Long read: When football cost Labour a general election
After the final, a finger-wagging FA newsletter, written in the admonitory tone of a public-school headmaster, suggested that the entire nation could learn from Sir Alf Ramsey’s heroes: “[The victory] is indeed one of the few bright spots in the sombre economic situation which faces the country this summer. We feel sure that many of our export industries will derive… a welcome boost from this success. The players who have made it possible worked hard and made many sacrifices. They have set an example of devotion and loyalty to the country which many others would do well to follow.”
Coming into office with the promise of a scientific revolution that would transform the country, Wilson must have relished a Daily Telegraph story that praised Ramsey’s “almost scientific assault on the trophy”. Putting his failure as a wannabe football pundit behind him, he asked the electorate: “Have you ever noticed how we only win the World Cup under a Labour government?”
The question irked Heath, who noted in his memoirs that he had been rather more circumspect about Arsenal’s first domestic Double in 1971: “Unlike Harold Wilson five years earlier… I saw no justification for claiming the credit.”
World Cup bankers
Labour were convinced that the spoils from England’s World Cup win would come to them. In his diaries, Crossman said: “I must record a big change in Harold’s personal position. It has been a tremendous help for him that we won the World Cup.”
Crossman was so euphoric that he told his wife “the World Cup could be a decisive factor in strengthening sterling… Our men showed real guts and the bankers, I suspect, will be influenced by this.”
Putting his failure as a wannabe football pundit behind him, he asked the electorate: 'Have you ever noticed how we only win the World Cup under a Labour government?'
Alas, the guts displayed by England’s footballers failed to sway the bankers, and within a year the Government had to do something it had promised it never would: devalue sterling. The news that the currency was suddenly worth 14 per cent less against the dollar was such a jolt that Wilson felt obliged to assure the nation that “the pound in your pocket” hadn’t lost its value at home.
By 1970, with the economy stabilising, Wilson more popular with voters than Heath and millions of consumers savouring the difference that owning cars, TVs, washing machines and refrigerators had made to their lives, the Tory lead in the opinion polls had shrunk. Yet as the election campaign started, with a poll giving Labour a 7.5-point lead over the opposition, the Prime Minister never forgot about the World Cup.
At the end of May, when England captain Bobby Moore was arrested in Bogota for allegedly stealing a bracelet, Wilson was quick to intervene with the Colombian government. Moore was freed on May 28, 1970 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence against him. The day after the England captain’s release, the Queen officially dissolved Parliament, with the general election set to follow three weeks later.
The nation might have been relieved that Moore could finally join an England squad due to face Romania on June 2, but Foreign Office officials, suddenly inundated with pleas from jailed Britons across the world, were not so chuffed. One civil servant complained snootily that “the Prime Minister took action on Moore’s behalf for political reasons during a general election campaign and I see no reason why we should allow this somewhat dubious intervention to colour our attitude in future.”
One defeat leads to another
After a 1-0 victory over Romania, England came agonisingly close to earning a draw against Brazil on June 7. Their 1-0 loss in Guadalajara prompted Benn, then Minister of Technology, to note in his diary: “Today, Brazil beat England in the World Cup: the political effect of this can’t be altogether ignored.”
Following a 1-0 win over Czechoslovakia on June 11, a runners-up spot in Group C earned Ramsey’s defending champions a trip to Leon to face West Germany in what would prove to be one of the most controversial games in England’s World Cup history.