The rise of nationalist politics in Barnsley

The Barnsley by-election was a disaster for the LibDems, but a big success for UKIP and the BNP.

On Monday David Miliband warned about the growing subterranean strength of a new politics based on flag, soil, and mono-culturalism. In a poll commissioned by Searchlight 47 per cent of those surveyed wanted a politics based on varying degrees of anti-immigrant, anti-European, and anti-multiculturalist politics. In Barnsley the votes for the BNP and UKIP showed that politics has roots.

Of course Labour held the seat. Unlike the 1980s when by-election candidates were often eccentric, reflecting a left-lurching party base, the new MP for Barnsley, Dan Jarvis is a former Parachute Regiment officer with service in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Unite and Unison tried to push their candidates into Barnsley but in contrast to the 1980s, the unions have less and less say, let alone control of constituency parties. Labour under Ed Miliband's steady leadership remains a centrist ready-for-future-government party.

10 months ago the Lib Dems came second to Labour. Now they got fewer votes than the BNP. There is a South Yorkshire element to this. Nick Clegg is now known locally as the "Sheffield Fraudmaster" after the decision of his Lib Dem colleague, Vince Cable, to axe a £80 million loan to the Sheffield Forgemasters firm. One of the top DBIS officials told me last night that the loan had been fully approved by civil servants and was not political. It would be repaid with interest and would help the firm make the components for the next generation of power plants in Britain.

The decision to axe it, on the other hand, was wholly political and a disaster for Clegg who has paid a hard price. In Sheffield and neighbouring Barnsley the Sheffield Forgemasters row is associated with Clegg and the Lib Dems. Sheffield is still - just - under Lib Dem control. But in the May elections most South Yorkshire observers see a total Lib Dem wipe-out. The consequence is likely to lead to the Lib Dems being like Labour in 1981 - facing a split as a new Liberal Party emerges willing to take on the government on its illiberalism, its foreign policy blunders, and its harsh social policies. Nick Clegg's association with AV must also worry the Yes2AV camp as they look to the May plebiscite.

But the other political consequence from Barnsley is the 2,953 votes gathered by UKIP, who got more than the Conservatives, and the BNP who overtook the Lib Dems as well as a smaller nationalist party. The view that the BNP is on the point of disintegration may be true in terms of the party's internal organisation, Nick Griffin's incoherence, and financial costs following court tussles with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. But in terms of voting popularity the BNP is still solidly there. So too is UKIP which is becoming as anti-Muslim as it is anti-Europe. Nigel Farage is a far more attractive TV personality than the sweating Nick Griffin. Tory MPs were told 2005-2010 that David Cameron would lead a Eurosceptic government. But in office Cameron has turned into a Euro-realist unable to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, repatriate powers, or do more than deploy delaying tactics over prisoner voting rights. The universities are up in arms about visa bans on students as is business on being able to import key foreign workers. EU residents here are as entitled to UK benefits just as British citizens in Europe cannot be denied social rights in countries where they live and work.

All this is grist to the mill of nationalist, identity politics. David Cameron sought to placate this constituency with his speech attacking multiculturalism in Munich. But Nick Clegg said the opposite in Luton yesterday. Tory MPs would like more audible dog-whistles, an updated version of Powellism-lite. Otherwise the politics of Kipling's "One land, one law, one throne" will surface in new forms. Jonathan Reynolds, one of the smartest of the new Labour MPs has already noted that the Barnsley result signals the end of two-party politics. He is right.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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