How 6-0-6 made muppets out of our politicians
As anyone who has tuned in to it lately for more than 7.3 seconds will have been breathlessly reminded, Radio 5 Live is celebrating a birthday. It was 20 years ago that this leader of the BBC's laddish wing was launched and introduced a hungry public to the football phone-in known, after one of its wavelengths, as 6-0-6.
Its progression has not been a pleasing one. What was hosted in the early days by Danny Baker – a preposterously gifted ironist, humourist and spinner of entrancing verbal webs – is now in the capacious gob of Alan Green.
It was once the contention of quantum physicists that the shortest recordable measurement of time was the gap between hearing the words, "And now on Radio 4, it's Midweek with Libby Purves" and lunging for the off switch. The consensus has changed.
It now cites the interval between hearing a caller whose team has lost a couple of games tell Mr Green that the manager is a muppet – "Straight up, Alan, mate, we'd be better off with Miss Piggy," – and making the lunge.
Since the early-1990's confluence of Gazza's tears and Nick Hornby's memoir Fever Pitch melodramatised football and made it a seemly source of dinner-party talk, the game's hold over politics has grown exponentially.
Tony Blair's keepy-uppy with Kevin Keegan was greeted as a major breakthrough and, within a few years, he handed Alex Ferguson a knighthood almost before Ole Gunnar Solksjaer's winner had rebounded from the Bayern Munich net. Today, it would be virtual political suicide for any would-be prime minister to confess uninterest in football.
Nowhere can this prevailing 6-0-6 culture be more clearly observed than in what passes for political analysis.
Last Saturday, Arsene Wenger, having latterly regained his old magus status, had his head demanded by phone-in callers after a wretched 6-0 hiding at Chelsea.
Four days earlier, Ed Miliband, increasingly seen beforehand as a bold and able Labour leader heading for a narrow election win, became a fool and a grave electoral liability thanks to one (admittedly poor) Budget response.
Largely because of a trifling rhetorical stumble, a bunch of self-important Labour supporters took the drastic step of demanding a clearer agenda. With the poll lead narrowing, commentators herald his doom.
Casting the mind back a full week, it was David Cameron, teetering on the tightrope while trying to square the need to neutralise Ukip and not entirely to vacate the centre ground, who was the muppet.
Next week, for one reason, or another, he will be Kermit again – and, if not, then undoubtedly in May when Ukip's success in Europe will reopen the Labour lead and question his authority.
So quickly and violently does the pendulum swing and so influenced are commentators by the latest result, that examining the fundamentals have been largely abandoned as non-existent.
In fact, in one vital area, at least, the fundamentals could not be plainer. Labour donor John Mills may believe that Conservative and Labour economic policies are very similar, but on the potentially crucial question of wealth redistribution, the choice is Manichean.
David Cameron, as his revival of the inheritance tax bribe confirms, wants to give as much as possible to those with money. Labour, as confirmed by the adoption of the mansion tax, wishes to take money from them.
How much more basic could the difference be?
Yet in the 6-0-6 age, when internet addiction and 24-hour news has diminished concentration spans and created a craving for perpetual drama, it is on the banalities – Miliband's perceived weirdness, Cameron's schooling – that almost everyone focuses.
The appetite for crisis is insatiable, so every passing setback is inflated into a threat to survival, at least for a few days until the other guy suffers a thumping and becomes the Wenger du jour.
If the smallness of the debate mirrors the politicians in the age of the pygmy technocrat, we and our masters deserve each other.
But if every dispatch box stumble, or snarky reference to Eton, must be treated as a cataclysm, we should formalise the triumph of 6-0-6 over political discourse by replacing Jeremy Paxman with Robbie Savage, Andrew Neil with the equally Wildean Mark Lawrenson and, on election night, David Dimbleby with – may God have mercy on my soul for writing these words – Alan Green.