2012: February Loose Ends

I did hope that it wouldn’t be March before I got round to this post, but to no avail. Anyway, after a 4600-word post I’ll try to imbue this one with a little conciseness.

February was a good month for my two favourite subjects – football and religion.

First, football. Sarah Palin lookalike Fabio Capello resigned as England football manager. Pure speculation from my part, but my guess is that Capello was looking for a way out. He genuinely believed that the appointment of captain was for him alone, but could have complained bitterly and left it at that. Instead he made it a point of principle worth resigning over, although at £6 million a year and only four months left on his contract, he didn’t lose that much. When the captain John Terry (who already lost the job once on account of his extra-marital activities) is due in court over allegations of racism, but not until after the next big international tournament, it seems that the Football Association are acting under the notion that he is guilty until proven innocent. It’s a difficult one, to be sure. My guess is that nothing will come of it, apart from the hot air already generated.

But no job deserves the epithet of poisoned chalice more than that of the England manager. Only Terry Venables, arguably, has left the job with an enhanced reputation, and even he felt forced to quit following allegations about his business dealings. Bobby Robson’s reputation was rehabilitated well after his tenure.  Press scrutiny, as often as not unfair, would make the pressure of the job unbearable to most. Also, expectations within England are unrealistic for many reasons, and England don’t so much fail as fail to live up to these expectations. Actually, as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski claim in their fascinating book Why England Lose, international football teams are constrained by available population, national wealth and football history. Looking at these criteria, England are a quarter-final team in the big tournaments as this is roughly on average where they end up. So England don’t particularly perform below expectations.

Having said that, Capello was more successful than anyone in terms of win percentage at 66.7%. In contrast, Venables achieved 47.8% and Robson 49.5% (see here). Of course, they had different opposition so the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Nevertheless, it’s hard to dispute that Capello was more successful than most. He came with an outstanding managerial record of seven Serie A wins and two victories in La Liga, so expectations were high. And, as pointed out, he was only a failure against unrealistic expectations. However, England managers all suffer from their conceived failings being blown out of proportion. In Capello’s case, for example, his poor English was held to be a factor, and therefore the next manager would have to be a native Englishman. Place of birth didn’t save the hapless McLaren or the witless Keegan, although – certainly in Keegan’s case – his appointment was in no small measure the result of media pressure and popular acclaim.

So it is that Harry Redknapp seems to have the job by default. He doesn’t have the job yet, but like all previous England managers apart from Ramsey his perceived ability to deal with the media is seen as a positive. I don’t see him in that light personally – his skin is nowhere near as thick as Capello’s – and my guess is that the story of his financial dealings at Portsmouth won’t ever quite go away. I wouldn’t be speculating much if I said that should he take the job, he’ll live to regret it. (I’ll regret it even more, as Moyes is Tottenham’s first choice as a replacement, so we’re told.) Even Stuart Pierce, who is only a caretaker, has had to come out recently and deprecate his own racist incident from 17 years ago, and distance himself officially from his BNP-supporting brother. I get the idea – and I might be way wrong – that Redknapp is having second thoughts. Let’s hope so for his sake. My initial thoughts were that the FA should have gone for Guus Hiddinck, who was available, has a record of doing well with international teams and whose English is as good as any Englishman’s. Hiddinck must have read my thoughts, as already he’s signed up for the oligarch’s team Anzhi Makhachkala.

I confess that for the most part I find international football, outside the big tournaments, to be at best a worthless distraction. Even the qualifiers go on far too long and involve too many ridiculous mismatches – no, Liechtenstein don’t deserve home and away games against Spain. As for the friendlies, had Leighton Baines, instead of  Chris Smalling, been horribly injured this week in the Holland game, I’d be ranting about the meaningless nature of these games right now. And being chauvinistic towards Everton doesn’t allow for any room to spread it about any. I really don’t care whether England win or lose – in the tournaments it’s more important that the best organised or most entertaining team  do well. Any rational person should have been pleased that the outstanding young German team handed England their lunch in South Africa. But I guess expecting rationality in the matter of football is asking too much.

