'I would never choose my country over my city’ (Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)


October 11, 2023   17 mins

Born and raised in Bootle, one of Liverpool FC’s longest-serving players, few characters embody the Scouse spirit more than Jamie Carragher. So, as the Labour Party circus departs the city after another conference season, who better to discuss the history of the city and the political outlook that defines it? As Labour delegates flocked to the city centre to wrangle over policy positions, Tom McTague visited the Brunswick Youth and Community Centre in Bootle with Jamie. The pair discussed sectarianism, playing for Malta and why the city is a Labour stronghold.

Tom McTague: You were born in 1978 in Bootle, Liverpool. I imagine in the hospital just around the corner?

Jamie Carragher: I’m not quite sure which hospital it was. By the time my mum was pregnant with me, she’d already had a couple of miscarriages, and the doctors knew there was something not quite right — but they couldn’t put their finger on it. I think they thought initially I would have spina bifida. My mum was very holy, and she didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy. She thought, if that’s what God wants, then that’s fine. When I was born, I had gastroschisis — and was rushed straight to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.

TM: And that’s where your stomach is essentially outside your body?

JC: Yeah, it’s not still like that! But I’ve still got the scar. And I still have a great relationship with that hospital. Everyone in the city is so proud of it.

TM: I hadn’t realised that your mum came from Maltese stock. That’s where her Catholicism comes from?

JC: My grandfather was from Malta. I’ve had the call in the past: could I play for Malta before England?

TM: There’s a whole mad history of Malta. They applied to join the UK officially and we were too tight: the Treasury turned them down. It kind of says something about Britain, I think. But I assumed when I started reading your autobiography, Carra (2008), that the name Carragher meant you had an Irish background. Can you tell us about that side of your family?

JC: That’s my dad’s side of the family. My nan grew up just on the border of Bootle and Kirkdale. My grandad, I think, came over from Ireland with his family — that’s where the Carragher name comes from. There were lots of brothers and sisters; families were huge then. And they were a close-knit community. Everyone’s nan and grandad lived a few streets away from their kids and grandkids. So everyone was just always in and out of each other’s house.

TM: Was it sectarian growing up in Liverpool at that time? Was there a divide between the Catholic kids and the Protestant kids? 

JC: The only divide was whether you went to Protestant or Catholic school. You just didn’t know anyone outside your school. And this area is really Catholic. Liverpool as a city is a real stronghold of Catholicism, and maybe that stems from people coming over from Ireland. It always felt like every school was Saint-something.

I remember, in my last year of primary school, one boy said he was going to a Protestant school for seniors called Hillside. The Catholic teachers were aghast — they couldn’t believe he was going from St James’s to Hillside. It was a big part of your life as a youngster: going to church, Holy Communion.

TM: What I find interesting about Liverpool politically is that it hasn’t become like Belfast or Glasgow, where you’ve got this clear sectarian divide. Even though in Liverpool you had all of the same ingredients: you’ve got Irish immigration, you’ve got Irish names and Irish schools and Catholic churches. And there was sectarianism in the past. My grandmother was brought up in the Scotland Road area, which was at the time an Irish slum and had an Irish nationalist MP, the only one ever elected in Britain. There were Orange Order marches and sectarian violence, too.

JC: I remember those marches as a kid.

TM: What did they feel like? 

JC: To be honest, we were only kids and there was a band playing. But I always remember my dad telling me that, when he was a kid, there was a bit of trouble around them. And for his dad — my grandad — it probably would have been a lot worse. But over time, that strong feeling has died out.

TM: Do you think football plays a big part in that? In Belfast and Glasgow, where there are more heightened tensions, you have Protestant and Catholic clubs. My understanding is that in Liverpool, Everton is kind of seen as the Catholic club, but it plays in blue. It’s like football has somehow acted as a kind of detoxifying agent.

JC: You chose the team who your dad supported; more often than not, it was not to do with religion. The one thing I do remember is when I first started watching Everton in the mid-Eighties, people all wore bobble hats. Some of these hats were half-and-half: the Everton one would be half Celtic, and the Liverpool one half Rangers. That’s the only inkling I have that Everton was seen as the Catholic club.

