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Keep sport out of politics?

Brazil 2014A couple of weeks ago World Cup fever hit The Daily Telegraph with an odd little opinion piece from former Sunday Torygraph Deputy Editor and editor of The Scotsman, Iain Martin. Entitled “For the sake of the Union England must not win the World Cup in Brazil”, its basic proposition was that if England were to win the World Cup, the consequent crowing by the London-based media would infuriate Scots so much that they’d be driven to vote Yes in the Scottish independence referendum.

It’s an intriguing thought, if not a new one. There’s been plenty of speculation down the years about whether results in major sporting events affect an incumbent government’s treatment at the hands of the electorate. Perhaps the most striking example in British history came in 1970, where England faced West Germany in the quarter-finals of that year’s World Cup in Mexico on 14 June, just four days before the date set for the General Election by Prime Minister Harold Wilson the previous month. England lost 3-2 after extra time, and Edward Heath’s Conservatives duly ousted Labour in what was regarded as a surprise result.

Wilson had famously quipped in the immediate aftermath of England’s 1966 World Cup victory, “Have you ever noticed how we only win the World Cup under a Labour government?”, and it’s been a matter of some debate whether he was hoping to capitalise on some kind of feelgood factor; England were widely expected to make it to the Final at least. But it’s stretching credibility to suppose that he would have gambled his party’s electoral fortunes in such a way.

Anyway, back to 2014. Could an England win really bring about a win for the Yes Scotland camp?

Much of Martin’s thesis is that it’s over-complacent to argue that because England’s recent form has been so poor, there’s no realistic chance of England winning anyway and the question is therefore academic. It’s not as simple as that. Over the last couple of decades at least, the sporting media have always played down England’s prospects between tournaments, only to ramp up the hype in the last couple of months before they take place (assuming England have actually managed to qualify). As it’s become increasingly clear that England usually fizzle out by the quarter-finals or earlier, the level of hype has diminished, and Germany’s drubbing of Fabio Capello’s side in South Africa in 2010 put paid to it altogether. So England’s opponents may have been lulled into a false sense of security. In such circumstances, an England win out of the blue would lead to a hitherto unequalled outpouring of media hysterics that would be the final straw for the Scots.

All pretty tongue in cheek, no doubt. But it’s a bit disappointing to see a Scot trivialising the debate. His fellow journalist, Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, who visited the Western Isles and Glasgow at the end of April, was deeply impressed by the high quality of debate.

Then again, he also said he was impressed by the relatively low quality of many of the arguments put forward by the no campaign. Perhaps we should consider Martin’s contribution in that light. Certainly there’s been no great effort so far by the Better Together campaign to explain what the benefits to Scotland would be of remaining in the Union—and thus remaining saddled with Westminster politics that don’t reflect political attitudes North of the Border—rather than leaving to manage its own affairs. Instead, it’s been a constant attempt to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt in the electorate’s minds: an approach that is starting to look threadbare, if recent polls are anything to judge by.

Here’s a scary thought, though. What if he’s right, and the vote on 18 September does go in favour of independence? With the loss of all those Labour, Lib Dem and SNP MPs from Scotland, does that mean we’d suddenly have a House of Commons permanently dominated by the Tories?

Suddenly an England World Cup win looks a lot less attractive. Thank goodness it’s never going to happen.

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