Why is it that, come the World Cup, politicians are so keen to go to great lengths to demonstrate their support and pride in the national team?
I always find it a bit bizarre that people who profess no love for the beautiful game - and probably understand it as well as I appreciate the finer points of the 1761 Marine Mutiny Act - make a huge show of their patriotism once World Cup fever sets in. In the past few years we've seen the Prime Minister making a statement about a David Beckham injury and a number of Cabinet ministers travelling around in limousines sporting the obligatory St George's flag (I wouldn't mind so much if some of the aforementioned ministers were not Scottish).
There are two schools of thought as to why this happens: a) it's shallow populism and public figures just can't help themselves when there's a chance to demonstrate to their constituents how "patriotic" they are and, b) public figures, like the rest of us, get caught up in the euphoria and the spirit of the World Cup and wear their optimism on their sleeves.
It's been a bit different this time around, admittedly. But our very own Nick Clegg took the effort to issue a statement that read “I’d like to join millions of people across the country in wishing the England team good luck in the World Cup. And I hope to be wishing them good luck again for the final in a month’s time.” Prime Minister David Cameron did likewise in a video message posted on the Number 10 website in which he stated "I keep saying we are all in this together, and that is particularly true when cheering on the England team." While such well-wishing from politicians is understandable, today's PMQs - which witnessed Cameron offering support to England ahead of their crucial game against Slovenia to cheers from MPs - was rendered truly embarrassing as a result of the PM's need to keep beating this particular drum.
Of course, it's not quite got to the level that things have in France. They always do things a little differently over there and no lesser a figure than President Sarkozy has pledged to investigate the French failure at the World Cup. He has decided a government meeting to discuss the matter is in order, and his Sports Minister has already gone public in saying "Those responsible for this disaster must accept the consequences." One can only wonder what might have happened had Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling developed a similarly strong approach towards the economic downturn.
As a Scot I'm not the biggest fan of the English national team, but I'm far from being the type of Scot who finds his identity in loathing all things English. I'm not going to be cheering whoever England's next opponents are. However, I confess to feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the relentless rush MPs are on to identify themselves with the Fabio Capello's team and especially with Cameron's assumption that "all 650 MPs are behind the national team during the World Cup" (Press & Journal). It's another excruciating example of how in the minds of people like him, who seem to thing that "Englishness" and "Britishness" are one and the same, the fact that there are 59 Scottish MPs who probably care little or nothing about England's World Cup campaign is easily overlooked.
I'm probably overreacting, but doesn't this betray a certain attitude towards Scotland? I hope the PM gives a bit more thought to the views of Scottish MPs when it comes to the detail of constitutional questions stemming from the Calman Report.
Of course, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg are more than entitled to support their national team. I would just prefer it if politicians didn't seek so much mileage from close identification with football teams, be they local or national. I am sure my MP is a Morton fan, but he doesn't make a big song and dance about it or talk about the club's success in the House of Commons (admittedly, talking about Morton's success anywhere would be pretty difficult). Footballers are hardly falling over themselves to give their views on politics, so why do politicians feel they have to be talking about football?
I know it's World Cup time, and no-one means any harm. I suppose if MPs want to embarrass themselves and look faintly amusing when their lack of actual knowledge is revealed (as happened famously to one P. Mandelson, who claimed to be a Hartlepool supporter while not knowing the names of any players) then that's up to them. But I personally think it makes politicians look pretty desperate and provides ammunition to those who think MPs are little more than cynically manipulative operators.
I wouldn't suggest that politics and sport are mutually exclusive. I would, however, suggest that there are more constructive ways of our leaders demonstrating their connection with the public than wrapping themselves in national flags.