Alan Hubbard

Who is the most popular political figure in Britain today?

Certainly not the bewitched, bothered and utterly bewildered Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is vainly struggling to find the plot he lost a few months back; nor his COVID-19 cohorts Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, or Health Secretary Matt Hancock, also known as Gloom and Doom.

Not even the populist Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, who fought valiantly if unsuccessfully to get a better deal for his city during the freshly-imposed lockdown. Nor the new Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has put the Labour Party ahead of the governing Tories in the polls.

No, it is the 22-year-old England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, who is playing a brilliant game of political football. His single-handed campaign to get the Government to provide free lunches for underprivileged children during school holidays has made him a national hero - even an icon.

Marcus Rashford is now the name on everyone’s lips, on the front pages of all the national newspapers and leading the television and radio news bulletins.

Such is the force of his campaign that the response from the public has almost reached Captain Sir Tom Moore proportions. He is the celebrated centurion whose 100 laps around his garden raised millions for the National Health Service. 

Offers as of food and cash have flooded in from home and abroad and, according to the popular prints, are putting an embarrassed Prime Minister to shame.

Marcus Rashford has earned plaudits from all allegiances for his campaign to eradicate childhood hunger in Britain ©Getty Images
Marcus Rashford has earned plaudits from all allegiances for his campaign to eradicate childhood hunger in Britain ©Getty Images

This was certainly not Rashford’s intention, even though he has wrong-footed the Government as he has so many on the field of play. His politics are not partisan. He is not affiliated to any party, although Labour seem to have attached themselves to him. He just feels strongly on an issue that he says stems from his own childhood when he, too, sometimes went hungry as his parents could not always afford the school meals.

Last week the Government rebuffed Rashford’s plea and rejected Labour's motion to extend the provision of free school meals by 322 votes to 261, with five Conservative Members of Parliament rebelling. However, many local councils have since agreed to supply meal vouchers for pupils.

Businesses ranging from Fish and chip shops, pubs and small cafes to large food chains including McDonald’s have also pledged to support Rashford's initiative.

"Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell," Rashford said. "I couldn't be more proud to call myself British."

Rashford’s campaign, which he has conducted in a dignified and constructive manner mainly via his Twitter feed which has two million followers, began he when he first called on the Government to end child food poverty earlier this year, and earned him a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) award. At that time Johnson listened and provided the free meals Rashford had requested for kids during the Easter and summer holidays. But while he has praised Rashford’s work previously, now he has stubbornly refused to do the same over half term and coming Christmas period, claiming that the Government had contributed help in other ways.

The Prime Minister claimed yesterday: "We don't want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this Government - and you are not going to see that."

There is little doubt that the Rashford campaign has captured the public imagination like nothing else for years. Politically he is a star, and beyond question the most popular sports personality in the land today.

So an uproar is already beginning to rumble with the news that the BBC will not consider him as a candidate for this year’s Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) award, which it says must be given for achievements on the field, not for involvement in matters off it.

Before this announcement the bookies had made him an outstanding favourite for SPOTY. But this now leaves Lewis Hamilton in pole position after his record 92nd Grand Prix victory, surpassing that of my Michael Schumacher.

Marcus Rashford has mobilised a widespread volunteer operation to offer free meals to underprivileged children in Britain ©Getty Images
Marcus Rashford has mobilised a widespread volunteer operation to offer free meals to underprivileged children in Britain ©Getty Images

This apparent snub to Rashford following his high-profile and popular campaign has made BBC bosses aware of a coming backlash so it is reported they will seek a compromise and honour him with a special award at the December 20 function, which is being held in Salford without the usual large audience because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Throughout all this Rashford has conducted himself in a statesmanlike manner and his well thought-out intervention is part of the new returning wave of sports personalities involving themselves in political situations.

There has been a lull in sports politicking since the days in the 1960s when the new young heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay, shook up the world by beating Sonny Liston and then became Muhammad Ali, speaking out loud and long against racial prejudice. 

He was followed on the same theme by American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith with a black-gloved salute at the Mexico Olympics four years later in 1968 and subsequently tennis queen Billie Jean King’s relentless quest for gender equality in sport.

In the generations which followed they was as the occasional attempt to entice sports stars into voicing their views in the political arena, but their reluctance was perhaps summed up best by basketball's multi- sponsored superstar Michael Jordan when he was approached to support the Democrats in a Presidential election. He declined and was said to have responded: "Republicans buy sneakers, too."

When chided by Barack Obama, Jordan claimed he had made the comment in jest but added: "I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.

"I wasn't a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That's where my energy was."

There was a two-generation gap before personal politics bounced back into sport four years ago with a vengeance; the mixed-race American footballer Colin Kaepernick, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback, bent to one knee during the national anthem to protest racial prejudice and police brutality, much to the fury of President Donald Trump who demanded he should be sacked.

Kaepernick spent many months in the wilderness before the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who was killed when a police officer knelt on his neck, brought the Black Lives Matter movement to fore once more, and kneeling prevails on playing fields all over the world, creating yet another headache for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

They must decide whether to bow to pressure from athletes to amend the Olympic Charter to allow such political demonstrations at Tokyo 2020 and beyond, or reject such calls and face the likelihood of athletes protesting anyway. The probability is that they must adapt, to a degree, which, if he were still alive today, would leave former president Avery Brundage apoplectic with rage.

One wonders whether it has crossed Rashford’s mind to have a political career ahead of him once his playing career is over, which at his young age, barring injury is several years away.

If so, he has a role model, in another campaigning footballer and fellow striker, George Weah, now 54. A former FIFA Player of the Year and African Player of the Century who played with distinction for several clubs in Europe and England including Chelsea, with whom he won the FA Cup, and Manchester City. On his retirement he turned to politics in his native Liberia and has risen to become President of his country.

There are scores of sports men and women who have become politicians in later life, but so far few have emulated Weah or cricketer Imran Khan, who not only formed his own political party but is now Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Former world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko may be the next after being elected as Mayor of Ukranian capital Kiev.

Multi-weight world champion Manny Pacquiao, who is still boxing, also has Presidential ambitions in the Philippines, where he is a Senator.

Former heavyweight boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko is now a political force to be reckoned with ©Getty Images
Former heavyweight boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko is now a political force to be reckoned with ©Getty Images

Boxing’s interest in politics dates back to the 19th century when British bare-knuckle prizefighter John Gully became an MP from 1832 to 1837. He was also a successful race horse trainer, winning both the Derby and St Leger. Sir Henry Cooper played him in the film of his life.

In Britain, their Lordships Sebastian Coe and Colin Moynihan both spent time as MPs before moving to the Upper House, where Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson speaks up for sport. And not forgetting another Olympian, ex-sprinter Sir Menzies Campbell, once described as "the fastest white man on earth" who became leader of the Liberal Democrats.

In the United States there are stars from the National Football League, basketball and even pro wrestling who have made it to the Senate.

And how about bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California for a time who may bid for the Presidency next time round? Knowing the politically flaky US, would you bet against him? Brazil’s Romário and and Argentinian Antonio Rattin, the bête noire of the 1966 World Cup quarter-final match with England, have been elected to political office.

So too several West Indian former cricketers and Nikolai Valuev the lumbering feve-foot giant Russian who once lost his world heavyweight title to Britain’s David Haye.

All of which may prove that politics and sport do mix - eventually.

This must give Rashford food for thought.