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The Place of Football in the Political Culture of the Twentieth-Century British Working Class

The Place of Football in the Political Culture of the Twentieth-Century British Working Class

Today, football is one of the world’s most popular cultural phenomena. But in order to understand how this ball game has managed to transcend virtually all physical and cultural boundaries, we must take a quick look at its origins – namely, the emergence of a recognised national sport of British workingmen, reflecting their aspirations for social inclusion, political empowerment, and fairness. 

The maturation of a self-conscious British working class 

In the transition from a limited, property-based franchise to the existence of a mass electorate, with the working class as a majority, Britain’s interwar democracy remained rooted in the continuing centrality of “semi-feudal” civil and political institutions, social hierarchy, and cultural privilege. Its society was divided into class-based communities, emerging from the post-World War I transformation of the nation’s economic base and occupational structures, from changing patterns of leisure, consumption, sexuality, worship, and the recasting of social relations under the conditions of formal political equality.1

In this context, the culture of the working class, with its corresponding theory, institutions, discipline and community values, became a vehicle for class-based political action.2 On that basis, Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class” focuses not so much on the political life and working conditions of wage laborers, as on the rituals, symbols and forms of autonomous expression that the workers have given themselves from the family level to that of the local and religious communities. Their social and associational lives portrayed a modus vivendi that turned out to be very distinct from the mainstream perspectives limited to the relations of production.

In Thompson’s view, the working class forged itself through culture3 – not as a product of paternalism or methodism, but largely due to the conscious effort of the commoners.4 Even if the rise of an independent workers’ party was founded, as its name indicated, on an exclusive class allegiance, class consciousness5 was not expressed simply by voting for the Labour Party, if only because the movement never rallied, even at its peak in 1945-1951, more than a small majority of proletarians. There were undoubtedly regions where the working community coincided with the workers’ organized movement – especially in the mining districts or in provincial towns with specialized industries – but this was not the rule. The class consciousness of English workers was articulated by a deep feeling of appreciation towards the specific character of manual work, by an unformulated, but powerful moral code, based on solidarity, equity, mutual aid and cooperation, and finally, by the resolution to fight for fair treatment.6

Naturally, the industrial workers community could only exercise any power at all through the use of its collective strength. The workers’ moral conviction that people had the right to just treatment, the widespread awareness, acquired in a century of industrialization, of the need for collective self-help strategies, and the reciprocal understanding between neighbours, led to the creation of a network of mutual benefit and credits, meant to sustain poor families through hard times.7 Despite operating outside the law, these systems were generally tolerated by the police, as was betting outside the racetrack, in all factories and working-class districts. Similar to the more organized political forms of workers’ actions, this brought about a certain sense of class independence, and above all, symbolized the creation of a social space that eluded the authority of the rich and the powerful.

The secret nature of the friendly society and its impenetrability to the scrutinizing gazes of the upper class were all authentic proofs of the development of working-class culture and autonomous institutions. The workmen embarked on a decentralized strategy of earning a living, increasingly cultivating the art of living in a community. Many elements of the cellular structure of their friendly society, and its ethics of reciprocity, were later reproduced in more elaborate and complex forms in unions, cooperatives, Hampden clubs, Political Unions and Chartist Lodges.8 

Football as the working man’s game 

The long period of social unrest brought by the Great War, the Irish Civil War, and the general strike of 1926 was followed by a golden age, marked by the will of the English society to represent itself as a large, united body, and a significant improvement of the working class’ condition. Throughout the twentieth century, football held a prominent place in the development of British unity and consensus, due to its particular contribution to the construction of the nation and social classes, summed up by what Benedict Anderson (at a general, societal level) and Eric Hobsbawm (in the particular case of football) called “imagined communities.”9

More precisely, football has enabled Britain to hold together an integrative logic, that ultimately led to the acknowledgment of the working class as part of the nation. Football rituals participated in the invention of tradition10 in the United Kingdom. The reunion in the same stadium, or in the same team, of people of similar or different social status, shed light on both proximities and social distances, and allowed individuals to identify, at the same time, with a transcendental community.