TM: Your autobiography busts a lot of myths. Early on, people were always saying that you grew up in poverty in Liverpool — but you didn’t, you grew up in a nice house in a nice area. You had a great childhood. You also talk about how people romanticise this city where Everton and Liverpool fans get on; where Everton fans went to Liverpool games even if they weren’t playing. You say all this is rubbish. You’re also quite cutting about what seems to be a new sectarianism emerging in Liverpool, with Everton and Liverpool fans getting quite brutal with each other. Is that still the case today?

JC: Yeah, I think it still feels nasty. We’ve always been seen as the friendly derby, but I’m not sure it was ever quite like that. The notion emerged in the Eighties, when the economic situation was really tough — with people struggling as much as they are today — and the one thing both sets of supporters in the city had to shout about was the two football teams. We, Everton and Liverpool, played each other so often in the mid-Eighties in cup finals — basically the whole of Liverpool descended on London. There was this common camaraderie of going down to Wembley on the coaches together. So I think that’s where this idea of friendship between Liverpool and Everton fans came from. There was this togetherness because everyone was in the same economic situation: football was an outlet.

Jamie Carragher’s club in Bootle

As a child, I remember we went down to London on a coach right outside here. And this woman, Ann Kirby — she lives just over the road, the old woman organising bingo when you walked in — knitted all the kids jumpers with EFC on. This must have been 40 years ago now. We wore them all the time. And the women sent us all off, because no woman would have gone to the cup final. It was all the dads taking the kids. And there was only one Liverpool fan on the coach of 50 or 60. A very, very brave man.

I don’t think you’d see this kind of camaraderie today — and this saddens me, because as a city, we are different in a lot of ways. We feel like we have to fight — whether it’s against the Government, the establishment. And we can do that as a city, but there’s a real split: red and blue. I think this is good: you need a strong rivalry. But sometimes it goes a little too far. Maybe that’s because, with the invention of social media, football is just in your face 24/7. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid.

TM: It’s like football was previously something that could bring the city together in a way that didn’t happen in Belfast or Glasgow — but now, it’s wrenching it apart. 

JC: Well, it’s easy to feel better about your team if they’re doing ok — but Everton haven’t done well for a long time now. The club’s been mismanaged for a very long time and it is tough for the supporters. They deserve a lot more, a lot better. Football stirs the emotions in the city and that will never change — and I don’t think that particularly helps relationships. You’ve got one team doing really well, and another finding it tough.

TM: There’s this sense in the rest of the country that people from Liverpool have some kind of grievance, that they get too upset by everything. Simon Hughes, The Athletic journalist, traces Liverpool’s identity as a united Labour city back to the Eighties — when you were growing up. There’s opposition to Thatcher, militants taking over the city, stadium disasters, and the appalling response from the government. All that comes together to create this Liverpool identity. Could you feel this as a kid?

JC: I’ve always felt that Liverpool people have got something about them — a personality, a character trait. You very rarely see a shy one. People from outside the city say: “Oh, they always complain, they’re never happy with this or that.” But I think we look at it a different way: we stand up for ourselves, we don’t accept what the Government is saying about a certain thing — even now, 30 or so years after Hillsborough. I admire that the city doesn’t allow people to walk all over us, and maybe that gets other people’s backs up around other parts of the country. But I actually love that about this city. It’s got that real backbone and it’ll fight and it’ll take on people. You don’t want to take on people from Liverpool, I can assure you of that.

TM: I’ve noticed recently that people like you, with an Irish name, or Rooney, with a very Irish name: you’re proudly English. You want to play for England, you wear the England jersey with pride. And yet I sense that there’s a certain kind of anti-Englishness starting to bubble up. People are asking: are we English? Are we a bit different? 

JC: I don’t think it’s bubbling: I think it’s been there for a long time. I wouldn’t say that I’m anti-English — and of course, you wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to play for your country — but I would never choose my country over my city. It wouldn’t even be a question. That’s just obvious to me. What people in the Midlands, the North East, or down South would choose, I don’t know. But if I went abroad and someone asked me where I’m from, I wouldn’t say I was from England. I’d say I’m from Liverpool. I’m sure there are other places in the country that feel the same. There’s a real North-South divide in this country, no doubt about that.

TM: Do you think it’s more acute than it was in the Eighties?

JC: Well, I was a kid in the Eighties. It always felt like it was a fight against someone. I remember my parents talking about Thatcher at the house. I think it probably feels bigger now just because social media has a major part in magnifying things. In the past, your parents would be having those political conversations in the back kitchen, but now it’s so much bigger and stronger because everyone can give their view on social media.

