Triumph is a tonic for the national ego, but less so for Blair
Victory prompts a celebrity welcome for the players and a boost to the economy but the political effect will be muted
Tuesday 25 November 2003
In 1966, Harold Wilson's advisers reacted with horror at the Prime Minister's attempts to cash in on England's success in the World Cup. Thirty-seven years later, nobody in Downing Street seems likely to argue against Tony Blair being photographed with England's rugby world champions.
But as the BA flight carrying the English rugby team headed home last night, the debate continued over the wider impact of their victory. Will the success be a boost to national confidence and a sporting renaissance or become a footnote to the history of 2003? And will it lead to a fashion for tight white shirts and a bumper pre-Christmas shopping spree?
Certainly the success looks likely to benefit the economy. The Centre for Economics and Business Research has predicted that the win could be a £70m boost from a variety of sources ranging from increased advertising to higher High Street spending and bigger gates at this weekend's Zurich Premiership games.
Politically, the modern convention is that Mr Blair and any other political leader will not be harmed by being seen to praise such sporting success. A reception at Downing Street would have almost certainly been held whatever the outcome of events in Australia, as it was for the football team after last year's World Cup.
Ben Pimlott, the historian and biographer of Wilson, said: "I think it's likely that Mr Blair will want to make reference to the success in speeches. Obviously it's better for you as Prime Minister if they win rather than lose."
But he said that although Wilson, a Liverpool fan, made efforts to be seen at football matches and generally associate himself with the 1966 victory, it was a myth that he benefited electorally, since he had already been returned to office with a decent majority that year. The victory did, however, take the heat off Wilson over the sterling crisis at the time. He said: "Mr Blair might have been helped if there had been a by-election this week, but I don't think it's going to have any longer-term effects. I wonder if people will still be talking about it in a month's time."
While the success is certain to give the sport a much needed boost at local level, where clubs are closing and playing fields disappearing, even enthusiasts for the game accept that it will never supplant football among younger people.
Michael Rosen, the children's author and a former player, said: "When kids want to play football all they need is a couple of jumpers for goalposts. It [rugby] will never break out of its middle-class ghetto. Where in the inner cities do they get the H-posts for rugby or the space to play it? And you can't explain the rules to anyone under 10."
Tony Banks, the MP, former sports minister and lifelong football fan, agreed that rugby would never eclipse football but said it was good to have a sporting celebrity in Jonny Wilkinson who could rival David Beckham as a role model and icon. "I think the behaviour of the players and fans has taken some of the sheen off football, which has been looking a bit tawdry and overcommercialised," he said.
Some argue that the success and the "feel good" factor will sustain a boost in the nation's self confidence. The cultural commentator Stephen Bayley says that it should. "The ancient Greeks raised statues and organised parades in honour of important victories," he said. "Irrespective of what you think about men with leather balls, such a stylish triumph adds a memorable shine to a usually battered national ego." He added: "I think these things are immensely important to national confidence because as a nation we are often rather cowed. Its very, very uplifting and very, very important."
Whether the success will feed into popular culture, whether artists, poets and writers will celebrate a famous victory remains to be seen. Michael Rosen says the most likely immediate effect will be fashion designers opting for the tight shirts now worn by rugby players, instead of the baggier, buttoned stripy numbers of the past.
The previous World Cup was, of course, won in the era of the Beatles and Swinging London and was followed by the cultural flowering of 1967's Summer of Love. However, the success of Revolver and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band probably owed more to cannabis and LSD than Sir Alf Ramsey. Although pop groups such as UB40 have produced pre-tournament ditties for previous rugby world cups, the idea of, say, Robbie Williams penning a tribute to our boys seems unlikely. One suspects that Sir Elton John cannot be entirely ruled out.
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