Why do we support the underdog? He's a bully!

'In politics and in real life the underdog is actually fighting with both hands tied behind his back'
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The Independent Online

Yesterday I was pontificating about the psychology of the top dog, about the mixed feelings we have towards the people who rule our lives. Actually, I could have let John Cleese sum a lot of it up by quoting his speech in Life of Brian which starts "What have the Romans ever done for us?" and goes on in a way which will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the film or indeed has ever been resentful of America, or the EU, or Manchester United, or any overblown and too-powerful body. It happened to Britain when we had an empire, it happened to Bath – and Wales – in the days when they couldn't lose a rugby match, and it would happen to Arsenal still if it weren't for Manchester United. (Arsenal are not such a powerfully disliked team as they were; after all, they now represent the best chance of seeing someone humble the universally disliked Man Utd.)

Yesterday I was pontificating about the psychology of the top dog, about the mixed feelings we have towards the people who rule our lives. Actually, I could have let John Cleese sum a lot of it up by quoting his speech in Life of Brian which starts "What have the Romans ever done for us?" and goes on in a way which will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the film or indeed has ever been resentful of America, or the EU, or Manchester United, or any overblown and too-powerful body. It happened to Britain when we had an empire, it happened to Bath – and Wales – in the days when they couldn't lose a rugby match, and it would happen to Arsenal still if it weren't for Manchester United. (Arsenal are not such a powerfully disliked team as they were; after all, they now represent the best chance of seeing someone humble the universally disliked Man Utd.)

But there are equally powerful factors affecting our attitude to the underdog. When an outsider steps into the ring against a fancied champion, when a dark horse comes up against a proven winner, all of us, I fancy, want to cheer for the underdog and even put a few bob on him to win. That's why the last non-League side left in the FA Cup always gets undue attention, and why giant-killing victories always provide welcome relief from the otherwise drearily steady progress of the top seeds towards the final.

In politics, the same sort of thing applies, except that in politics the role of the underdog is slightly different. In sport, the underdog is theoretically on the same level as the top dog. They both have eleven, or fifteen, men a side. Or they both have the same distance to run. But in politics and real life, the underdog is fighting with both hands tied behind his back, because the other side has all the guns, all the money, all the police, all the legal backing, all the thugs. Not the majority necessarily, but the top dog doesn't have to be in a majority. Remember apartheid.

And the other main difference between sport and politics is that in politics there isn't just one big match and it's over. The situation stays the same for years and years. Hitler persecutes the Jews for years. The Romans persecute the Christians, the white South Africans dominate the black South Africans, Saddam terrorises the Iraqis, and so on and so forth, and our hearts go out to the victims. So much so that – and it pains me to say this – we falsely endow the victims with all the noble virtues and their persecutors with all the wickedness of the world, as if anyone is made more noble or more moral just by being persecuted. It is a modern version of Rousseau's noble savage, this feeling that any section of the world that is being bullied by another section is more worthy of admiration.

Sadly, it isn't so. When people shake off their yoke, they almost always become bullies in their turn. It is almost as if they were waiting their turn to do a bit of bullying. Having been a subject race does not teach them how awful it is to be subjugated, only how much safer it feels to subjugate someone else. The Boers were the gallant little guys in the days of the Boer War. It would be hard to imagine an onlooker who didn't thrill to the exploits of the Afrikaner seeking his own freedom from the rapacious British Empire. But it was the very same gallant little Afrikaners who went on to create apartheid and enslave someone else.

The Jews went through hell in Germany before being given a homeland in the Middle East and then becoming expert at persecuting and dispossessing the Palestinians in their turn. Remember how we cursed and shook our fists at the French for their inhuman and despicable treatment of the poor innocent Algerians? Have you noticed how quiet we have been over the inhumanity and cruelty still practised in Algeria, all of it by the erstwhile victims?...

A reader writes: This is all pretty solemn stuff, Mr Kington. Where are the laughs?

Miles Kington writes: It's hard to think of any. Can you think of any victims who didn't turn the tables when given the chance ?

A reader writes: Well, when the Vietnamese threw out the American invader, I don't think they became bullies in turn.

Miles Kington writes: You may be right. Anyway, it's the lightest note we're likely to end on.

Mr Kington is now taking his medication and will be back to normal tomorrow.

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