22 Jul 2014

Salmond’s Scottish sporting surge? Perhaps not

It’s one of the great tales of British election history.  Harold Wilson, it is often said, owed Labour’s landslide victory in the 1966 general election to the sense of well-being engendered by England’s success in winning the World Cup that year.

Only it can’t be true, I’m afraid.  Simply because England won the World Cup in July, and that was three months AFTER the election which was at the end of March.

22_polspor_1966_g_wLeft – Bobby Moore lifts the 1966 World Cup in July. Right: Harold Wilson outside No 10 after winning the general election in March.

Going back at least to Ancient Rome, history is full of cases of political rulers exploiting sporting events and athletic triumphs to curry favour with the masses.  Roman emperors always knew that a good spectacle in the Coliseum would boost their personal popularity.

And in the twentieth century  totalitarian leaders frequently used international sorting occasions to promote their political ideologies.

Perhaps the most notorious case is Hitler (pictured below, right) and the 1936 Berlin Olympics , though the success of the black American athlete Jesse Owens (pictured below, left) rather spoilt Hitler’s attempts to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.


The great Real Madrid team of the late 1950s were always associated with the fascist regime of General Franco, just as their rivals Barcelona have long been associated with the anti-Franco forces and Catalan nationalism.

The Soviet Union and its satellite states put huge resources into their Olympic teams to try and show that communism was a better system.  Few people were convinced, especially when the widespread misuse of drugs, and of hormones to pretend male athletes were female, were eventually exposed.

More recently, London mayor Boris Johnson boasted how he would “hoover up” all the credit for the success of the London 2012 Olympics, though he knew that many other politicians, Labour and Conservative, deserved credit too.

Boris Johnson Stuck On Zip LineAbove: Boris Johnson stuck on a zip line during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Vladimir Putin tried with rather less success to gain political capital from the Sochi Winter Olympics.

And Alex Salmond has form on this too, causing much controversy last summer when he whipped out a saltire flag at Wimbledon when Andy Murray finally won the men’s singles title.

Angela Merkel was regularly seen in stadiums in Brazil recently celebrating Germany’s recent successes at the  World Cup, but it may not win her many more votes in future.

Germany v Argentina: 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil FinalAbove: Angela Merkel celebrates at the Brazil 2014 World Cup final.

If Alex Salmond hopes the Commonwealth Games this week will suddenly turn the polls round for September’s referendum, he’s likely to be disappointed.

Labour’s campaign chief Douglas Alexander has warned Salmond not to try and milk the games for political ends.  Indeed, were the first minister to do so, it might well backfire.

Even were Scotland to win sack-loads of medals, it might encourage patriotic fervour and create a sense that Scotland can go it alone, but I’m not convinced that lots of Scots on the winning podiums will really translate into many more Yes votes.

Every Scottish medal-winner over the next fortnight will no doubt be questioned by journalists afterwards as to how they’ll be voting in September.  Many will refuse to be drawn, and I suspect that the majority who do declare themselves – just like Sir Chris Hoy in the past – will say they want to preserve the UK.

Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, Completes 2,002 Full Days In OfficeAbove: Alex Salmond hugs Clyde, the Commonwealth Games mascot

Maybe if Scotland were to win the World Cup, it would be different, and it might spark a sudden surge into independence.  But let’s be realistic:  that’s sheer fantasy.

Indeed, it’s hard to think of any sporting event which has really changed political history, either in a democracy or a dictatorship.

In 1970, Harold Wilson thought carefully about how the timing of when he should call the general election might fit in with England’s fortunes in  the World Cup in Mexico that summer.

In the event Bobby Moore’s side  famously lost 3-2 to West Germany in the quarter-finals, and then, four days later, Wilson unexpectedly lost the election to Edward Heath.

Did one defeat cause the other?  Was Wilson the victim of a sudden national depression caused by England no longer being world football champions?

Maybe, but I doubt it.

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