A lesson in leadership

Published by The i Paper (9th July, 2018)

Oh happy days. Suddenly the mood of our country has lifted thanks to the heroics of an unfancied group of footballers. Older folks reminisce about watching England in a World Cup final, millennials sing the national anthem without irony and a military band plays ‘Three Lions’ at Windsor Castle. As each hurdle is jumped in this joyous quest for sporting glory, high streets are deserted as people join together in offices, pubs and parties. Who knows if England can overcome Croatia? And for a brief moment, who cares about Boris, Brexit or Corbyn? For once again we have seen the strange power of sport to unite people even in these hideously divided times.

At the centre of surging national optimism stands the decent, dignified figure of Gareth Southgate, a football manager smart enough to see his country’s struggle with cultural identity and appreciate how sporting success can soothe deep wounds. He and his unflamboyant players embody the traditional image of England, yet at the same time a multi-racial team reflects modern reality.

Next up is England’s first World Cup semi-final since 1990. But pause for a second amid the hoopla. Think back to those wondrous days in Italy when a previous team outplayed Germany, only to go out on penalties. This was little more than a generation ago, yet feels a very different age. The Berlin Wall had just come down, while that soul-destroying game took place a few months before the first web page was posted on public internet. Forget Bitcoin and Buzzfeed; the BlackBerry had not even been born while Steve Jobs had been fired from a stumbling computer firm called Apple.

Italia 90 took place was before the digital age unleashed devastating change, before the West was engulfed by pessimism, before politics was driven by fear. There was optimism our planet was becoming a better place, for all the dislocation of industrial change and global scars from the Cold War. An academic published a panglossian essay proclaiming the end of history, hailing the triumph of liberal democracy as ‘the final form of human government’. This article, turned into an influential book, symbolised the prevailing mood when Chris Waddle missed his penalty and dashed hopes of a second final for England.

Behind changes shaking the world lay bold political leadership. Ronald Reagan had left the White House but his personal decision to reach out to a new Russian ruler paved the way to end the Cold War. He was aided by Margaret Thatcher, resolute on the global stage yet much more pragmatic than she pretended, as seen with the single market concept she supported that reshaped our continent so superbly. Then there was the courage of Mikhail Gorbachev, determined to lead his people from Soviet subjugation rather than steal from them like his current successor.

Many of those hopes have been met. Capitalism is leading poverty to decline faster than at any point in human history. Democracy may be stumbling, but it has still spread fast with millions more people living under accountable government. Diseases are being eliminated – polio killed and paralysed thousands of children in 1990 but there were just 22 wild cases last year – and life spans extended. Science has advanced at amazing pace. Socially, we have moved from scare stories of ‘gay plague’ to the spread of gay marriage. Literacy has soared, crime fallen, famine deaths a fraction of previous decades and even war fatalities have plummeted, despite continuing carnage in a few tragic places.

Outside the West, optimism still often abounds. I am always struck, for instance, by the positive spirit in Africa contrasting with perceptions of the continent at home. Yet in many wealthy nations the mood has darkened. In 1990, US polls found optimism defeating pessimism before steep decline started at end of the decade. In Europe, people worry their nations will get poorer, their public services deteriorate and their children left worse off. Much of this is down to myth – most Britons believe global poverty is growing while Americans think teen pregnancy rising when it has fallen almost half since 1990 – but concerns were inflamed by pace of economic change, rampant march of technology and failure to control capitalism’s excesses.

The focus of today’s tide of fear is migration, even as fans in Belgium, France and England cheer on players with ties to former colonies in Africa and the West Indies. That England squad restoring faith in the flag is the most multi-racial in history – and just like the ‘Black, Blanc et Beur’ French team that triumphed in 1998 or the German champions four years ago, demonstrate how immigration strengthens a nation. Yet politicians across the West pandered to racism and scapegoated migrants for their own failures. And this means the backdrop to an astonishing World Cup is a continent grappling with populism and leaders displaying such horrific immorality towards refugees that they undermine historic values.

How much our world has changed since last time England ran out to fight for a place in the World Cup final – and mostly, despite the damaging myths and stumbles of democracy, for the better. Optimistically, we hope for two more wins. But even if Harry Kane lifts the trophy, this lovely national mood will pass – and pessimism return along with the bickering, divisions and intolerance. If only modern politicians displayed some of the ambition and leadership shown by Southgate, standing on the touchline with his waistcoat and wise words and unified team of potential world-beaters. As he said ‘we have a chance to affect things that are even bigger’ than the result of a football game. The ultimate prize would be if he were proved right.

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