With the Brexit vote looming, does the Euro 2016 football tournament have any influence on how the country might vote in the referendum?
Depending on who votes this Thursday, the people of Britain will either vote to stay in the European Union, or vote to tell the government they would like to leave. The polls have been up and down throughout, with bookkeepers generally predicting a slight win for the Remain camp. Almost anything, however, can swing the vote in either direction and staging the vote at a time of European football seems to be a strategic gamble from David Cameron.
In 1970, Labour were widely expected to win the General Election and the polls had Harold Wilson with a double-digit lead in most areas of the United Kingdom. Just a few days prior to the election, England faced West Germany in the Quarter Finals of the World Cup. England, having won the previous competition (for the first and last time) were tipped to beat the Germans but they succumbed to a 3-2 defeat after extra time. It was a hard pill to take for the proud English fans.
A dejected nation seemed to change their optimism slightly and instead of the predicted Labor vote, the country voted in the Conservatives under Ted Heath. Although it might not be accepted as the official reason for the late change of heart, many pundits and journalists think that the deflated mood caused by the football loss had a big impact on the election.
England and Wales, having already qualified for the next round of the European Championships, will face no last minute losses and therefore we cannot blame an unwanted Brexit on our football team getting dumped out of the competition to the likes of Slovakia. Slovakia itself is rarely mentioned in terms of immigration, and Russia isn’t in the EU so it probably wouldn’t have factored into the scenario anyway. Imagine, however, that Britain had been dumped out of the European Championships, days before the Brexit vote, having lost to Poland or Romania? These are big contributors to our immigrant population and losing to these sides might have stoked the kind of tribal instinct that the Premier League induces every year. Would it have affected things if we lost to France or Germany? Losses to these nations would, I think, have stoked nationalist tensions and encouraged swing voters to vote Leave.
Even still, despite a goalless draw against Slovakia and some lovely Gareth Bale free kicks, it has hardly been a tournament that showed the world how united Europe is. Russian hooligans have been trampling over French towns, throwing chairs and tables at anyone in their path. The French, although not entirely blameless, still reeling from tragic terrorist attacks, seem nervous and intimidated about the situation and the English fans seem more agitated than ever. It is hardly a tournament that says anything good about the sport or the people involved.
Ted Heath was not the first politician to benefit from sporting competitions, and he wasn’t the last. Tony Blair got carried away with the mood created by Euro 1996 and it helped to shape him as a young, positive, modern leader. Those days seem a long time ago, and part of Tony Blair’s policies might be blamed for the fact that we are having the vote.
Timing seems to be an interesting factor that we hadn’t noticed, or taken notice of until now. David Cameron has risked a great deal by holding this election with his political clout seemingly devastated if he fails to deliver a ‘Remain’ result. A poll was held around the stadium amongst English fans and 1 in 6 adults said that they were more likely to vote remain after watching the game and securing qualification. David Cameron then, must have been cheering England on from No.10 and shouting as loudly as any lager lout across the country. Everything around the vote has been carefully managed and the media will only release what they are given, but someone inside No.10 must have known that an England defeat and exit at the group stage of the competition would have stirred as much anti-European emotion as watching immigrants crossing the Mediterranean in rowing boats and dinghies.
Some will think that sports influence on the debate is as ineffectual as Wayne Rooney’s shooting, or as unimportant as England’s tactics (we’re going out on penalties in the Quarter Final’s anyway) but don’t dismiss the idea. Sport is part of our cultural identity and although with football, we might be comfortable not winning anything on the international stage, it affects our mood and influences our opinions.
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