TM: You grew up at a time when Liverpool was earning its reputation as a Labour city. This wasn’t always the case: when your grandfather’s family came over from Ireland, Liverpool was a Tory city. The Protestants would vote Tory and the Catholics would vote Labour or Irish nationalist. It wasn’t until the Eighties that the city embraced its anti-Tory identity. What are your earliest memories of politics? 

JC: It was very simple for me when I was growing up: the Tory Party was for the rich, while Labour looked after the working classes. Even today, people around here are just trying to make ends meet, making sure there’s food on the table. I don’t think they’re watching Question Time, and finding out the policies of both parties. They’re thinking, we’re going to get more help from Labour — and that’s what we need.

TM: It would be difficult for you, wouldn’t it, if you were a Tory?

JC: I’m not sure there could be anything worse than being a Tory. I think people around here would rather I played for Man United. I’m serious.

TM: Do you think that’s the social pressure — or is it something you believe in?

JC: Well, I didn’t grow up in a place where anyone voted Conservative and could explain why they did. Growing up, Margaret Thatcher was a real bone of contention in the city. At that time, there were a lot of celebrities in Liverpool who had done well. They left Liverpool for London, and I think a lot of them backed the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher.

TM: I’m thinking of Ken Dodd, Cilla Black, Jimmy Tarbuck.

JC: There was always a lot of resentment towards them from people in Liverpool, and I think rightly so. People in Liverpool love to see their own do well, as anywhere does. But I think you’ve always got to remember where you’re from. I remember they were always called “professional Scousers” — they used it when they wanted, but didn’t fully embody what a Scouser was.

You have to try to help the people you grew up with — even if it means people in my position perhaps paying more tax to a Labour government, which might help a young mother trying to bring up two kids. I think people in my position should never forget where they came from. But there are certainly people who have played for Liverpool in the past — I’m not naming names — who have forgotten this.

TM: Are there secret Tory footballers out there?

JC: I think there’s a few of them!

TM: You say you’re not too involved in politics, but you backed Andy Burnham for the leadership. Obviously, Andy Burnham’s from the North West — he’s an Everton fan who came to Liverpool to talk about Hillsborough. I think that was a pivotal moment for him. Is that how you got to know him?

JC: I’m not sure when the initial connection came — I think it was actually before he gave that famous speech at Anfield on the memorial of Hillsborough, I think in 2009. We went for a meal afterwards — something at the town hall. And yeah, at the time, I’d have liked to see him get the leadership of the Labour Party.

But the reason I say I’m not fully into politics is that I’m a little bit wary of getting too involved in something that’s not my area of expertise.

TM: Gary Neville’s not shy…

JC: Well, he’s working with local MPs. He probably knows a bit more about what’s going on.

I’d like to lend my support on initiatives where you feel you help people. It’s not just about Labour and Tory. Sometimes you might need the Conservative government to get certain things passed, and I can use my voice, because of who I am, in pushing certain things through Parliament. We’ve certainly done that with the help of people on the other team. It’s about getting behind a cause rather than getting fully into bed with a political party. I obviously would never be shy in saying I would always vote Labour and I would love them to be in charge in the next general election. But I am a little bit wary of getting into something that I don’t know everything about.

TM: You don’t need to. The theory goes that the less you know about politics, the more informed your opinion is. You can just see it: you either know that the city is doing well or is doing badly. It seems that you think the city is currently in a worse state than it’s been for a while?

JC: We see how many food banks there are now around this area. How many people are on the streets? It does feel like it’s never been as bad — on the back of the Tory government and Covid. The kids not being in school. That’s not just a Liverpool thing, of course. And I think that’s why people become disenfranchised with the Government — [the Tories] have been in a long time, and we’re still seeing these problems in a lot of working-class cities.

TM: It does feel very different. If you go into Liverpool city centre, it feels wealthy, buzzing, like a proper European city. And then you come out here, and it definitely feels poorer. Do you think the problem with the Labour Party holding a conference in Liverpool is that you get busloads of people coming up — people like me — and they arrive in the city, they get a black cab down to the conference event, and they go, “Liverpool’s doing great!” and actually, it’s a bit of a façade? It’s the same with Manchester. We were out there last week and you get the tram out two or three stops, and it feels very different.

