UK Prime Ministers’ Influence on Sports Policy 1948-2018

The 1948 Summer Olympics, known as the Austerity Games, took place in London when the country was recovering from war. At this time sports and politics did not mix; Clement Atlee, leader of the Labour Party in 1945-1951, had a mandate to implement post-war reforms but sport was not a priority. As the government had a no sports policy, the Olympics was instead overseen by the British Olympic Association (BOA) as it is known today. The BOA was created in 1905 and predates the Olympic movement. It's many sports governing bodies were run as voluntary enterprises often with Royal patronage.

The 1950's was a decade of many British world champions, including sporting hero Roger Bannister who broke the four-minute mile in 1954. The world champions had little to no impact on the three Conservative Prime Ministers (Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan) of the time. However, after Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1953, the Royal patronage of sport expanded quickly, and the Monarch became a patron of BOA.

The swinging '60's brought rapid change through a youth-driven cultural revolution and a flourishing art, fashion, music, transport, technology and sport scene. The first politician responsible for sport was Quintin Hogg, known as The Viscount Hailsham from 1950 to 1963. Hogg was given several special assignments by Macmillan, including Minister with special responsibility for Sport but it was short lived (1962-1964) as Hailsham had little interest in sport, and later wrote that "the idea of a Minister for Sport has always appalled me".

Harold Wilson's Labour Government, in keeping with the mood of the '60's, sponsored liberal changes and promoted the popular Denis Howell as first Minister of Sport. Howell, a keen sports man served from 1964-70 and again in 1974-1979 becoming the longest serving Sports Minister to date. Howell was a tireless crusader on sporting issues and even campaigned in vain for Birmingham, his home city, to host the Olympic Games. Howell was a top football referee and headed several commissions including the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR) which has now reborn as Sport and Recreation Alliance. The committee enquired into sponsorship of sport culminating in the Howell Report of November 1983. Howell had Wilson's approval in supporting the 1966 FIFA World Cup, when England beat West Germany 4-2 in the final. Howell and Wilson also worked on pioneering government sports policy including establishing the Sports Council, Sport England.

Denis Howell, Minister for Sport

Denis Howell, Minister for Sport, lifting weights after opening a new sports and leisure centre in Birmingham, 26th Sept 1977

After the party of the '60's, came the hangover and the hands-off approach of the 1970's and '80's. In 1970, Edward Heath came to power and the decade is remembered for power cuts, strikes, shocking economic headlines. The PM was either sailing on his yacht or conducting an orchestra. The decade then ended with Thatcher coming into power from 1979 until 1990. Thatcher exemplified the total indifference towards sport and some would say even encouraged the '50's hands-off approach to include reduced school sports, sale of playing fields, and questioning the need for the Sports Council, or even a Minister for Sport. Sport went into a slump until Thatcher appointed the former Olympian Colin Moynihan as Sports Minister in 1987-1990. Moynihan who was actively involved in rowing and boxing, held many positions on sports boards, committees and commissions including the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and BOA. He was also a Director on London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) in the build up to the 2012 Olympics.

Lord Moynihan published a report after the Beijing Olympics that stated over 50% of the Team GB's medallists had been privately educated meaning that half of the medals came from just 7% of the population who had been privately educated. Moynihan said it is, 'one of the worst statistics in British Sport' and the vowed to work towards giving the 93% an equal opportunity.

The unlikely hero of sporting success and the unlikely successor to Thatcher was John Major, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997. Major realised British sporting success could present political opportunities and it was his government that launched the National Lottery, of which sport is a key beneficiary. As funding for Olympic sports increased so did the number of medals. In 1996 Atlanta, Britain came 36th in the medal table and had funding of around £5 million. Four years later in Sydney Britain rose to 10th place and the lottery funding had jumped to around £70 million.

If Major's government got the ball rolling then Tony Blair's government, 1997-2007, ramped up investment in sport at all levels. Blair's government appointed the charismatic Tony Banks as Sports Minister (1997-1999) then the dedicated Kate Hoey, 1999-2001. From 2001, Britain entered the longest period of stability for sports with Tessa Jowell as Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2001-2007 and Minister for the Olympics in 2005-2010. Jowell's running mate was Richard Caborn, Sports Minister 2001-2007. Together they campaigned for and won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. They also agreed on the first audit of all indoor and outdoor sports facilities.

Dame Tessa Jowell spent nearly a decade at the Department of Media, Culture and Sport

Dame Tessa Jowell spent nearly a decade at the Department of Media, Culture and Sport

Prince William and Sports Minister Richard Caborn at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany

Prince William and Sports Minister Richard Caborn at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany

By the time of the Beijing Games in 2008, UK Sport budget to fund Olympic athletes had grown to £264 million and Britain finished fourth in the medal table. Four years later in London a total of £1.2 billion budget was allocated to non-Olympic Delivery Authority activities, such as elite and community sports, the Paralympics Games and security. Britain finished third in the medal table.

Tony Blair became the first former prime minister to launch a sports foundation carrying his name in the constituency he represented for 24 years. The Blair Foundation invested in local people to make the most of themselves through sport between 2007-2017.

Tony Blair at the launch of his Sports Foundation in 2007

Tony Blair at the launch of his Sports Foundation in 2007

Blair, Jowell and Caborn believed in sport for social change and worked on improving sports policy to reflect this.

Whilst writing this article the Conservative MP for Eastleigh, Mims Davies, has been appointed Under Secretary of State for Sport & Civil Society following the resignation of Tracey Crouch who stood down on principal over delays of fixed-odds betting reforms. Theresa May remains Prime Minister.

In the historical drama series, The Crown, from Netflix, there's one person the Prime Minister refers to each week. Queen Elizabeth II every Tuesday at 5.30pm meets with the Prime Minister of the day. At one of these weekly audiences David Cameron, PM in 2010-2015, suggested that the Queen's acting debut could bring the Monarch, the Olympics, 007 James Bond together for the first time. The Queen agreed to appear in the spoof James Bond sketch where Bond arrives at Buckingham Place to escort Her Majesty to the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

The Royal Family tradition of promoting and supporting sport has been prominent since 1953. Queen Elizbeth II presented the trophy at the FIFA World Cup in 1966, the Queen was also at Wimbledon to present Virginia Wade her singles title in 1977. The Queen's husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was patron, president or a member of over 780 organisations most of which were sports related.

The Queen's grandchildren continue the tradition. Prince William, Prince Harry and their wives Kate and Meghan are all ambassadors that sport has the power to change lives for the better. Prince Harry has championed the value of sport in helping wounded servicemen become mentally and physically stronger through his work with Invictus Games.

Tony Blair at the launch of his Sports Foundation in 2007

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, promoting the 2018 Sydney Invictus Games

One thing's for sure, in 2019 and 2020 British politicians and royalty will be in Japan to watch the greatest sporting spectacular and support the British teams and athletes.

David Minton

Director at The Leisure Database Company
Special Advisor, Sasakawa Sports Foundation