I had an odd conversation with Jamie Reed MP (Lab, Copeland) on Twitter tonight. You might have heard that FIFA is refusing to let players wear the poppy on their shirts during upcoming games involving England, Scotland, and Wales. FIFA has a ban on any messages of a political, religious, or commercial nature on shirts. I thought this pretty understandable – it’s much easier to implement a blanket ban than it is to adjudicate on a case-by-case basis, which would undoubtedly lead to a lot of acrimony, politicising the sport far beyond what could ever be argued as useful.
Jamie Reed MP tweeted the plan he said he’d have proposed had he been the Sports Minister. He said:
- “I’d take the following proposal to the Chancellor and the Prime Minster…”
- “And ask the Government to underwrite the FA for any insane FIFA fine or sanction for #poppygate”
- “And ask the national team if they’d please carry right on and wear the poppy.”
- “And I’d seek to match any fine with a donation to the British Legion.”
I see a clear problem with this plan, in that it would clearly set a precedent of a national government intervening on behalf of their football association and football team.
I have no problem with the poppy, nor with anyone who chooses to wear it. I don’t view the poppy as offensive. We can argue whether the poppy ought to fall under the ban applied by FIFA, but that’s a completely different issue to whether the government should intervene in the aggressive manner Jamie suggests.
Were the British government to act in this way, it seems far too easy for other governments to similarly intervene on behalf of their respective football teams and football associations – paying fines for their transgressions of FIFA’s ban.
While these other transgressions would hopefully be just as non-offensive as the poppy, a cursory look at either politics or history suggests that, in actuality, there would be many unequivocally problematic cases. Additionally, should the British government act in the manner Jamie has proposed they do, this itself would likely contravene FIFA’s regulations, potentially entailing a ban from all international competitions. This has happened to other countries previously, as far as I am aware. We can just gloss over Jamie treating this entire affair as something that only involves the English football team (note his use of “national team” not national teams”) as well as the fact that he only mentions “the FA” and makes no mention of the Welsh or Scottish Football Association bodies. They are totally separate bodies from the FA. So Jamie is thinking of #poppygate as an entirely English affair, which I am sure might rile some Welsh and Scottish citizens. But, while a strange omission by him, that’s a side-note to the dispute we had.
Update: Here’s the FIFA Statutes. Article 13 sub-section (i) states that Member organisations (the FA in this case) has an obligation “to manage their affairs independently and ensure that their own affairs are not influenced by any third parties;” while Article 17 (Independence of Members and their Bodies) states: “Each Member shall manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties.”
These sections of the FIFA Statutes preclude the British Government from intervening in the manner Jamie proposes.
And here’s an example from 2014 of FIFA banning Nigeria from competitions due to their government/politicians interfering with the Nigerian FA (the NFF), thereby contravening the Articles set out above. Here’s a 2015 example of FIFA banning Kuwait for similar violations. And here’s one from 2015/2016 affecting Indonesia, again for political interference in their country’s football governing body. So there is a clear precedent of football teams having been banned from competition due to politicians interfering, but in that case it was due to the Nigerian government sacking the NFF leadership, whereas to the best of my knowledge Jamie’s plan would set a precedent with regard to governments paying the fines for violating FIFA’s rules regarding political, religious, or commercial imagery on shirts.
Jamie Reed MP is clearly wrong to propose the plan he has been tweeting this evening. His plan would result in our football teams being banned by FIFA, as well as being a clear case of governmental overreach. Now, he may know all this and has just decided to tweet his plan anyway, in the hope of getting a little bit of uninformed Twitter love. But that’s a dangerous game to play – the Brexit campaign should still be a recent enough reminder of the dangers of promising the public things that you have no power to deliver.
So I tweeted Jamie, saying: “if and only if we also bankroll teams who get fines for sectarian banners on display at games too. Consistency.”
I then followed up immediately, to make clear that I don’t support sectarianism, saying: “Not that I’m pro-sectarian or anything. Just noting the lack of principle in UK gov responding like this.”
Admittedly, I could have probably thought up a better example to use. But it’s twitter, and it was late, and I didn’t think the example mattered as much as showing that a plan used to advance noble aims may just as effectively be used to advance offensive aims.
Jamie disagreed. He quoted my original comment, with no reference to my disavowal of sectarianism and commented so as to encourage his followers to believe that I support sectarianism, by saying “The absolute state of some people”.
So I tweeted back, noting that this was disingenuous of him, and saying “No Jamie, just playing devil’s advocate to note the inherent problem with your unprincipled plan. As I said, I’m not pro-sectarian banners.”
His response was, “There is no equivalence between the poppy and sectarianism. Think before you tweet.”
That’s an odd response to send to someone who has repeatedly noted they oppose sectarianism, and who wears the poppy. It’s also odd given that I made no such equivalence. Indeed, my criticism of his plan is precisely because his plan fails to distinguish between these two things.
