Must we forget our principles and surrender to mob rule?

The minor hole opened by the Football Association in the fabric of its own rules may become a nasty rip
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The Independent Culture
IF A poll were taken of the best-known four words in English political philosophy, the phrase "nasty, brutish and short" would certainly win. Thomas Hobbes, writing in the wake of the Civil War, believed that only law and an agreed sovereign power stood between civilised people and a return to natural savagery. Three centuries later, William Golding in Lord of the Flies expressed a similar pessimism about what happens when there is a return to pre-civilisation - in the case of boys, at any rate. Regrettably no one has written the obvious sequel, "Lady of the Flies", in which 20 girls are marooned on a desert island. In this version Piggy is not shoved off a cliff and killed, but subjected instead to endless makeovers.

For years I thought the Golding-Hobbes outlook a pessimistic one, designed - when taught alongside Animal Farm and 1984 in the school examination syllabus - to convince would-be radicals of the futility of their cause. Bugger about with the system, these works together seemed to say, and the next thing you know, there'll be pigs' heads on sticks all along the North Circular.

It was the head of Nwankwo Kanu that many from Sheffield wanted to mount last Saturday afternoon (and please could those with no interest whatsoever in football stick with me for this bit?). Mr Kanu, a new midfielder with Arsenal Football Club, was apparently not apprised of the convention governing injuries to players. It has become the practice (almost universally observed) that if one side wants medical attention for one of its men, it kicks the ball out of play, and the physio then trots on and dispenses anaesthetic spray and limited massage. When this battlefield treatment is complete the opposing team then resumes play by throwing the ball back to the hurt player's team.

This little bit of sportspersonship allows play to be stopped as soon as the teams themselves believe that one of their number requires treatment; but - not being a law of the game - it is clearly fragile. On Saturday, when Arsenal played Sheffield United in the FA Cup, and with the score at 1-1, Mr. Kanu got hold of the ball after it had been thrown back towards the Sheffield goalkeeper, and passed it to another Arsenal player - who scored.

2-1. Uproar. Mayhem. Bad language. The referee, Peter Jones, said that the goal stood, and the Sheffield coach then tried to persuade his team to walk off the pitch and conclude the match. The game was resumed only after 10 minutes' delay, and Arsenal duly won. A bad show. Except that Arsenal promptly offered the Yorkshiremen a replay of the whole game. This was remarkable (and commendable) enough. But what was really surprising was that the Football Association, within an hour of the final whistle, should agree to such a proposition. Immediately everyone rushed to congratulate the moribund Association on its sensible accommodation to popular sentiment.

Well, in fact not everyone. On BBC1's Match of the Day, the pundit Alan Hansen - one of British soccer's most intelligent products - disagreed (though he was outnumbered two to one). He wondered where such flexibility would lead; what other situations might occur. And Philip Don, the spokesman for League referees, was also worried. "A very dangerous precedent has been set," he said. "The referee is there to control a game according to the rules, which state that whoever scores the most goals wins... Laws are there to be implemented and the match officials do that. In this instance, the referee has awarded the goal and it should stand."

Their doubts were given short shrift. "Purists will argue," opined The Observer, "that the FA 'has undermined the authority of officials' - but that is stuff and nonsense."

But it isn't. It was interesting to me that this bit of pre-emptive populism on the part of the FA was linked to the way in which the Hoddle business was handled. On both occasions, it was suggested, the FA had shown itself to be a decisive and strong organisation by daring to take tough action swiftly. But I believe that - on the contrary - both decisions were the product of a cowardly desire to palliate "public opinion" (aka journalistic conventional wisdom), rather than stand firm and take a position of principle.

Of course, such a position can be described as elitist. Political and social elites feel themselves to be threatened by mobs, and the democratic impulse scares them. Since the rules generally favour those minorities with wealth and power, they seek to preserve them. But this is, as many have pointed out, an age in which we are witnessing the death of deference. When Diana, Princess of Wales died popular sentiment caused the flag to be flown at half-mast on Buckingham Palace. The political elite was likewise defeated over Nolan. Those who have stood against such changes have seemed like Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, always warning that tiny changes in minor conventions resemble "the worst excesses of the French Revolution".

Cultural elites equally feel offended by popular culture. In last week's New Statesman Suzanne Moore (late of this parish) entered a lusty defence of the Vanessas and the Kilroys. "The world of talk shows frightens the horses," she said, "because it is a world of feeling, disclosure, excess, purging..." But, she asked, "who can say that those who are there to spill the beans don't feel better afterwards?" The elite may be discomfited, but the people are happier because they get what they want.

I don't believe this either, and I loathe these programmes and their vulgarity, and the lack of ambition they have for ordinary people. And that could be, once again, because I am a member of an elite. But it is worth remembering who else feels themselves put at hazard whenever sentiment, and not law or intellect, governs. I'm talking here about minorities, for whom the law is the guarantor of rights in bad times. For those who may not always be popular, the laws that govern how others may behave to them should be as little subject as possible to contingent or arbitrary change. Sticking the word "people's" in front of something does not - as they discovered in eastern Europe - confer moral superiority.

Already the minor hole opened by the FA in the fabric of its own rules threatens to become a nasty rip. Sheffield fans want the replay to be held at their ground; they want the same weakened Arsenal team to be fielded; they want their money refunded from the original game; they want the proceeds to go to charity. Yet other fans, recalling similar incidents from previous matches, stand ready to demand similar flexibility to be shown, should something untoward happen to their team. What about those disallowed goals when the ball did cross the line, those penalties that should/should not have been given, that sending-off that was manifestly unfair? Shout, shout at the ref, shout at the FA, get the papers on your side. Shove that pig's head on that stick.