FOR the first time, a General Election campaign is coinciding with a major football tournament involving both Scotland and England.

Euro 2024 has begun to capture the emotions of fans from both sides of the Border while politicians continue to knock on doors hoping to do just the same.

Given the power of sport and politics to both unite and divide communities and nations, these two historical events lining up alongside each other is an intriguing concept.

The only other occasion where a General Election clashed with a major football tournament was during England’s World Cup defence in 1970 when, just four days after Alf Ramsey’s men were quite unexpectedly knocked out by West Germany in the quarterfinals, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson – quite unexpectedly – lost the keys to Number 10.

It was revealed years later by Denis Healey – Wilson’s defence secretary and later chancellor – that a few months before that key game a strategy meeting had been called in which “Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day?”

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And it’s that same sort of question perhaps a few of us are asking now more than 50 years later; will the fortunes of Steve Clarke or Gareth Southgate impact the General Election?

A tactical play?

ONE thing is for sure, politicians are opportunists. Just last week, we heard First Minister John Swinney say, “it’s great to see Scotland back in Europe where we rightly belong”.

In 1966, Wilson - victorious in a spring election just a few months before England won the World Cup - proclaimed "Have you noticed how we only win a World Cup under a Labour government?" This might explain his misplaced confidence four years later. 

And for sociology expert Professor Les Back - based at the University of Glasgow - Southampton fan Rishi Sunak, desperate to harness any feel-good factor he could, knew exactly what he was doing when he called the July 4 poll, which will come in the middle of the knock-out stages of the tournament. 

“There is no doubt at all that it was on the Government’s mind when they were thinking of the timing of the election,” he told the Sunday National.

Has Sunak put all his eggs into Gareth Southgate's basket?Has Sunak put all his eggs into Gareth Southgate's basket?

“They are a deeply unpopular government too. I think Rishi Sunak had a hope if the tournament had gone well it would fill the nation with hope and optimism and lessen the discontent.

“I think it’s a bit of a perilous game though. Politicians want to be people of their nations and, of course, we’re a nation of four nations, and sometimes those different interests unfold through sport and are marred through sport.

“When it comes to the England team, that optimism can come in waves and the same with Scotland too. Some of our [UK] siblings are not even present in the tournament.”

Perilous indeed. There is even a slim chance Scotland and England could face each other in the last 16 - but one game at a time, as the players say. 

We can expect as the tournament unfolds that politicians will be mindful of at least being in tune with results and key moments – cue Sunak upsetting Welsh fans whose team are not in the tournament - while many will surely attempt to harness any euphoria that comes with a Scotland or England victory.

Dr Neil McGarvey, a senior teaching fellow in politics at Strathclyde University, said: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see in election campaigning efforts politicians kicking about in football tops.

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“I can recall Jim Murphy back in the day when he was Labour leader in Scotland running along the Clyde with a Scotland jersey on, trying to reclaim the Scottish patriotism. I think you will see politicians of all colours trying to get involved in that.”

But while politicians will attempt to show they are in tune with society by closely following the trials and tribulations of both teams, McGarvey said it will also be worth listening out for politically-fuelled chanting from the fans.

He added: “Politics and Scottish football are very intertwined. You only have to think about the differentiated basis in politics of the two major teams.

“One heavily Unionist, one more inclined to Irish nationalism but also in recent years, Scottish nationalism. Then you’ve got the Palestinian displays too so politics and football fandom are very much interlinked and amongst the fans, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some political chanting.”

Can results change the way people vote?

SO we know for sure politicians will be capitalising on any good results to tilt the scales in their favour but whether results actually have any tangible impact at the ballot box is perhaps something we shouldn’t get superstitious about.

When asked whether England and Scotland’s fortunes would affect the way people vote, Dr McGarvey was sceptical.

He said: “I think it can, but very much at the margins.

“If we’re talking about the general mood and atmosphere and the performances of Scotland or England, it could feed into [the election]. But I don’t think there’s any research that definitively states there is a link.

Will the fortunes of Steve Clarke's team play out in politics?Will the fortunes of Steve Clarke's team play out in politics?

“I think there are instances like the Argentina World Cup [hosted by an Argentine military junta in 1978] which obviously aided the regime in Argentina at the time.

“It was always said back then [too] Scotland’s dismal performance at that World Cup sort of took the wind out of the sails of the Home Rule movement for devolution back in the day. But these are more suggestions rather than anything that’s backed up by any serious research.”

Back was equally not convinced we would see emotions sparked by results translated onto the ballot paper.

That said, he still believes sport can tell us a huge amount about the feelings of society and the world they may wish to live in.

“I don’t think it’s quite so mechanistic [as to affect how people vote], but it tells us something about how we’re dreaming and imagining as communities,” Back said.

“There’s no question that public figures and politicians are attentive to those things and are trying to harness them in some way.

“I think sport has a kind of small-p politics to it. It galvanises national dreams and it can be a place where new visions of the people of our nations [come out] and who the people of our nations are and what we’re becoming too.

“It has a particular power and that’s why it’s interesting for public commentators and those of us trying to understand the dynamics of society, its culture and its identities.”

“Who are ya?”

SO let’s not get too philosophical about any Scotland success sending that independence vote into the stratosphere.

But, that particular power that sport has to tell stories of nations and the volatile emotions it can bring is something that still whets the appetite when thinking about the collision of the Euros and the election.

“Football fans like to chant to the opposition ‘who are ya?’ but sport also asks us ‘who are we?’,” Professor Back analysed.

READ MORE: Scotland needs the right results - in football and the election

There is hardly a better cultural sphere with which to understand human beings’ rawest emotions than sport and Back believes that the Euros may still tell us plenty about how nations see themselves and who they want to be.

And he admitted any Scotland success at the tournament could even – just maybe - reignite conversations about the country’s place in the UK.

He said: “The fact the Euros coincides with the political unfolding of an election where our future is being decided, in a way the sporting spectacle is a place for those questions and those hopes to be animated.

“Politics in Scotland seems to be at a pivotal point. It feels like some of those movements towards national self-determination have not stalled but have been paused in some way and it’s imaginable that Scotland - [if they get] beyond the group stages - it’s possible it may reanimate that conversation about the place of Scotland within the UK. It is feasible, but not straightforward.

“Sport always starts conversations. Sometimes it’s about the rights and wrongs on the field of play, but sometimes it’s about place and culture that animates those fans’ love for their team, as an icon of their place and people.

“It’s going to be interesting to track how the political discourse mirrors – or doesn’t – the fortunes of the fixtures.”