So I responded, saying “The equivalence comes in government interventions & the dangerous precendence [sic] your idea would set for football to become politicised.” To which he said, “No. You’ve made a mistake. Admit it and move on.” I didn’t.
I responded instead with, “No @jreedmp your plan would set a horrible precedent allowing other countries’ govs to pay fines for their teams wearing offensive imagery.” And immediately following that with, “That’s what I have a problem with. You can replace sectarian banners with Russian gov paying fines on eg homophobic imagery instead.”
Nowhere did I ever assert that the poppy is offensive. Both because I don’t find it offensive, and because this isn’t about the poppy but about the potential other symbols (that are offensive) that would then be able to be used in this way to politicise the sport of football.
But Jamie doubled down, saying “The absolute state of some people. Here, the poppy characterised as ‘offensive imagery’, Unreal.”
Well yes, it is unreal. It is unreal because that characterisation was never made, it is non-existent in this conversation between us, and is therefore not real at all.
By this stage, his followers had jumped in to echo his version of what we were debating, most having not referenced his proposal for governments to pay FIFA fines at all. But they’re not relevant to this, beyond the simple observation that these people now have a very distorted view of my beliefs, thanks to Jamie selectively quoting me and twisting my words to make it seem like I hold a position that I don’t actually hold at all. Nice work Jamie, how very Labour of you.
Jamie then picks up my tweet mentioning Russian homophobia, quoting that and saying, “No, in that situation you impose sanctions, ban fans, exclude from competition.”
Which brings us neatly to the very predicament Jamie’s initial plan would have created the environment for, had anyone been foolish enough to follow his lead in wanting the British government to pay the fine.
You see, as much as I am opposed to homophobia and supportive of the poppy (and opposed to sectarianism), it is not up to me to decide which of these three things a government should pay the fines for when its football team wears imagery referencing one of them. Furthermore, it is not up to Jamie alone to decide which of these is okay and which ones aren’t. Nor is it up to the British government to dictate to the world which of these are fine and which of these should be fined.
Unfortunately, politics is messy. Very messy. There’s a reason why “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” is a famous quote that we all know despite not knowing who first said it.
I fully stand by the original point I made in this conversation (however poorly formulated it might be) – the British government should not intervene on behalf of the FA to pay the fine should the FA violate FIFA’s ban on political, religious, or commercial images on shirts. An intervention of this nature would be wholly inappropriate, since it would clearly undermine the reason hy FIFA has implemented the ban – to prevent football from becoming politicised.
There is absolutely no way that the British government paying the fine for the FA could be interpreted as anything other than an attempt to politicise football, and it would create a precedent that could very easily tempt other countries into doing the same with their football teams. In some cases, this could lead to unarguably offensive imagery being used on shirts.
I don’t know whether Jamie understands how problematic that is or not. It is deeply worrying that we have a politician who doesn’t see this as a problem, since it suggests they have little understanding of international relations or the need for limits to be placed on government actions.
In addition to that, when confronted with opposition to his proposal Jamie chose to misrepresent my views to his audience rather than either deal with me directly, seek clarity on my comment (an understandable thing to do, given the limits of 140 char), or even just present my views in full and without his distortions. It is fair to say he was acting in bad faith in the way he twisted my words. Coupled with his eagerness for the British government to intervene to politicise football and undermine the reasonable universal principle set forth by FIFA, that doesn’t bode well for British politics at all.
For the record (should anyone be unclear) – I have no problem with the poppy in general, and would have no problem with our teams wearing it provided FIFA approved it as a non-political symbol. I do not support sectarianism, nor think is equivalent to the poppy (an absurd idea Jamie sought to foster), and I do not support either the Russian government or homophobia. I also loathe FIFA as I believe it is a corrupt institution. However, on this universal principle, I do believe they are both right and sensible. Finally, and most fundamentally, I value the integrity of the political process and suitable checks on the limits of the state enough to be deeply troubled whenever I see a politician who is as keen as Jamie Reed to subvert these checks by urging the British government to intervene in a matter like this, politicising football and recklessly enabling far more dangerous governments to subvert sports (or other areas that ought to be free from political influence) for their own political gain.
When politicians demonstrate an eagerness for the state to intrude and influence matters that are beyond it’s legitimate remit, we should all be worried. It is precisely this kind of behaviour that does lead to political instability, escalating international relations, and an oppressive atmosphere for all citizens. It is not healthy and it is not wise. Wherever I see that kind of behaviour in a politician, I shall continue to oppose it and criticise it regardless of the asinine distortions those politicians will employ in order to muddy the waters and cast me in a bad light.
And the title is deliberately clickbaity, since I figured that if Jamie wishes to indulge in such bad faith exercises, then he ought to expect that two can play that game.
Update: Here is Jamie’s reply to me sending him this article.