You cannot tell the truth about beauty in England without the ugliest people in the country threatening you. The National Trust is the custodian of the beautiful best of the nation’s heritage. Let it compile a historical record on how many of the stately homes of England were connected to the slave trade and Conservative MPs demand a Putinesque “panel of patriots” to purge “elitist bourgeois liberals” from cultural life.
Our Orwellian culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, feeds the beasts in his base as he delivers lectures on what versions of history we must remember. Meanwhile, the trustees of museums are told to sign “loyalty pledges” backing government policies. All because researchers challenge the prejudices of the ruling party by accurately describing British history.
Manchester City are the most beautiful football team in England – probably the world – and deservedly won another Premier League title last week. City have the best manager anyone can remember and from Ederson in goal to Phil Foden up front, players of sublime skill and enviable courage and self-control.
When football correspondents investigate how that success is built on the money directed to the club by the petro-princeling Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, all hell breaks loose. Fans don’t want to hear about the connection between the beauty of the play on the field and a deputy prime minister from the United Arab Emirates, which bans political opponents, jails dissidents and enforces state-sponsored misogyny. They do not want to know that UAE wealth comes not only from oil, tourism and financial services, but from the labour system in the Gulf states that isn’t quite slavery but too close to it for comfort. Foreign nationals account for 88% of the UAE’s population. Those who leave their employers without permission face punishments for “absconding” and, in the words of Human Rights Watch, are “acutely vulnerable to forced labour”.
Sport and culture are becoming like gangsters’ molls. You can admire the beauty but must stay away from the suffering behind the spectacle.
Try starting a conversation about how Manchester City could afford the biggest single-season wage bill in English football history (£351.4m in 2019-20) and an estimated €1.036bn (£890m) invested in transfer indemnities to sign the squad’s current players and watch as the abuse descends.
One football writer pointed me to this season’s Champions League semi-final between the UAE’s Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, owned by the rulers of Qatar. He said that one day historians would go through the television and press coverage and notice how few journalists discussed the fundamental fact that plutocratic and dictatorial states were using sport to burnish their image.
I can see why people want to avert their eyes. Are Manchester City fans meant to stop supporting their team when Gulf money turns it from an also-ran into a world-beater? The journalists who report on its finances do not say that. They just do their job: presenting the truth that in England and France, regimes that combine avarice and oppression in equal measure control the best clubs. The National Trust’s report on the links between its properties and slavery and colonialism was scholarly and dry. As with honest football reporters, the historians merely presented the evidence. Yet Conservatives reacted like the most fanatical City fans when their own beautiful myths were questioned.
You only have to see how rarely the empire appears in popular fiction to know that imperial nostalgia has not provoked the backlash. Instead of nostalgia, we have imperial amnesia: a desire to hide from the ugliness of the past. Accurate histories of empire puncture the Scottish sense of victimhood and the English belief in the quaintness and decency of our civilisation. According to the national myth, country homes were the backdrops for charming love affairs and eccentric dukes rather than monuments built on the broken backs of enslaved men and women.
Conservatives reacted like the most fanatical City fans when their own beautiful myths were questioned
A worldly observer might say slaves built the Parthenon and that tithes the medieval church extracted from a poverty-stricken peasantry paid for the Gothic cathedrals. Just as there is a crime behind every great fortune, so there is an unjust society behind every work of beauty. Better to accept that than become a bitter, puritanical nag who cannot see others enjoying the beauties of a country estate or of football played at the highest level without wanting to ruin their pleasure.
But we can afford to be worldly about the monuments of classical Athens and medieval Christendom because they are from lost civilisations. Britain’s past and football’s present matter because racism and the power of plutocracy are vital and vicious forces that surround us. The response to journalists and historians who report the facts is not therefore a shrug of the shoulders, but a consuming fury. Conservatives who decry woke censorship now sound like the most intolerant of leftists, as they demand purges and authorised histories.
Manchester City fans, meanwhile, have become a raging force on social media. As well as cheering on their team, they cheer on their team’s owners and chant Mansour’s name. In my home city, there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people willing to engage in power worship at its most demeaning and to whitewash an autocratic state solely because it pays for exquisite football.
“I’ve had the most sustained toxic abuse I’ve ever seen in my life when I investigated City,” one football reporter told me. Fans put the home addresses of journalists on the internet, while in one instance bricks were thrown through a reporter’s window. The Football Writers’ Association has contacted Manchester City three times about the abuse directed at its members. The club was concerned and courteous in its replies. However, it sounds like the Tory right, and every dictatorship whether in the Gulf or not, as it fuels fans’ anger with conspiratorial talk of “organised and clear” attempts to damage the club’s reputation and threats to hire “the 50 best lawyers in the world” to sue the football authorities if they dare challenge Manchester City’s interests.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote John Keats. “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In Britain, however, when beautiful national myths and the beautiful game are questioned, truth is always the first casualty of the culture war.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist