Top flight football fascinates me. I have a morbid fear of snakes, and they fascinate me in much the same way. I increasingly find myself watching it at a distance, having been a fanatical fan in my younger days, I think for a variety of reasons.
One is the cost, which has priced live Premier League Football beyond the means of many who formed the traditional fan base of football clubs, driving them into the arms of Mr Murdoch. But the main one from my perspective is that I have children of impressionable ages (11 and 8), and the thought that they might take as role models the vast majority of those who stride the Premier League stage strikes me cold.
Tax also fascinates me, although I have neither the inclination nor the realistic alternative to watch it from a similar distance; for good or ill I am in the heart of the battle, and nor would I want to be anywhere else. And what a fascinating time it is to be engaged in the tax profession, as the 21st century future of that profession and the tax system as a whole is in the process of being shaped. And how interesting it is to draw parallels between the modern iterations of my two abiding fascinations.
In my view there are a surprising number of parallels to be drawn, which tell us much about early 21st century values and morality. I offer you five:
1. Greed – the culture of ‘every man for himself’
Somewhere along the line, something fundamental changed in this country, and I would place it in the 1980s. Certainly since the second world war, there had been a concensus in society that ‘we’re all in this together’, and a political concensus based on making the welfare state work and retaining key national assets and services in public ownership (railways, power, health, telecommunications, postal service etc).
In the 1980s, under the leadership of a Prime Minister who denied that soceity even existed, that concensus broke down. National assets and services were sold off, and the conviction entered British life that it was “every man for himself”, and that greed was, if not exactly good, at least a convenient means to a desirable and praiseworthy end. And in the post-Thatcher world, trying to reverse the (social?) change arising from the prevailing ethos of those days often seems somewhere between difficult and impossible.
In the tax system, this manifested itself in a dramatic reduction in the top rates of income tax, from the giddy and unjustifiable heights of 98% in the mid 1970s to the remarkably low 40% of the 2000s. And in football it manifested itself in a number of ways:
The formation of the elitist Premier League
Home clubs keeping all of their gate receipts rather than sharing with the visitors
Massive distortions arising from the ‘value’ of respective TV rights
A Champions League which you didn’t have to be Champions to enter, supported by a co-efficient system that aims to maintain the status quo
Being able to tell in advance within half a dozen places where every Premier League team will end the season in the table, and being able to narrow down to 2 or 3 the number of teams that might win the title each year.
Clubs with wage bills in excess of their income
Young British footballers starved of opportunity at the very highest level.
Football clubs engaging in dubious tax avoidance activities to pay overseas stars in an apparently tax-efficient manner.
Some of this particular house of cards came tumbling down in the high profile case of Glasgow Rangers, one of the half dozen or so best supported football clubs in the UK. And given that HMRC has at long last decided to treat football clubs as normal businesses rather than sacred cows, believe me when I tell you that the fate of Rangers is the small tip of a very large iceberg.
And so back to the tax connection, as it will be HMRC that proves to be the nemesis of top flight football as we have known and loathed it in the past 10 to 20 years, with collateral damage to many clubs at lower levels which have lived the dream without financial substance.
2. ‘Fit and proper persons’
This concept has now made its appearance in tax legislation with regard to the conditions for corporate governance of charities in connection with charitable tax exemptions and reliefs under the new wider EU regime. This is of course a phrase well known to football observers in terms of the ownership of football clubs, as we still wait after many years to find out what depths of iniquity it is necessary to stoop to to fall outside this definition. We can only hope that it is more meaningful in tax terms.
3. The rules, and how to bend them to breaking point
It has taken a financial crisis to focus Government attention on artificial tax avoidance and the damage that it does to the UK economy. The existing regime of disclosure of tax avoidance schemes is unsatisfactory, both because of limited HMRC resources and the inevitable delays in assessing incoming data, identifying abusive schemes and framing legislation to block them.
Thus, not before time, the morality of tax avoidance has become a real live issue, not least because those morally questionable institutions, banks (“here’s another fine mess you’ve got us into”) are at the forefront of activity in this respect.
The government’s response has been partly praiseworthy, in the promulgation of a General Anti-Abuse Rile which appears, at least as emerging from the deliberations of the Aaronson committee, to be exactly what is required (let us hope that it remains so following the consultation process). However, it has also had worrying aspects of the sledgehammer cracking a nut, with regard to the saga of the proposed cap on reliefs on charitable giving.
What we can say is that the blocking of artifical and abusive tax avoidance schemes is right where it should be, at the top of the tax agenda, and that I anticipate effective action (hopefully without catching the ‘innocent’ along with the ‘guilty’) from the government within the next year.
Also not before time, an element of moral concern has arisen in football circles, notably over the issue of diving. Now I will admit that I do not like Gary Neville (he said, mildly) but my blood boiled when I heard him mounting a moral defence of those who see fit to ‘exaggerate contact’ (aka dive) to earn penalties and free kicks. Oddly enough, I think a philosopher would tell Mr Neville (who does not himself appear to fit that mould) that just because the majority sometimes appears to be engaged in morally contemptible activity that doesn’t make it right. In this case, that makes it cheating.
And if he and his fellow (mainly Sky ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible Premier League football worlds’) apologists think that football exists in a moral vacuum they are very wrong (see 5 below). But just to be fair, I will make the only case that could possibly be made for the actions of Ashley Young and his ilk (see 4 below).
4. The responsibility of those in charge
Moral authority is a curiously intangible thing, arguably more conspicuous in its absence than by its presence. By and large politicians used to have it (let’s be fair to the lady I criticise in my opening section; she had it – you knew she believed and meant what she said, even if you didn’t like it) and by and large they now do not.