In the British tradition, therefore, football has been intimately linked to the question of the place of the working class within society. While the socially selective character of certain sports such as tennis and golf excluded manual labourers, football clubs appeared as products of a labouring-class sociability and male street culture11, turning into a symbol of an independent working-class culture, magnifying the values and virtues of labour, and giving a greater sense of belonging to the blue-collar workmen. At a time when the labour movement was still developing, this weekly “conquest” of the city centre became a form of social conquest, and a proletarian appropriation of civic pride.12

West Ham United, for instance, had its origins in a workers’ strike at the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, at a time when East London was suffering a severe economic depression. Arnold Hills, the company chairman, took to the suggestion of creating a football club for company workers, as a method of improving their morale. Most players and supporters were working-class people who treasured the community spirit of the club.13 This reflected, to some degree, the East End social order and class solidarity at the end of the 1890s: the common people’s poverty was accompanied by “a generosity towards others like themselves, by a wide range of attachments, by pride in themselves, their community and their country and by an overflowing vitality.”14

As one of the pillars of working-class culture, associational football was not just a form of escape, but also as a representation of the ordinary. The link between professional soccer and the working-class culture, evident in the recruitment of players and the composition of its public, was also reflected in the promotion of a typical English play style and a conception of the practice which privileged courage and will over the intelligence of the game. Popular wisdom holds that players were above all appreciated for their physical commitment, resilience, and dedication to the team.15 Likewise, as part of an attempt to improve the labouring-class’ status in the British society, it was largely believed that football could mirror and develop the self-discipline, courage, loyalty, and team spirit of workingmen.

Football was also used as a display of “good behaviour”, bearing the stamp of the workers’ ideals of fairness, democracy, and equality, reflected in the very organisation of the teams – secretaries, for instance, were elected by secret ballot. Among fans, football clubs were regarded as a form of participatory democracy: the players were viewed as representatives of their supporters, and of their values and subculture16. If soccer had such a huge success, it was also due to its embodiment of a sense of community in popular circles. The sporting life generated class cohesion among British workers: “The English industrial working class was neither politically nor culturally homogenous, but love of football united them almost more than anything else.”17

Nevertheless, the illusion of participatory control perished as the directors sought to attract and promote the game to the wealthy, middle-class leisure “consumers”. Football became increasingly commodified, professionalised and “embourgeoisified.”18 The subsequent disorder and violence conveyed a form of resistance to the game’s changing structure and values, and to the supporters’ loss of control of what had previously been “their” game. Consequently, the increase in televised sport brought professional football into the salons of the bourgeoisie, adding up to 10 million viewers of the first and second divisions’ most important matches, in 1989-1990.19 

The Britishness of soccer 

If football was consequently branded “the people’s game”20 by its first academic historian, James Walvin, the notion of “the people” has been much debated in British social history since then. Patrick Joyce famously advocated its adoption as a more accurate and universalising alternative to the narrow language of “class.”21 In both contemporary and academic usage, however, the terms have overlapped: football has been designated as the game of the “people,” the “masses,” the “lower ranks,” or “working class” or “classes” interchangeably. In addition, football has enjoyed a parallel – often intertwining – existence as a “national” sport, a cultural form popular and meaningful enough to be considered a symbol of Britishness and of the British nationhood at large. In this sense, Patrick Mignon argues that football became a part of British culture through its virtues: around 1926, “fair play” was invented as no longer an aristocratic virtue, but an English social value.22

During the second World War especially, British soccer detached itself from explicitly ideological implications, and was embraced as a national game, becoming an invaluable safety net for a nation at war and an anguished population. The war held an important place in the national narrative, creating and sustaining the notion of unity, reinforcing “ideas of Britishness defined against enemies both abroad and at home,”23 and articulating the national, communal, and collective dimensions. The intensified awareness of a nation united through war simultaneously prompted a reassessment and renegotiation of what truly defined the British national identity. Here, as one of the most significant cultural phenomena of the period, soccer games became a central space for sharing and debating understandings of national character and identity politics.24

Consequently, Geoffrey Field argued that the Second World War “deepened” class identity and “reshaped class relations” in “important ways,” effectively forging a new shared working-class consciousness and a common political agenda.25 Yet he also held true that the popular working-class unity did not reject or undermine the strong expressions of national identity, partly because the ambiguity of slogans such as the “people’s war” allowed for the existence of contradictions and a wide range of interpretations of what it meant to be British.

From an enjoyable diversion and form of escapism, football turned into a key emblem of both the people and the nation. Working-class culture had in fact become nationalised, proving its ability to appeal across class lines. Therefore, while working people came to see themselves as a collective force, bound together by new shared experiences and needs, the government and the media portrayed them for the first time as “the backbone of the nation”, a group whose interests now coincided with those of the country. This did not mean, of course, that Britain became a classless society, but, as Todd and other scholars have argued, class and nation emerged as complementary rather than contradictory categories.26

In their study of post-war British sport, Richard Holt and Tony Mason saw the early 1950s as a defining moment, in which professional football “ceased to be the preserve of the working class and came to be recognised as the equal of cricket as part of English national culture”27. Still, as they deigned to descend into the arena of world football, the English have rarely had the success they expected as founders of this sport. Such ambitions reflected the unrealistic post-imperial dream of a former great power whose weakened role on the world stage has coincided with weak results in international sport.28 At the very least, however, the “us versus them” of international matches did strengthen the “we” of the British nation.

