Sport and party politics, the perfect match: Leading article

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The Independent Online
"They'll always play in blue," said the Chelsea football magnate Matthew Harding yesterday, discussing his pounds 1m gift to the Reds. It might not have been much of a joke; it certainly was not what you would call chromatically accurate, given new Labour's move rightwards; but it was one of those remarks that sign the times. A decade, even five years ago, sport and politics just would not have had enough affinity to make the connection intelligible. Now it is sometimes hard to see where sport ends and politics begins. Or, for that matter, vice versa.

Take the Five Nations rugby union championship. The ambassadors from the powers have been satisfied. Now, praise be, it seems that Scotland, Wales, England, France and Ireland will go on playing each other. The Five Nations has always been an odd contest, with a distinct political dimension. A single match at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, can say more about the depth and permanence of the Anglo-Irish connection than a score of speeches from the podium in the Dail or at Stormont. The social composition and culture of modern Britain are revealed in the difference - on the field, as much as in the stands - between Scotland and England at Hampden Park and Scotland and England at Murrayfield.

In recent weeks the game of rugby has become a political process. Those late night committees, the "peace in our times" appearance of Colin Herridge, the English Rugby Football Union treasurer (a mobile phone replacing Neville Chamberlain's slip of paper), the threats and the promises ... it all looks just like agriculture ministers negotiating in Brussels or, to use an ancient analogy, a Labour prime minister and union barons at Number 10. Smoke-filled dugouts, so to speak.

Of course, the rugby negotiations are not over. The very existence of an England squad remains in doubt until the RFU and English Professional Rugby Clubs Ltd have signed their Treaty of Twickenham. Conventional wisdom says that all we are witnessing here is the advent of big money. Where there's brass, there's behaviour that makes the old codes redundant. Rupert Murdoch fishes in the sporting ponds and see how quickly the turbid waters froth. But we are witnessing the politicisation of sport at the same time as its commercialisation.

Suddenly the very constitution of sport is up for grabs. Conventions everyone had taken for granted are exposed for the mere gentlemen's agreements they are: the world, by contrast, is populated by rougher, tougher types. One sport follows another to the revolution, intoxicated by new freedoms and vague promises of betterment. Cricket sees the advance of democracy, as clubs vote (heavens above!) for England selectors. Football confronts the politics of elitism, for it cannot be long before the Premiership floats even further offshore, and the Football Association, like the RFU, sinks or swims after it.

It used to be argued that the significance of politics would inevitably diminish as we moved into a world where we had more time for leisure and informal pursuits. Instead, it seems, the institutions that supply leisure - rugby football unions, Premierships, Olympic committees and the rest - turn out to be intensely political. Committees, general secretaries, garnering votes - it all goes on in sport, as in the corridors of Westminster. The reason is that what happens on the pitches and arenas matters. It is about national and local identity, about vicarious competition and challenge, and it is therefore controversial, disputatious, and - interesting.

So sports off the field become news - and not just people's love lives, either. And sports institutions are not just expected to behave politically, they are required to do so. Only yesterday a senior doctor laid into Manchester United for its association with a whisky brand - the club, he was asserting, has ethical responsibilities because it is an organism which exists in the public space and so has "political" responsibilities, such as concern for young people's health.

But if sport is becoming political, are there signs of movement in the other direction? There has always been a gladiatorial element in British party politics - we are watching now as Kenneth Clarke oils his torso and Gordon Brown combs out his locks in order to battle it out under the Klieg lights at Westminster. Much was forgiven Norman Tebbit when his nastiness was interpreted as a tactic, and his cultivation of a Vinnie Jones persona as a way of giving himself a political identity. Brian Mawhinney aspires to something like the same position - a sort of political Norman Hunter.

Perhaps, in future, democratic politics will come more and more to seem like a minority sport, a kind of closed contest with its own rules and rewards that we watch on television cheering on the players on black and white, or claret and blue. The more the House of Commons becomes a bear- pit, the fiercer press conference rhetoric grows, the more "entertaining" the spectacle. Sports becomes politics, politics becomes sport. The day may not be far off when you can only watch Prime Minister's Question Time on pay TV.