There are a number of reasons for this in my view, going much deeper than the expenses scandal, although that was a major factor in the acceleration of the decline in public respect for politicians. I would list the following:
Lack of ‘conviction politicians’ (that is as opposed to politicians with convictions, which is quite another story). How else are we to account for George Galloway’s extraordinary victory in the Bradford by-election? – again, you might not like him, but he knows what he believes and he says it. There is a suspicion that you could perform a complete exchange of cabinet for shadow cabinet overnight and no-one would notice the difference.
‘Spin’. Politicians were always notorious for not answering the question posed, but now you get the strong impression that they say nothing until it has been cleared by higher authority (and given Francis Maude’s recent bitter experience, can you blame them?) and nothing that might be regarded as controversial. And of course much that does emerge is anonymous, such as last week’s infamous ‘many bogus charities’ comment.
‘Professional politicians’. To my mind, the worst thing that has happened to the UK political system in my lifetime has been the advent of the professional politician, a breed by whom we are now plagued on all sides. Oxbridge Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree, work as a political researcher (or for a PR company – see ‘spin’), perhaps if we are lucky some time on a local council and into the House of Commons in their 30s.
Any connection with real life, running a business, holding down a job in tough economic times, struggling to put food on the table for the family at the end of the week; all of these experiences are alien to the professional politician. And we wonder why they do not understand the impact that their decisions have on the ordinary working people they all claim to be speaking for. And they wonder why the electorate at large has no respect for them; I suggest that it is largely because we have nothing in common with this alien breed.
Ill-advised tax change after ill-advised tax change pays testimony to the fact that this breed of politician sees politics as an intellectual exercise rather than a process of improving people’s lives, and that they have no empathy whatsoever with the real difficulties that beset people’s everyday lives. And we trust them to run the country?
And so we turn to the people who run football. Shall we start with Sepp Blatter and FIFA? Well, probably not, because they would undoubtedly sue me. Or Michel Platini and FIFA (note the aforementioned UEFA coefficients system, designed to maintain the status quo in European football)?
Or the Football Association, who brought you the 2018 England World Cup bid and the appointment of Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello, or Sir David Richards, chairman of the Premier League and vice-chairman of the FA (conflict of interest, anyone?) whose bizarre behaviour in Qatar last month made English football administration even more of a laughing stock than it was already? Enough, I think, said.
And thus to the only possible defence of the divers whose cheating pollutes the national game, and the subject of referees. Not their assistants, who are part-time and do in general a remarkably good job (says a Wigan Athletic fan in the wake of the game at Chelsea!), but the full-time officials who are paid so handsomely (in real terms, if not in football terms) for their officiating skills.
Can it be, I muse, that one of the reasons that footballers seem to be so intent on diving is that referees do not give penalties and free kicks if they don’t? How many times have you seen a forward stay on his feet after a foul, miss the chance because he has been knocked off balance, and then not be given the penalty he so richly deserves?
We recall that referees are allowed to give a short-term advantage and then bring the game back for a penalty or free-kick if none accrues. Might it not dissuade the divers if referees actually gave penalties when people were fouled in the box and didn’t go down like a dying swan, but tried to be honest?
Incidentally that is not an excuse for the cheats, just a thought as to how we might start to address the problem in a way that might actually work.
5. Role models
This is the aspect of modern Premier League football that really worries me. When I was growing up in the early/mid 1970s football was a lot harder than it is now (Tommy Smith, Norman Hunter, Ron Harris, Peter Storey, Billy Bremner, Graeme Souness, Mike Doyle etc would frighten the life out of modern Premier League prima donnas) but if someone went down you could be fairly sure that they had been fouled and they were hurt (unless they were Francis Lee).
Taking my example from those I watched on a Saturday, when I was kicked in the head keeping goal in a Games lesson I didn’t writhe about, I got up and got on with it, at least until confusion in a subsequent Geography lesson revealed I was concussed.
On a Sunday at church I watch the (10 to 13 year old) children kick a (soft) ball around in the church hall. Their parents are without exception god-fearing, good people who instil standards in their offspring. Yet they still dive, feign injury and attempt heinous tackles, just like their heroes who they watch in the Premier League, despite the fact that there is (literally) nothing at stake.
Which is why I am so relieved that my children care not for Premier League football. Hsd you told me when I was their age that I would be delighted that my children took scant interest in top flight football I would have thought you were mad, but I’m not going to be the one to encourage them. Much better to walk them to Moss Lane on a Saturday to watch Altrincham playing at a level where the players are on part-time terms and are largely playing because football is something they are pretty good at and they enjoy.
Or even better, after recent experience, take them to Salford Reds to watch Rugby League, where challenges that are beyond the average Premier League footballers worst nightmares are given and accepted without question, referees are respected by players and you know if someone goes down they are genuinely hurt. And can it be coincidence that the opposing fans are to be trusted to sit with each other and have a laugh and a joke about the game? I think not.
And what of public respect, or lack of it, for politicians, who after all have an enormous impact on the lives of all of us? Compared to the respect that even opponents had for a Churchill, an Attlee or even, heaven help us, a Thatcher, what is the public view of today’s senior politicians? Can I suggest venal, out of touch, hypocritical, ‘on message’ and contemptuous of the public as a start? And if that isn’t right, then who else is to blame for giving the impression that it is? Yes, the same people who turned politics into a job instead of a vocation, the MPs themselves. Do we think today’s teenagers look up to senior politicians? Forget it; believe me, they don’t.
The public gets the politicians it deserves, which leads me to think we must have done something really bad. However, quite what we must have done to deserve the top level football we are presented with beggars belief. Or perhaps, thinking back to the violence-infested 1970s and 1980s, we got exactly the football we deserved.