It’s not only Blair who should be saying sorry

When is the Labour Party going to apologise for inflicting this man upon us?

Publication of Tony Blair's toe-curling autobiography has been greeted with a degree of outrage, much of which rings a little false, as it was surely obvious that "the young war criminal", as the late Alan Watkins used to refer to the former prime minister, was not going to apologise for his role in the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Many of us, however, are still waiting for another overdue act of contrition. And that would be the Labour Party apologising for inflicting this greedy, self-deluding, philosophically vacuous man and his cohorts of power-hungry, unprincipled acolytes upon us for the past 13 years.

Some Labour supporters and members appear to think it unfair to dwell on the Blair-Brown administrations. Only recently, when I posted ten reasons why Charles Kennedy should not join Labour, one commenter wrote: "New Labour are gone GET OVER IT!" Naturally, I can see that it might well be convenient to overlook the party's actions during its long years in government. In most democracies, though, the tradition -- not an unreasonable one, I can't help but feel -- is to judge a party's promises against its recent record in power.

No wonder many would like to draw a veil of silence over that time. (I would happily join any paeans to Roy Jenkins's first period at the Home Office, for instance, but I think we can safely say that the years 1997-2010 are of more relevance here than 1965-67.)

Further, if you believe the spin put on an opinion poll by YouGov published yesterday, which found that 72 per cent of undecided voters would be less likely to vote for Labour if it pursued New Labour policies, you will not find it surprising that leading party figures should wish to distance themselves from Tony and his pals.

But Blair and his gang did not come to be in charge by chance. Labour Party members are not believed to have mislaid their votes in large numbers back in 1994. Nor can one argue that the party simply woke up one morning -- after indulging in too many ales at the Durham Miners' Gala, perhaps -- to find to their surprise that they were led by a man who cared little for their past and shared few of their beliefs. No, they knowingly elected a man whose mission, as Simon Jenkins wrote in a brilliantly devastating column on Friday, was "to anaesthetise the Labour Party while he turned it into a vehicle to make him electable and his newly espoused Thatcherism irreversible".

Some may say that this was not obvious at the time; and it is true that a good many people were taken in by him. For those whose judgement was not clouded by the desperate desire for Labour to return to office, however, it was quite clear that Blair was, by instinct, authoritarian, moralistic and lacking in any affection for his party's history, while his every speech and act indicated that, by any yardstick, he was exceedingly right wing. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, discussing with an Old Labour refusenik how strange it seemed that a Liberal like me should find himself so much to the left of the new leader of the Labour Party.

Even after the sad death of John Smith (a man who would have had no truck with New Labour, and whose good taste is shown by how he took, it is said, "an instantaneous dislike" to Peter Mandelson), it is not as though there were no alternatives. There was Robin Cook, later the only cabinet minister to resign over Iraq before it was invaded. Bryan Gould, once a much-fancied leadership contender, could have been persuaded to stay and to forgo his return to New Zealand (from where his occasional commentaries have continued to give us reason to lament his absence; I commend this article from last year, "Labour has betrayed the people").

Instead, the Labour Party chose Blair. Not the mass of British voters, who play no part in the election of the executive. Not the majority who did not tick the Labour box in any of the three elections Blair "won" -- they had even less say in the matter. No, the choice of Tony Blair, and the failure to remove him swiftly -- or even to pluck up the courage to challenge him -- were solely the responsibility of the Labour Party, whose members were the only people, apart from the voters of Sedgefield, who had a chance to express their opinion of him at the ballot box.

What happened to the collective conscience of Labour MPs, members and voters during those 13 years? If they didn't have the backbone to get rid of a leader they should never have favoured in the first place, why didn't they defect en masse to the Liberal Democrats when they were led by Charles Kennedy, whose party and policies were at the time identifiably more of the left? Or at least take the New Statesman's advice before the 2005 general election on "How to give Blair a bloody nose"?

As the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, puts it in the current issue of the NS: "They act as if they were out to lunch while it all happened." (The reference is to the four male Labour leadership candidates, but it applies equally well to the broader party and its supporters.) If one didn't know better, one might be tempted to draw the conclusion that Iraq, PFIs, rising inequality and carbon emissions (to quote four problems from Lucas's list) were all deemed worth it, if that was the price of holding on to power -- because they can't actually have believed in such policies, can they?

I have expressed my regard for Ed Miliband before on this site, and I do hope he wins his party's contest. He represents the best hope for a break from the past 13 years.

But until there is some public repudiation of that time, an admission of guilt and complicity in the ghastly errors and wasted opportunities associated with Tony Blair and the whole New Labour project -- until there is nothing less than a proper apology from the Labour Party to the British people -- do forgive me if I treat the utterances of the current leadership contenders in the same way as Gordon Brown once said he did Tony Blair's promises: "There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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