What would Rhodes Boyson make of David Cameron's Conservative Party?

It’s safe to say he would not recognise Cameron's Conservatives.

Sir Rhodes Boyson, who died today at 87, was the archetypal eccentric Tory backbencher for nearly three decades. His mutton-chop sideburns, bald head and narrow squint even gave him the appearance of a Dickensian overseer. That he spoke and seemed to think like one made him the complete package.

Sir Rhodes, a former headmaster, defender of caning, Section 28 and pretty much every other reactionary measure of the age, earned the nickname "Colossus", from that great ironist, the late Norman St. John Stevas.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say he would not recognise David Cameron’s Conservative Party, a charge many in the party not even of Sir Rhodes’s vintage regularly make. Despite the Tories (sort of) winning the last election, Conservative Britain has failed to bloom; that much is now clear. There is no sense that Cameron has spawned an age of hegemony in the way Thatcher or Blair both did. Even on the deficit, the grip of TINA ("There Is No Alternative") seems to weaken every day, with economic voices deserting the government and a clamour for a change of course – and even of chancellor.

Meanwhile, the NHS reforms, perhaps the government’s most overtly ideological move, puts commissioning of local services into the hands of local GPs. Those same people said to be responsible for a soft line in signing-off patients on to incapacity benefit. It is doubtful Sir Rhodes, who once said that crime had risen in "parallel with the number of social workers," would approve of do-gooding doctors being put in charge.

More traditional Tory fare, in the shape of privatisation and big tax cuts are off the menu for now. Osborne's decision to shave 5p off the top rate of tax did little to promote the popular capitalism that Sir Rhodes approved of. The whispered comparison with Ted Heath’s one-term government swirls around the Prime Minister’s head. Like Heath, Cameron governs a fractious nation hobbled by serious national and international economic problems that show little sign of ending soon. Unlike Heath, he has more voices both inside and outside his party to keep happy; dancing to the Lib Dem’s tune on issues like proportional representation and House of Lords reform, while keeping his belligerent backbenchers happy. It’s not going well.

"It may have been right to create a coalition after the election," warned Tory backbencher Brian Binley yesterday, "but the current set-up isn’t working". The Lib Dems have achieved a level of influence "not remotely justified by the level of their electoral support," he harrumphed. Cameron, he added, needs to act like a Conservative prime minister, not a "chamber-maid". Meanwhile, former Tory environment minister Tim Yeo, hitherto best known for his scandalous resignation from John Major’s government (over what we used to call a "love child") pointedly asked if Cameron was "a man or mouse" for not backing a third runway at Heathrow.

It is doubtful whether Sir Rhodes, a quintessential plain-speaking Lancastrian, would have been quite so insolent. However, like Binley and Yeo, he would have wanted the firm smack of prime ministerial leadership. And not just because he supported corporal punishment.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Former Conservative minister Sir Rhodes Boyson, who has died at the age of 87.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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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