JC: I think you could probably say that about a lot of places. Obviously a lot of the money goes into the city centre. It’s not just for the people from the city; it’s for tourists. There’s so much work being done in Liverpool — and it’s fantastic. But I think there’s always been a feeling in Liverpool that there’s not just the North-South divide in the country, but in the city as well. So when you come north from the city centre, you’ve got Bootle, you’ve got Kirkdale, you’ve got Walton. There’s still obviously places that are finding it tough in the south end of Liverpool, but the areas I’ve just mentioned are always looking for help.

You think of the stadiums — what the football clubs do for those areas, the North end. What Anfield does for the area of Anfield is massive — Liverpool [FC] being there. And Everton does need to move stadium, and it’s going to be absolutely magnificent — almost in the city centre, just on the edge of the docks. But you worry about the impact that’s going to have on Walton. The pubs around there, the cafes before the game, all the supporters. It’s going to have a real impact.

TM: Liverpool has always had a council that’s been opposed to the Government, against the establishment. And now you’ve got the prospect of a Labour government coming in, and Keir Starmer being Prime Minister. But already I get the sense in Liverpool that Keir Starmer is not particularly well-liked. That he’s seen as having promised things — like, not to appear in The Sun — and then he’s gone back on it. He’s seen as too cynical. It sounds like a bit of a warning: don’t take Liverpool for granted, Labour.

JC: Liverpool will always be Labour. It’ll never be Tory; that’ll just never, ever happen. I think Labour probably know that. But I’m pleased the Labour conference is in Liverpool. I think it’s good for the city. I was at a Q&A with Wes Streeting a few nights ago and he was talking about a plan, for the next two or three years, that the Labour Conference comes to Liverpool — and I was pleased about that.

I understand where you’re coming from in terms of Keir Starmer. The situation is not so much to do with his policies as a Labour leader, I think a lot of it is to do with The Sun. And I get both sides of the argument. He should never have said “I won’t speak to The Sun” — and then do it. If you give your word to people in Liverpool and you don’t deliver, you’re always going to have a problem — whether or not it’s speaking to The Sun, which is obviously a big no-no in this city. From his point of view, as Labour leader, I can understand. You need the press on-side.

In terms of his policies, Liverpool is a Labour city and Left-wing. I understand the problem that any Labour leader would have, that being really Left-wing is not going to get you into power. There is that feeling with Keir Starmer, and probably was with Tony Blair as well, that they’re almost a Tory: not Left, centre-left. But then, what would you rather have: a centre-left or a Tory government? Because it’s been proven, certainly with Jeremy Corbyn, that being real Left-wingers there’s very little chance that you’re ever going to get into government. You become known as a protest party, really. And yeah, you can protest, you can fight, and you can be disappointed in Labour — that they’re not doing everything you feel they should be doing, or really Left-wing. But it’s still better than what the alternative is.

TM: Better to win?

JC: Better to win and have the chance to actually implement policies that will help people in these areas rather than being a protest party just fighting against the Tories.

Tom: Jamie Carragher, the Blairite! The centrist dad who says, “Be sensible”!

JC: Yeah, well, that’s the only time I can remember Labour being in! I know what happened with the Iraq War — that’s always going to be a stain against them. But I think he was a great leader, wasn’t he? He just had it, didn’t he? When you saw him in the despatch box. Labour winning three general elections in a row. That just doesn’t happen because, you know, Labour very rarely win. And they’re in a great position to win now. I’d still rather a Labour government be in, even if it’s not Left-wingers, which people in the city would like.

TM: You think the problem, then, with Starmer is not necessarily the policies — it’s the cynicism? To so obviously say one thing and then do the other? Because outside of Liverpool that’s the criticism as well, from the Left: he promised all this and he didn’t deliver it. 

JC: I mean, do you believe things politicians say? I just think it’s a lot of bollocks if I’m being totally honest with you. I take it with a pinch of salt whenever we’re promised something by a politician.

TM: How has Liverpool dealt with the Tory conference the other week — where they reversed on HS2 coming up to the North?

JC: I don’t think it’s something that anyone on the streets is talking about. I think it was always seen as something that was going to Manchester. So I don’t know how much we’ll be affected. But again, it just goes back to that North-South divide. When they’re saying they can’t afford to finish it — I’m just not having that at all. And I’m not daft. I know the costs have spiralled, and they always do on things like that. But they have to find a way.

