1990 World Cup (Photo by Simon Bruty/Allsport/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The German threat to English exceptionalism

As England prepare to face the “old enemy” at Wembley, its impact on the nation’s mood — and our wider politics — cannot be underestimated

It was July 1990, and the England football team stood on the brink of history. “World Cup fever will bring Britain to a standstill tonight”, declared the Daily Mail, as thirty million people were expected to tune in to the biggest match since 1966. The AA warned that the semi-final against West Germany would create the worst rush hour traffic “ever seen” in London. Meanwhile, the national grid cautioned that it might not cope with a half-time power surge as supporters reached for their kettles. Even Charles and Diana were hooked. They briefed the media that eight-year-old William would be allowed to stay up to watch. After 25 years in the footballing wilderness, a nation held its breath.

An England win could create a feel-good factor to complement the vaccine rollout

For the government, Italia ’90 was a welcome distraction from domestic difficulties. Over the spring, Margaret Thatcher faced a backlash in Middle England over the poll tax, and after several false starts, Neil Kinnock looked like a potential prime minister. With Labour 25 points clear in the polls, Thatcher admitted to her MPs that “this may be a longer parliament than previous ones”. So, as England prepared to face West Germany, one cabinet minister sensed more bad news; after listing all the government’s woes, he told her that “to cap it all”, England was “about to lose to Germany at our national game”. Mrs Thatcher’s response was swift. “Well, we’ve beaten them at their national game twice this century.”

Had Bobby Robson brought home the World Cup the next few months might have played out differently. But by the end of the year, Mrs Thatcher was gone. Now, as England prepare to play Germany again — in the most significant game on English soil for twenty-five years — the politicians are aware of its importance.

For the government, an England win could create an unprecedented feel-good factor to go alongside the vaccine rollout and the unlocking of the economy. For the opposition, it is a critical moment too. The three men who look set to battle over the party’s future — Sir Kier Starmer, Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan — have been at pains to show that their “progressive patriotism” extends to supporting the national team in the Euros.

The fact that much of Euro 2020 has been held in England has rekindled memories of Euro ’96, which was the first major tournament in which the leaders of both parties used it as a political football. For the Prime Minister, John Major, it was a chance to tap into the revival of the economy after the recession of the early 90s. As the tournament opened, he declared that the “economic prospects are bright” and that “we have a lot to be positive about in this country.”

The opinion polls told a very different story. Labour’s lead by then was 30 points, but party strategists, such as Alastair Campbell, had been around long enough to see such a lead dissipate. Writing in the Observer, Blair also tapped into the optimistic mood in Britain. Euro ’96 was “an opportunity for national celebration that goes beyond football.” The whole country, he argued, “should be proud to be hosting”.

Speaking as if he was already the prime minister, Blair called on fans to behave themselves with the world watching: “Like the team itself, English supporters will be on trial during the championship.” Crucially, he tried to link England’s fortunes to his own desire to create a winning mentality within the Labour Party. “Second place is not the goal,” he wrote. “The high of watching success is incomparable. In sport as in politics, a well-fought campaign for second place means nothing.”

Euro ’96 soon gripped the nation. Over seven days at Wembley, England beat Scotland, the Netherlands and Spain to rekindle their place in the nation’s hearts. One journalist observed that, in the days after the Netherlands win, you could “plunge your thermometer anywhere in England’s psyche today, and it emerges glowing red with patriotic fever”. Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror revived memories of the Second World War with a front-page depicting Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne in battle: “ACHTUNG! SURRENDER”.

As England prepare to do battle with Germany again, memories of 1966, 1970, 1990 and 1996 will be central

Major confidently declared that “football has certainly come home this summer” as England set up a semi-final with Germany. The bookmakers sensed that the political weather was changing too. During Euro ’96, the Conservative odds on winning the next election were cut from 3/1 to 2/1 following a series of big-money bets. Alastair Campbell’s diaries revealed just how much the tournament impacted Labour’s thinking. Campbell sensed that it was written in the stars” for England and the Tories, to the extent that he found himself “rooting for Germany for political reasons”. After semi-final, he found John Major looking “ashen-faced”, as the “feelgood factor” died the moment Gareth Southgate missed his penalty.

Boris Johnson is not relying on an England victory to revive his premiership. But there is no doubt that he will be hoping for a welcome distraction after a turbulent few weeks. In 1966, Harold Wilson bought into the optimism of a home World Cup amidst a series of economic crises. Wilson was the first prime minister to truly understand the importance of England to the nation’s mood. In 1966 he took it upon himself to offer a running commentary on the nation’s chances: “England are playing together as a team. They will face the best you can put against us with great confidence.”

via @labour_history on Twitter

With the final looming, he took a dramatic last-minute flight from Canada to make sure he was at Wembley for the final. He arrived in time to offer up a prediction on the score (2-1) before joining the team in the Royal Garden Hotel for the post-match celebration. In the following days, the Observer admitted that “we have not had much to boast about since Harold Wilson came to power”. And some in government genuinely believed victory could help turn the British economy around. Richard Crossman hoped it would “be a decisive factor in strengthening sterling” with the banks inspired by England’s “gallant fight”. However — contrary to later mythology — it did not result in Labour winning the 1966 general election. That contest had already taken place in March.