Towards the 1990s, the general decay of the manufacturing industry, as well as that of mining activities, which had provided a large number of players, weakened the traditional social base of football. Unemployment and the decline of city centres further reduced the place of football as a component of working-class culture. As Tony Mason points out, the “traditional” labouring class has been divided into an urban “sub-class” and a more privileged category of property owners. For these various reasons, and especially due to the transformation of football into a small economic affair of big clubs’ chairmen, the flowering of capitalism remodelled “the people’s game,” leaving the sport’s core working-class supporters marginalized and disaffected.29 

Closing remarks 

At the end of this discussion, it is therefore important to note that, throughout the twentieth century, soccer has worked as a key instrument of cultural integration, identity construction and social cohesion, and a vector of informal political activity. On the one hand, the football pitch has been a meeting point for the common hopes of “the common people,” and a place of worship for what Hobsbawm named the “secular religion” of the British proletariat. The power structure that the workingmen created through football reflected not only their long-lasting disillusionment with the political system, but also a deep-rooted class solidarity, great tenacity in political struggles, a deliberate choice of the democratic path, and a continuous interference between culture and politics. On the other hand, with its various social, political and cultural facets, the nationalization of football has been a precursor to the integration of the British workers’ identity within – and the consolidation of – a pluralized and inclusive Britishness. 



1 Helen McCarthy, “Whose Democracy? Histories of British Political Culture Between the Wars,” The Historical Journal 55, No. 1 (2012), 221.

2 Mabel Berezin, “Western European Studies: Culture,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Los Angeles: Elsevier, 2001).

3 Edward Palmer Thompson, “The Making of the English Working Class” (New York: Vintage Books, 1966).

4 Ibid.

5 Alastair Reid, “Class and Organization,” The Historical Journal 30, No. 1 (1987), 226.

6 A. J. P. Taylor, “English History 1914-1945” (Oxford: The Oxford History of England, 1965), 244-5.

7 Alan Kidd, “The Working Class, Self-Help and Mutual Aid,” in State, Society and the Poor. Social History in Perspective (London: Palgrave, 1999), 109.

8 Patrick Fridenson, « E. P. Thompson. La formation de la classe ouvrière anglaise, » Le Débat 3 (1980), 175-188.

9 Eric Hobsbawm, “Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 143.

10 Eric Hobsbawm, and Terence Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

11 Matthew Taylor, “The People’s Game and the People’s War: Football, Nation and Class in Britain, 1939-1945,” Historical Social Research 40, No. 4 (2015), 284.

12 Patrick Mignon, « Footballisation de la politique? Culture du consensus et football en Grande-Bretagne, » Politix. 13, No. 50 (2000), 51.

13 Ramón Spaaij, “Understanding Football Hooliganism: A Comparison of Six Western European Football Clubs” (Amsterdam: Vossiuspers, 2007), 123.

14 Michael Young and Peter Willmot, “Family and Kinship in East London” (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), xv.

15 Richard Holt, « La tradition ouvriériste du football anglais, » Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 103 (1994), 36.

16 Matthew Taylor, “Politics and the People's Game: Football and Political Culture in Twentieth Century Britain,” Historical Social Research 40, no. 4 (2015).

17 Ross McKibbin, “Classes and Cultures: England, 1918–1951” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

18 Matthew Taylor, “Politics and the People's Game,” 6.

19 Richard Holt, « La tradition ouvriériste du football anglais, » 39.

20 James Walvin, “The People’s Game: A History of British Football” (London: Allen Lane, 1975).

21 Patrick Joyce, “Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1848-1914” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 332.

22 Patrick Mignon, « Footballisation de la politique?, » 53.

23 Wendy Ugolini, and Juliette Pattinson. “Negotiating Identities in Multinational Britain during the Second World War,” in Fighting for Britain? Negotiating Identities in Britain during the Second World War, ed. Wendy Ugolini and Juliette Pattinson (2015), 6.

24 Matthew Taylor, “The People’s Game,” 273.

25 Geoffrey G. Field, “Blood, Sweat and Toil: Remaking the British Working Class, 1939-1945” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 377.

26 Selina Todd, “The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Classes” (London: John Murray, 2014), 120-1.

27 Richard Holt, and Tony Mason, “Sport in Britain, 1945-2000” (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 97.

28 Richard Holt, « La tradition ouvriériste du football anglaise, » 40.

29 Richard Holt, “Sport and the British, a Modern History” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 104-109.




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