The state: we’ve no more ownership of it than Chelsea fans have of the club
The Guardian, by Ian Jack
We live in a globalised age. Does it matter if a French company owns the electricity supply so long as it works?
‘Our Chelsea’ … Surely hard for anyone other than Roman Abramovich to claim? Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP
The objects of our loyalty are increasingly chimerical – no more than "brands" in many cases, will o’ the wisps compared to the solid wooden furniture of our material history.
Football is a prime example. "Give us back our Arsenal" and "Give us back our Chelsea" are the chants of fans fed up with weak performances, but where does the "our" come from? Arsenal’s shareholding is divided mainly between two foreign tycoons, the American Stan Kroenke with two thirds and the Russian-Uzbek Alisher Usmanov with just short of a third. The manager is French. The players are drawn mainly from continental Europe and Africa. The stadium, the Emirates, is named after a sponsoring airline.
As for Chelsea, its owner, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, has just fired his eighth manager in nine years, none of them English, at a total cost of £77m. Altogether he has spent around £1bn at the club: money, as Richard Williams reminded us this week, that came from plundering the natural resources that once belonged to the people of the Soviet Union and recycling it "in the form of salaries and redundancy payments that trickle down to London’s car salesmen, concierges, watchmakers, estate agents, fashion designers, chefs, security guards, croupiers, interior decorators and dealers in yachts and executive jets".
It seems incredible in this context that in 1967 Glasgow Celtic won the European Cup, the first British team to do so, with 10 out of 11 players, plus the manager, born within 10 miles of Celtic’s stadium (the exception’s birthplace was the Ayrshire coast). The fact is now famous but it seemed unremarkable at the time. Celtic supporters could look at these men, recognise that they shared the origins and religious denomination of most of them, and justifiably think of the institution as "ours".
The team I followed, Dunfermline Athletic, took its players from a wider catchment area – Alex Ferguson, who eventually became the most famous of them, travelled all of 40 miles from Glasgow. But everything else about the club was intensely local. The town’s solicitors and owners of small businesses held the shares, and the players met most days for lunch in the City Hotel, where the proprietor was the team dietician. You would see them shopping in the high street and gripping a billiard cue at Joe Maloco’s snooker hall or a glass in the East Port Bar. They took the bus. One or two readers among them borrowed books from the library I worked in and stood in the queue to have them stamped. And all of this normality went on applying even after they’d won the Scottish Cup, which would be the most famous thing any of them ever did. They too could be thought of as "ours".
But Chelsea? Surely it would be hard for anyone other than Abramovich to imagine it as "ours", even in the loosest, most sentimental sense. A friend of mine supports Chelsea, though he lives nowhere close, and is affected by their results, win or lose, to a perplexing degree. The phrase "loyal fan" would describe him very well. Fandom is of course a mysterious condition, not easily understood by anyone not in its grip, but this week I thought I’d ask him how he could manage to stay so true to an old London institution now ruled by a cunning megalomaniac whose death might have been cheered by the sailors in Battleship Potemkin.
Personal tradition was at the root of his answer. As someone with little interest in football until he watched televised matches during the 1966 World Cup, he’d been taken by a friend to see Chelsea play and got hooked. It was entirely random – it might just as easily have happened with Fulham or Spurs – but he kept on going, "feeling that sense of belonging which is so much a part of being a fan, a loyalty that embraces both fellow feeling for other fans and hatred for the alien opposition, which sometimes included the referee".
There was also what he called "a moral element" of sticking with the club through thick and thin. "If Chelsea were to be relegated, as has happened in the past more than once, I’d feel they needed my support more than ever." It would be "unthinkable" to support another team: coming on for 50 years of triumphs and disasters are too deeply etched into his consciousness for him to do anything other than pick up a paper and look at the Chelsea result first. As for "moneybags Roman", the fans knew he’d brought the club success on a previously unimaginable scale and therefore directed all their anger at the managers he appointed rather than his royal self. "I’d far rather he spends his ill-gotten gains on Chelsea players and managers than on more expensive yachts," my friend said, with a heedless implication that rather surprised me: as though nothing else mattered. He supposed his loyalty was an addiction, "like alcohol". But what was he being loyal to? Perhaps something easier to feel than to touch or to see: the fellowship of the crowd.
As it is with football, so it is with the state. Not as "ours" as it used to be, hard to touch or see. "Less and less are we a nation and more and more just a captive market to be exploited," Alan Bennett writes in the introduction to his new play, People, complaining that "the diminution in magnanimity" in the state’s provision has rebranded the citizen as a customer "supposedly to dignify our requirements but in effect to make us available for easier exploitation". A few weeks earlier, the writer James Meek had published in the London Review of Books a similar diagnosis of the private ownership, often foreign, of public utilities. The commodity that made water, roads and airports valuable to investors was us, the people who had no choice but to use them. "We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here."
The tendency is to discount a desire for local ownership as impossible nostalgia; to portray it as a childishly simple misunderstanding of the world. We live in a globalised age, the clock can’t be put back, what does it matter if a French company owns the electricity supply so long as it works? But Britain is an unusually open economy and something has gone missing: some sense of control, some texture that we can feel and think of as our own.