Instead, Wilson would pin his hopes on a “mystical symbiosis” — as Roy Jenkins described it — between Labour and the England team at Mexico ’70. Labour had endured a torrid time in government. At the turn of 1969, The Times produced a poll which showed that the Conservative Party were in line for a “landslide of almost 1945 proportions”. But to the surprise of everybody, the party turned their fortunes around thanks to an economic revival. Ministers pushed for a summer poll, but, as Denis Healey later recalled, Wilson was worried “that if England were defeated just before polling day, the Government would suffer”.

Wilson knew that Mexico ’70 was going to be the biggest World Cup in history. For the first time, both BBC and ITV promised a wall to wall “football extravaganza” with eight and a half hours of action each match day. Everybody, “whether a shift worker, night worker, schoolboy or honeymooning couple” could watch England mount a defence of their title. In an age before streaming, viewers were offered flexibility to watch “at a time appropriate to the exigencies of their way of life”.

Soon the idea of a World Cup election appealed to Wilson. Pitching himself as a “father of the nation” figure, he promised to campaign with the “real people” in the towns and the cities. An optimistic contest — set against an England victory — proved impossible to resist. His gamble on a summer poll appeared to pay off as he was blessed with a heatwave and a feel-good song in the pop charts. Over 500,000 people purchased the hit anthem of the year, “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, making them, according to the Daily Mail, “the biggest pop hit since the Beatles”.

The first major Anglo-German clash since Brexit will be infused with emotion and symbolism

Wilson hadn’t foreseen the central role he would play in getting the England Captain, Bobby Moore, to Mexico. On the morning of Labour’s manifesto launch, he was informed of the arrest of Moore in Bogota over a missing necklace. He immediately intervened in the case by sending a cable to the FA President and offered to speak to the Colombian Prime Minister personally. The FA Chairman told him that top-level intervention was required to save “England’s World Cup chances”. Moore was eventually released, and Wilson was happy to take some credit. The Tories accused him of prioritising an individual case. Wilson hit back and suggested that Heath wanted England to lose for his own electoral gain. “Is there no triviality to which this man won’t descend?” replied Heath.

As Wilson had expected, football proved to be more attractive to the voters than politics. The Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart organised a meeting on the same day England played Brazil, meaning nobody turned up. The Chancellor, Roy Jenkins, had thought ahead and moved his meeting to accolade the fixture but was disheartened when only a “hundred or so people” turned up. Even Tony Benn — not known for his interest in football — believed that the “political effect” of the opening defeat against Brazil “can’t be altogether ignored”.

But it all appeared to be working in Labour’s favour. On the day that England was set to face West Germany in the quarter final, the bookmakers made Labour 1/14 to hold onto power. On the afternoon of the game, the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe talked openly of his fears of a Labour landslide: “It is now clear that nationally the Labour Party is romping home.” And as Harold Wilson settled down with twenty million others to watch the match, England raced into an unassailable 2-0 lead.

What happened next entered the realms of political mythology. With one eye on a semi-final against Italy, Sir Alf took off Bobby Charlton to preserve his energy. It proved to be a turning point as West Germany scored two quick goals to take the game to extra time. Peter Bonetti — a late call up for an ill Gordon Banks — was blamed, as Gerd Müller finished England off in extra time. Shell-shocked, the BBC’s David Coleman was lost for words on the commentary. Nobody could remember a time when England had thrown away a two-goal lead.

All of a sudden, eyes turned away from the football and onto the politics. On the ground, Sports Minister Denis Howell attended a factory meeting in Birmingham, where — much to the surprise of the star turn Roy Jenkins — “no question concerned either trade figures or immigration but solely the football and whether Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit.” The heatwave came to an end, and the release of new trade figures undermined Wilson’s optimistic campaign. A week later, Heath confounded the pollsters to win a thirty-seat majority for the Tories.

An England victory may well give the country confidence to forge a new identity in the post-Brexit world

Wilson later referred to the Germany game as a depressing day. And while it is impossible to pinpoint the exact causes of election results, David Butler and Pinto-Duschinsky concluded that England’s defeat “may have contributed to a switch in mood”. A few years later, the events were still “indelibly printed on every true Englishman’s mind”, according to Terry Collier in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. “I had to go to bed and lie down for two weeks,” admitted Bob Ferris. “It takes a long time to get over something like that.”

So as England prepare to do battle with Germany again, memories of 1966, 1970, 1990 and 1996 will be central to the thoughts of all England supporters. No doubt, the first major Anglo-German clash since the Brexit vote will be infused with emotion and symbolism for our politics too. A victory may well give the country a renewed confidence to forge a new identity in the uncertain post-Brexit world. Or perhaps it will be Germany (who else?!) who dismantles the notion of “English exceptionalism” at the first attempt. The stakes could not be higher.

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