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March 11, 2010

Northern Rock is wrong to subsidise Newcastle United, argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is no fan of football. Northern Rock's subsidy - in other words the tax-payers' subsidy - of Newcastle United has done nothing to boost Dr Dalrymple's appreciation of the game.

Northern Rock, that so distinguished itself by becoming the first British bank for nearly a century and a half on which there was a run by depositors, and which is now, perforce, owned by the British taxpayer, is sponsoring, that is probably to say subsidising, Newcastle United Football Club for the 2010/2011 football season to the tune of 10 million.

By Northern Rock's past high standards of financial incompetence, of course, 10 million is but small change, hardly even worth taking notice of, being but the losses incurred in a bad five minutes. In defending the decision, however, the current chief executive, Gary Hoffman, said, in words that do not exactly inspire confidence in the precision of his thought, that the decision would provide "an important community link," as well as a "high return on investment and good strategic fit".

By the latter, presumably, he meant that the taxpayer's payment to the football club in question would return a profit, and a good one at that, higher than some other use to which the 10 million might be put.

No doubt it is in the nature of such propositions that they can be neither conclusively proved nor conclusively disproved. Perhaps Mr Hoffman is right and perhaps he is wrong; but in the particular circumstances of Northern Rock I should have thought that discretion is the better part of expenditure. Besides, the onus of proof surely rests on Mr Hoffman rather than those who do not agree with him in his calculations. If Mr Hoffman had wanted to use his own salary to subsidise Newcastle United Football Club that would have been his own affair; but that he should have seen fit to do so with even an infinitesimal sum of my money seems to me an arrogant outrage.

The main argument in favour of the subsidy (for that is what it will be, if no tangible economic benefit is received in return) is that it will keep the name of Northern Rock to the forefront of the British public's mind. In the first place, I am not sure that the British public will be entirely delighted by or grateful for this reminder; in the second, we need to know the purpose of keeping the name of Northern Rock to the forefront of the British public's mind. To drum up more business? But what kind of person either lends or borrows money from a bank because its name appears on the shirts of footballers and other paraphernalia of sporting events? I should have thought that by now we had had enough of casual financial decision-taking.

What about the "community link", of which Mr Hoffman speaks so imprecisely? There seems to be in it the implication that the fostering of a sense of community is a good thing in itself, but this is not so. The Hitler Youth no doubt fostered a sense of community among young German males, but it was to a thoroughly evil end. It would be an exaggeration to compare the sense of community fostered by enthusiasm for football with that fostered by the Hitler Youth, of course, but it is nevertheless worth examining what that sense of community leads to, and what it consists of.

A friend of mine lives near a large football stadium belonging to one of the most eminent English clubs: English, that is, in the sense of being located in England. He is frequently inconvenienced by the crowds attending the matches; for a whole day at a time, many times in a season, he cannot venture out of his home unless he is prepared to brave or witness the somewhat menacing, drunken, degraded, vulgar, loud and destructive behaviour of the crowd, some members of which use his street as a public lavatory. On occasion, he has even been prevented from returning home by the arrangements made for the convenience of this crowd; they have cost him many hours of extra travel. Of course, he cannot possibly be alone in this: it must apply to many hundreds or
thousands of others.

His wife relates the story of how, when she saw someone urinating in her street, she approached a policeman, who returned the answer that people must be allowed to enjoy themselves. This, of course, would also be a perfect justification for public executions, if the enjoyment of the spectators were the sole criterion by which a spectacle and the behaviour surrounding it were to be judged. I have little doubt that public executions would also foster a sense of community; did not Durkheim suggest that criminals themselves served that very function?

This is a justification neither for public executions nor for criminality, however.

Then we may consider the question as to whether professional football in England requires or deserves a public subsidy, from Northern Rock or any other source. It appears to me that it does not. It is true that many English football clubs do not return a profit, in which case they should either be the playthings of very rich men, prepared to bear the loss in so noble a cause, or the wages of the employees should be lowered until they reach a level at which the clubs do make a profit. (The combined wage bill of the two principal Manchester clubs is 200 million per year.)

It might be argued that without subsidies of one kind or another the quality of English professional football would suffer. I do not think this would matter in the slightest; but let us for the moment take it seriously and ask why it would have this effect when so large a proportion of the population is interested in football to the extent of willingness to pay large sums of money to the providers of it?

I can only assume that it is because, without subsidy, the English league would not be able to attract the foreign players who are so necessary to it. English players alone are not sufficient, in large part because they are not good enough; and they are not good enough because they emerge from a culture that does not foster the kind of self-discipline necessary to become and remain really good at it: the kind of culture, in fact, with which Northern Rock is so anxious to make "a community link" at public expense.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.

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