TM: There’s talk about the Northern Powerhouse, which is kind of connecting Liverpool, through Manchester, to Leeds and across to Newcastle. But there is this other idea, which is the Osborne idea, which is that you need to create a megacity in the North West, with Manchester at the centre, connected up to Liverpool and Leeds. But I sometimes think: I wonder if people in Liverpool would be okay with being thought of as a kind of suburb of Manchester?

JC: No, Liverpool won’t be playing second fiddle to anyone — certainly not Manchester!

TM: There’s kind of two divides. There’s the divide within the North: Liverpool versus the rest, with Manchester getting all the special favours. And then there’s the North-South divide generally. For your work, you probably have to go down to London all the time — to all these clubs in the South. But when you were growing up, the North would have been dominant in football. And now [in the South] you’ve got all the small teams — not to offend any supporters! — Brentford and Brighton and Bournemouth. Is that a reflection, you think, of the state of the economy generally?

JC: Teams in the Premier League have got money, no matter where you are in the country — even the teams at the bottom are getting £100 million, so they can all afford massive wages. So if you’re going to play for a Brighton or a Bournemouth now, and you’re a foreign player, you can earn massive money — and you’re also not far from London. Whatever I was saying about this North-South divide, I go to London quite a lot, and it’s one of the best cities in the world. I think it could even be number one. So I think that plays a part in players wanting to be closer to the South — maybe it’s easier to get back home, flight-wise.

You think of some of the clubs in the North I grew up going to. Sheffield Wednesday — what a giant football club. Bournemouth and Brighton aren’t bigger football clubs than Sheffield Wednesday in terms of support, the stadium, history. But the way the Premier League is going now, the influx of foreign players, means it’s a lot tougher for teams [in the North] to attract foreign players than the teams you’re mentioning down South that, for me, aren’t as big.

TM: The way you were talking about Liverpool challenging the status quo made me think about Brexit. Is there a sense in Liverpool that that’s a Tory project? Because, going back to the Eighties, Liverpool was a great port for the whole world — and then, with trade diverting to Europe, the main ports became Felixstowe and Dover, down in the South. But I don’t get the sense that there’s anti-European sentiment here?

JC: The way people feel in this city [about Brexit] is the way my mum and dad feel about the Tory government of the Eighties. Brexit is the one thing that really winds me up. It’s a disaster. And this city was probably one of the strongest in voting to stay in Europe because we realise what Europe is doing for the city — not governments, especially not Tory governments.

TM: Because outside of Liverpool, being anti-establishment is voting against the EU. The argument goes: we’re poor, or poorer than we were, and that has coincided with being in the EU. And you could say the same about Liverpool: we used to have a port that went to the rest of the world and then we joined Europe and all that trade went South, because the South is closest, and so the EU hasn’t been good for us. It’s strange that that wasn’t more of a reaction in Liverpool.

JC: No, no. EU money changed the face of Liverpool. The Albert Dock was just rotting away in the Eighties, and look at it now. We’re really proud of it in the city. You think of the cruise ships going into Southampton — we’ve got the cruise terminal here, we’re getting a lot of that business ourselves now, tourists coming in. So no, I’ve never felt what you mentioned. The local press were fully behind staying in. And I think people in Liverpool just got it. It just wasn’t good to leave the EU. No sensible person or politician can ever make an argument for Leave. I just never heard one.

TM: Speaking of punching out at the establishment, do you sense that online conspiracy theories — about Covid, about World Government — are taking root in Liverpool at all? Wasn’t Rickie Lambert running something in Liverpool the other day? 

JC: I don’t believe in conspiracy theories in terms of Covid. I mean, Rickie Lambert went to something, but I don’t think there were that many people there. And I think when there’s actually been people coming here to protest in big numbers about things, against something that we believe in the city, they were pushed back. I don’t think there’s a big thing in Liverpool about conspiracy. I would call it more distrust — about a government or people in the higher echelons. And I think often it’s proved right.

Look at what was going on in Covid in No. 10. The way they were all carrying on. MPs expenses going back, what, 10, 15 years? These are our leaders, these are the ones we’re supposed to look up to, they are shaping the country. And then maybe people in Liverpool are getting criticised because they’ve got no jobs or they’re on benefits, or they’re trying to fudge the system in some way. And you’ve got the people at the very top doing exactly the same. I think there’s something sort of built into us in this city, that you never take things too much at face value in terms of people in the prime position. And to be honest, it’s been proved right.

 


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague