Politics and alcohol

One Tory backbencher of my acquaintance always made a better speech after he had consumed a bottle o

Having been brought up and remained a practising Methodist I have always had a healthy suspicion of the power of alcohol. Rather like the Methodist Church (which it seems these days stands for not much that John Wesley would recognise) and unlike my Octogenarian Mother I have long since abandoned my teetotalism and enjoy good champagne when someone else is paying and a glass of port or two after your average City Corporation Dinner. However never underestimate the influence of alcohol in the Political World.

Ignoring Party Conference week where every Politician worth his salt drinks far too much and no one worries about it, except one Tory Activist who objected rather loudly to a very drunk Conservative MP putting his hand down the young man’s trousers.

Threats of a complaint to the Party Chairman ensued.

Alcohol is playing an increasing role at times when in my view it should not.

I vividly recall going on an official trip to Cyprus when one Labour MP had to be physically helped off the plane by a colleague when he arrived at Larnaca as he was too drunk to stand and on a previous trip one corpulent now former Scottish Labour MP who failed to attend any of the official meetings but somehow managed all the dinners!

There are of course well known tales of alcoholic overload in Politics stretching back to George Brown as Foreign Secretary and encompassing infamous incidents involving Alan Clark and Sir Nick Scott.

One Tory backbencher of my acquaintance always made a better speech after he had consumed a bottle of red wine at dinner. Indeed it is debateable whether Brandy assisted Winston Churchill in winning the Second World War.

However things have changed, the advent of a 24 hour media has meant politicians are required for instant comment and woe betide anyone who tries a live interview after three gin and tonics.

In emergency situations where office-holders, spokesmen and women are required to give instant responses or make key decisions the fact that certain politicians are unapproachable after lunch does not inspire confidence.

The Governance of London is a case in point. It is well documented that the former Transport Commissioner Bob Kiley is an alcoholic and indeed his ineffectiveness and ultimate removal were not unconnected to his patronage of off licences in Victoria.

The Met Commissioner has appeared somewhat the worse for wear at a number of official functions, most notably the London Mayors’ Association Annual Dinner where he needed assistance from his protection officers to manage the stairs.

These indiscretions reflect the alcohol-fuelled administration of City Hall. Mayor Livingstone’s’ two well documented run-ins with the Standards Board (the Party incident at Tufnell Park and the Evening Standard Nazi jibe) have both involved significant amounts of red wine and those of us on the inside of City Hall know that abstemious is not a word in the Mayor’s dictionary .

Gordon Brown has promised to the relief of local councillors across the Country to review the liberalisation of the licensing laws.

Perhaps he should bring his Scottish Presbyterian views to the attention of some of those closer to home.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State