Not many people seem to remember Benjamin Disraeli’s novels these days, partly because – by and large – they weren’t very good. Indeed, had their author not gone on to become one of the most important politicians of the 19th century, it’s likely they would have been almost entirely forgotten: a mixture of Byron-esque pastiche and half-baked political manifesto churned out largely to subsidise his extravagant London lifestyle. “When I want to read a novel, I write one,” Disraeli once claimed. Contemporary critics scoffed that it showed.
And yet for their many flaws, there’s some interesting stuff in there: the flesh and bones of the ideology he would take with him into office, a paternalistic conservatism whose influence over modern politics – even if only in motif – endures to this day. Disraeli deplores the widening gap between rich and poor. He chides the avarice of the ruling class and the thoughtless worship of wealth. He declares: “Power has only one duty – to secure the social welfare of the PEOPLE.”
This isn’t the slash-and-burn conservatism of Thatcher or the early industrialists. It is moderate, enlightened, pragmatic, and yet still utterly in thrall to old power and old money. And reading through the detail of Project Big Picture, the audacious power grab authored by the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United, it was impossible not to be struck by common threads.
In a way, the proposals leaked to the Telegraph over the weekend were the epitome of sporting paternalism: a generous redistribution of wealth, enforced by a startling consolidation of power. At a stroke, it would secure the financial future of the English league pyramid while rigidly strengthening existing hierarchies.
The implicit message to England’s smaller clubs: yes, we’re all in this together, you will be looked after. You can exist in dignity and comfort. But you will also know your place. It is the equivalent of giving a drowning man a lifejacket in exchange for his right to vote.
And so what is being sketched out here is far more interesting and nuanced than much of the wide-eyed horror of the past 48 hours would have you believe. As ever, we await the small print and continue to process the ramifications. But what’s clear at this stage is that over its nine pages Project Big Picture contains some radiantly good ideas (the commitment to away fans, the provision for safe standing, the investment in crumbling stadium infrastructure, to name a few), some jaw-droppingly bad ideas, but most importantly in a landscape where the status quo has never felt more rotten, some new ideas.
Of course, the background to the big reveal – years in the talking, months in the fine-tuning, and yet coincidentally only seeing the light of day in the middle of a crisis – should only underline the need for suspicion. The motives of the biggest clubs have never been more manifest. We see now that the Premier League’s pleas of penury and destitution were a convenient mountain of bullshit: the money to fund the lower levels of the game properly has always been there, and always will be. But when you are a billion-pound company with a nose for blood, you don’t donate. You buy.
So what are the big clubs buying? Essentially, a licence to print their own money. The ability to sell some of their own overseas television rights is a first logical step to decentralising broadcast revenues. The ability to scour club accounts and veto new owners is a way of extinguishing any potential competition before it can materialise. The ability to alter any of these clauses at a moment’s notice should provide further pause for thought: what’s to stop the so-called big six entirely reneging on their financial commitments at a later date? Nothing, this column was told by a source close to both clubs, who claimed it was “very much a good-faith thing”.
Right. Good. Well, that sounds the sort of issue you want to leave to a handshake.
The long-term consequences? Unknowable, and yet guessable. A more unbalanced Premier League seems inevitable, with a handful of perennial heavyweights and a revolving cast of makeweights staffed primarily by loans and cast-offs. Below the top four divisions, the proposed four-up-four-down system is likely to set off new waves of unsustainable spending at non-league level, as lustful owners scramble to earn a slice of the Premier League’s largesse.
And yet, so many of the objections to this deal remain rooted in stubbornness, in hopeless idealism, perhaps even in nostalgia for a world that no longer exists and can no longer exist. The complaint about English football being run from Boston and Florida feels a touch pernickety: who on earth cares where your unaccountable billionaire power-broker happens to be registered for tax purposes? And the pleas for them simply to fund the pyramid in perpetuity through altruism alone betray a touching and vaguely deranged departure from reality.
Meanwhile, fans are still locked out of the stadiums, wages are due at the end of the month and many EFL clubs see no viable future beyond Christmas.
We can sit and fume about all this, about how it all came to this, about the greed and entitlement of the six clubs and Can 2020 Just End Now Please. Or we can see this as the springboard for a new and richer conversation about who owns and funds this game. We can fight for the parts we want and kick back against the parts we don’t. It feels exhausting. It feels futile. But what else is there?