of Joe Strummer 'the future is unwritten'. And so Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper, for that we'll always be grateful. 

Further reading

Colin Coulter (Ed) -Working for the Clampdown: The Clash, The Dawn of Neoliberalism and the Political Promise of Punk

Daniel Rachel - Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of  Rock against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge

Gregor Gall - The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer 

Philosophy Football's The Clash 1976-82 range is available from here  

Clash zip 2022.600

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