The rise and fall of British institutions
Or, why football is more important than life and death
In 2016 Leicester City won the Premier League, breaking the monopoly of the London and Manchester clubs by starring in the greatest underdog story in English football history. With Leicester having odds of 5000/1 at the start of the season, it was about as likely as digging up a car park and finding the body of a king.
In the aftermath of this momentous event, I remember reading a Sunday newspaper interviewing various Leicester fans about what it all meant for them. Obviously, as anyone with the vaguest notion of football in England will understand, it meant a huge amount; Leicester City was their life in many ways.
They went to Filbert Street as boys to watch with their dads and granddads, and as they got older they took their own children to the King Power Stadium; they went with brothers, cousins, friends, acquaintances and people they were on nodding terms with. Their football club was central to many of their relationships and when they die, their place among the body of Leicester City fans, remembered for years to come and part of its history, will ensure a certain immortality.
If you ever wonder why many British men care so much for their football teams, sometimes to a deranged degree, then for many their club might be pretty much the one stable institution in their lives. When a club is taken over by someone the fans feel is there simply to make a profit (as with Manchester United) or the owners are actively aimed at its destruction (as with Wimbledon), it’s distressing. Something which is central to their lives, their identity and their relationships is ripped from them.
The great Bill Shankly’s most famous quote was true and clever for that reason. ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,’ the Liverpool manager said: ‘I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ Sure, on one level it seems absurd, when set against illness, unemployment and bereavement, but a life without institutions is one of intense emptiness and misery.
This is true on both an individual and societal level, and the number and strength of institutions within a community will determine how pleasant it is to live in. Indeed, the decline of institutions is a central reason for the happiness recession in both the US and Britain, summed up by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.
All the evidence suggests that, among the best ways of increasing personal happiness, joining a club is up there. It’s why volunteering can make you happy. Because social isolation is such a depression risk, the huge decline in friendships, among young men in particular, is a worrying trend. But all these trends affect society unevenly, because one of the main benefits of institutions is that they help the weak the ost.