Baroness Warsi, Bahrain and the falsehood of British democracy

The Queen has invited the King of Bahrain to her Jubilee - but criticising her would be "mean", the

As Bahrain descends into its “three days of rage” leading up to Sunday's Grand Prix, at once barring journalists and repelling Formula One drivers, we have to wonder what pro-democracy protesters would make of a preened politician refusing to denounce their oppressor on prime-time TV.

Conservative Party Chairman Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, whose hair is so shiny it reflects off every camera pointing at her, told BBC Question Time viewers last night that it would be “mean” to condemn the Queen for entertaining the King of Bahrain at a Diamond Jubilee luncheon. 
 
Woops! Poor Liz. We clearly should never have said anything about the matter, despite, you know, living in a democracy and all. Like Bahraini king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorising his army to detain nearly 3000 pro-democracy protesters and kill more than 50, perhaps our head of state should be able to do exactly what she likes without criticism. Does the Queen even know of the plight of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the former president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights who has been on hunger strike for 73 days now? He was sentenced to life imprisonment in June for plotting a coup against the ruling elite; the sentence was imposed under emergency laws specifically targeting activists who demonstrated in the uprisings of February and March last year.
 
Bahrain, like Syria, is still very much in the middle of its Arab Spring, more than a year after uprisings began. At first ignored by mainstream media and politicians who preferred to entertain the ethics surrounding a NATO mission in Libya, it is perhaps not far-fetched to suggest that were it not for the Formula One Grand Prix, this small island in the Persian Gulf wouldn't have received half the international media coverage it has. There seems no need to question why this might be: the coalition government, for all its disgust at Russia's arms deals with Syria, authorised the sale of £2.2m of arms to Bahrain in the summer.
 
Civil unrest in Bahrain is still being swept under the carpet. Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone earlier this month refused to withdraw the Grand Prix from the country, despite doing so last year. Former leader of the Metropolitan Police's Special Inquiry Squad, John “Yates of the Yard” Yates, was appointed by Al Khalifa to help out his security services (from one moral scandal to another, some might say). As though writing a holiday postcard home, he commented that Bahrain was “a delightful place”. And while the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa was embarrassed into pulling out of an invitation to last year's ubiquitous royal wedding, Bahraini and British royalty will finally reconcile at a Windsor Castle jubilee lunch next month. 
 
The whole charade smacks of everything that is wrong with an unelected head of state. We can nod alongside William Hague's disapproval of the use of live ammunition on Bahraini activists, even protest against the exchange of arms approved by the same man's own government. But God forbid we should be "mean" enough to criticise the Queen when all she wants to do is celebrate 60 years of unelected rule with her dictator friends. 
 
Baroness Warsi might have caused outrage last night - but she also revealed a critical truth about Britain. Question the powers that be, and you get shot down. It might not be torture and teargas, but it's certainly not democratic. 
Bahraini Shiite Muslims protesting against the Grand Prix. Photo: Getty Images
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era