Listen to this article
I’m not sure if Manchester United is a metaphor for the follies of capitalism, but it is a reasonable working example.
In 1989 the Cold War ended, and within a little over a year the club had launched itself triumphantly on the stock market. This was the way the future would be.
In 1993 an interesting thing happened. On a cold match day in February the club commemorated the anniversary of the 1958 Munich air crash in which many players and others associated with the club had been killed.
Nothing startling about that, except the 35th anniversary of anything was an unusual one to mark in quite such an emotional way. It just happened to coincide, however, with the launch of the Premiership, the new bright bit of packaging dreamed up for modern football. Was it all about the free market slipping its way in under the cover of sentimentality?
Several titles, an Eric Cantona and a David Beckham later in 1999 it was very big news that the Manchester United share price had reached such a point that the club was worth a billion pounds.
But it’s strange no matter how large you write the small print no one ever seems to remember with our system that what goes up can as easily come down.
Now a few years on what do we have? A little while ago the fans took to the streets pointing out that Malcolm Glazer’s offer to buy the club involved him running up a lot of debt, the collateral for which they were providing from future sales of match tickets. In other words, they were buying the club, and he would become the owner.
In other societies - and I can think of one across the Atlantic - this kind of thing is regarded as remarkably clever and worthy of celebration; the fella’s made of the right stuff. It’s tough out there, and this is the way of the world.
Over here in still softly social democratic Europe we regard it as shocking. But since the Wall came down those 15 years ago now they’ve been working on us, and with a few more years - when the National Health Service and the pension system has finally disappeared - we’ll just accept it like the progressively awful air we breathe (we’re only imagining it’s awful, anyway).
I heard this week that when Glazer’s shareholding reaches a certain critical mass not far away from where it is now, he can quickly dispose of the fans’ arguments about their paying for him to own the club. These arguments stalled him for a while but soon he’ll enjoy such a level of ownership that he will be able to withdraw the club from the stock market and simply transfer his debt to it.
What a wonderful piece of skulduggery. In fact, I should quickly retract that and say no it’s not, because skulduggery implies something underhand. This is all being done quite openly, with no shame and with full permission from what we call the rule of law.
What do we do about it? I haven’t a clue. It’s important to remember, though, that we shouldn’t make this personal as far as Mr Glazer is concerned. He looks a nice enough bloke and I’m sure he doesn’t wake each morning thinking who he can screw that day. He’s merely an exemplary representative of the system we pretty much all endorse.
All I can think of is that the people of Manchester in response should look to their city’s own exemplary past of liberal radicalism.
On occasions when I have had the good fortune to cover games in Manchester and have travelled up by plane, coming in from the airport I have often noticed the sign to St Peter’s fields, but never had the time to turn off and visit. In 1819 a bunch of people got together to protest there against the ways being forced upon them - all, it was claimed then, too, as part of a process of logic and freedom. They were turned upon as a result, in what became known as the Peterloo massacre.
We shouldn’t throw things or adopt abusive language because the law is designed to protect property and the sensibilities of cultured people. But we can all shout very loudly.
Blog on the Boat Race
My apologies for not getting back to all respondents to my late March blog on the boat race. It provoked loud condemnation.
Some emailed with replies of the “while I agree with several of your points” variety, but I suspect this was just the good grace and manners of people required to dine with their professors in full mortar board and gown every week. They omitted to say what these points were.
For the moment let me just thank the following for their responses (and sorry if any are left out) and add that I still intend to say more on the subject later: Jason Flickinger (the seven in the Oxford boat; congratulations, Jason), Mark Flickinger, Sally Hogbin, Dirk-Jan Omtzigt, Peter Hackworth, Pete Bridge, Christopher Liwski, Jon Anderson, Dr Stefanos Volianitis, Jay, Chris Dalley, Lucas McGee, Nigel Butler, Henry Law, Tom Killick, “Internet Center”, James Felt and Sartaj S Mahindroo.
Previous blogs at www.ft.com/chapman