Talk of irrationality brings us to Rangers FC. Support-wise, they are one of Britain’s biggest clubs. It is their misfortune to be located north of the border where every other team except Celtic would be no better standard than English League One. Even the two Glasgow giants would arguably, right now, fail to come up to English Premier League standard. Money talks, and for a while in the late 1980s Rangers were able to exploit this – employing Graeme Souness and Walter Smith as managers and bringing in big contemporary names like Terry Butcher. Butcher and the ex-Everton pair of Gary Stevens and Trevor Steven didn’t see their moves to Scotland as detrimental to their careers – that wouldn’t be the case today.

Football holds a disproportionate amount of attention from many of us, myself included. It’s certainly hugely important in cultural terms, and that is good in some respects for football because without it, it wouldn’t be in the position as a business that it is today. Again, from Kuper and Szymanski’s book, it’s said that the average annual turnover of a Premier League club in 2008 was £75 million. The average large Tesco supermarket at the same time had a turnover of £50 million – and checkout operators earn far less in a year than the average Premier League footballer makes in a week. Football is unable to turn anything other than a tiny share of that love and attention into revenue – it’s not a good business to be in business, for the outside world world makes many times more more out of football than football does itself.

But television revenue has changed that somewhat. People like to watch football but don’t want to pay £30 or £40 for the privilege, particularly at places like Goodison Park, the world’s largest shed – to a neutral. Some grounds are full every week but most have spare capacity (there’s an average 6000 spare seats at Rangers’ home games) which reflects some measure of consumer deficit. The TV companies have addressed this deficit quite successfully – for an annual cost of £450 million Sky broadcasting get the rights for 30 live premier league games and extensive highlights. This money, in the main, supplements club’s income. but it is disproportionate in the the bigger leagues get the lion’s share of the rights.

For Scotland this has been disastrous. Which neutral in their right mind would pay even a small amount to watch Dunfermline against St Mirren? Or even Dunfermline against Rangers? The Scottish league is in an unenviable position. The broadcasting rights have made football more accessible, but at the cost of increasing inequality, and even the best-supported clubs like Rangers are even more exposed in such conditions. The pre-eminence of the English Premier League attracts vain rich people like Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour making the situation even more disproportionate. Clubs like Rangers have to learn to cut their cloth appropriately, but our emotional investment in football tends to make this difficult. Rangers’ predicament should come as no surprise.

OK, religion. (Sorry, Mum!)

For religion-watchers February has been fascinating. It all started in the sleepy Devon town of Bideford, where a (by that time) former councillor who is an atheist had objected to compulsory prayers being said at the start of council meetings. His complaint went as far as the High Court and was upheld. The words “sledgehammer” and “nut” come to mind, particularly since I went through the same process when I was at school. We had to go through the daily ordeal of a formal assembly every day, including prayers, and of course I was having none of it – we were instructed to lower our heads, close our eyes and clasp our hands together and I did none of these things, meaningless in the literal sense as they were. Still, the authorities at the school considered it a worthwhile activity to encourage us all to do such things whether we wanted to or not. And so did Bideford Council. But a town council is a secular organisation, not a religious one, and such activities surely have no place in secular organisations. If a particular councillor, or anyone else, wants to privately waste their time or make themselves feel better by praying then so be it – I would be the last person to object. But the decision was the correct one, surely. I can’t see that any appeal would succeed, and what benefit is there in forcing people to act against their beliefs? The apologists for the defendants had some bizarre reasons for their viewpoint – that it was tradition (an assault upon our heritage, apparently) and that it was discriminatory – the Bishop of Exeter said “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate“. Well, again, no-one has said that individuals can’t pray if they want to – it was the forced nature of the prayers that was the point of contention.

Predictably, the response was almost apoplectic. The worst newspaper in the world, in particular, went on the offensive. Local Government minister Eric Pickles said “The ruling is surprising and disappointing. Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation“. Someone should have told him that culture, heritage and fabric are dynamic processes and change with the times – Christianity, whatever it is held to actually be, has changed with the times just as everything else has. Shortly afterwards Pickles got the law changed by decree.

It makes you wonder what the world is coming to. It was occasionally said to me on the FFF that I was in fact a “cultural Christian” – some facts like I have never committed adultery are apparently down to my (perhaps subliminal) indoctrination into a Christian way of thought, as if to say that if I hadn’t been exposed to Christianity then I would have had a series of sexual partners. It’s certainly true that the language of Christianity has infiltrated much of our commonly-held assumptions. Even today, stupid atheists (of which there is no shortage) will make the ironic comment when yet another pastor is caught with his pants down how “unChristian” he is being.  But that doesn’t mean that culture is subservient to Christianity. After all, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Falangist Spain were also culturally Christian if modern Britain is to be described as such. And if we generally accept something nominally against Christianity – for example it seems that most people in the UK are in favour of gay marriage or civil partnerships – is Christianity still responsible for our culture? My guess is that quite soon most of Christianity will accept gay marriage, and knowing Christian thought as I do, propose that gay marriage is an outworking of Christian culture.

But how Christian are we? The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS) commissioned a poll very recently about religious attitudes among the self-labelled religious. We would be right to show some scepticism about the source of such data (although MORI is a reputable polling organisation) and wonder what would have happened if results had been against what the RDFRS had preferred. Also the actual data and methodology has yet to be revealed. Nevertheless, results are encouraging.

How religious are UK Christians?

UK Christians oppose special influence for religion in public policy.

The reason usually given for allowing special favours or influence for Christianity (and Eric Pickles’ reason) is the claim that the vast majority of Britons identify with Christianity, and don’t want to marginalise it. This is plausible, as I found in my early teens that not believing in God was one thing, not being a Christian quite another, although now I’m extraordinarily proud of not being a Christian. It’s long been suspected that a religious identity didn’t necessarily indicate an identification with a religion, aside from the superficial. People like the Bishop of Exeter are quite happy to claim that we are a majority Christian country, yet we have known for a long time that the pews are empty. Catholic attendance has risen a little, but this is more than explained by the influx of Polish immigrants in the last ten years. Anglican attendance continues to decline amid services that would make the Reverend Lovejoy seem interesting and it doesn’t help that the leadership of the Anglican church – personified by Rowan Williams – come across as remote and other-wordly.

Anyway, even for me the poll generated some startling results:

  • People self-identifying as Christian is now 54%
  • Of those 54% one third “cited religious beliefs as the reason they had ticked the Christian box in the 2011 Census”.
  • Of those 54%, 32% believe that Jesus was physically resurrected. That’s 17% of the total population.
  • The same percentage of people “genuinely try to follow the Christian religion”.
  • Around 22% of all people call themselves Christian “because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity”.
  • It is a bit ambiguous between “self-identified Christians” and “respondents”, but even so, the overwhelming majority of self-identified Christians are opposed to any official role for the churches in government and support gay marriage.

So it seems that, although there are some apparently contradictory findings, Christian adherence is now running at about at most 30% of the population, and this is supported by other research – too few, undoubtedly, to argue that compulsory prayer is a concession to majority opinion.

Maybe in order to suppress the poll findings, Dawkins came in for a lot of stick in February. In a debate with Archbishop Williams, he admitted to agnosticism. Apparently this was held to be a major blow against atheism, even though all this is in The God Delusion and nothing new or controversial. Williams also admitted an old Earth and that evolution is true and doesn’t seem to have got the same treatment from the creationists. Anyone looking for any further controversy would have been disappointed, said The Independent (now, since the demise of The Guardian, officially according to yours truly, Britain’s only decent weekday newspaper). Much the most surprising part of the debate – from the perspective of Christianity, that is – was the sheer amiability of it. It helps the Christian cause – or so they think –  to portray Dawkins as “extremist”, “militant”, “angry”, (and especially) “shrill”. I’ve never seen any evidence of such things, only evidence of made-up stories, but this only shows how desperate Christian apologists are. Thei mage below is a joke, but. as with all the best jokes, contains more than a grain of truth. (h/t Jerry Coyne via Private Eye)

So the Establishment is coming out in support of Christianity. Maybe this is a way of getting at Nick Clegg, but I doubt that. More likely it’s a chronic miscalculation and hopefully they’ll pay the price.

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