Full English: the MCC's chief executive (centre) and others at Lords 2011. Photo: Getty
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I wear my egg-and-bacon tie with pride – MCC membership is my last link to civilisation

My politics may place me firmly on the left of Labour, but confess to owning an MCC tie and people start looking at you in a whole new light.

As I write these words, England have declared on 575 for nine and Joe Root, the Yorkshireman who became old enough to vote only on the second-last day of 2008, has scored an unbeaten double century at Lord’s. I should have been there, but I have to file this column.

At which point I have a confession to make. I shall do so in a roundabout way. Imagine, if you will, the scene. It is Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in Chiswick, many, many years ago, and an American woman is entering the final stages of labour. Outside in the corridor, her husband clips the end off his third Partagás in a row and, pausing only to give a passing hospital porter a thrashing with his malacca cane, considers his options should the resulting issue be a boy. He has only one firm idea: that he should be a member of Marylebone Cricket Club.

Cut to many years later. That child, now grown to full estate, his marriage and finances in ruins, living in circumstances only two phone calls away from utter destitution, awaits an envelope. It is March; to save money, he has turned off the heating in the Hovel he lives in. Wrapped in several layers of ancient jumpers and moth-eaten scarves, he reads an out-of-date copy of Metro by the light of a guttering candle, which he also uses to heat up the tin of Heinz lentil soup that constitutes his daily meal. He’d burn the piles of review copies of books that surround him in the grate if he were not living in a smoke-free zone of London.

Downstairs, the letter box clatters and he runs down as fast as his joints, now nearly completely seized up by lumbago, will let him. His hands, warmed only partly by his fingerless gloves, tremble as he picks the brown buff envelope from the floor. Most buff envelopes are harbingers of doom, but not this one. He has already checked the franking mark, palpated it, and felt the tell-tale resistance in one corner. It’s here! His last link to civilisation, to the life that was his birthright. His breath condenses in the freezing air as he sobs his gratitude. His new MCC membership card has arrived.

You know, you don’t get a lot of sympathy in some circles when you let on you’re an MCC member. I have a feeling that even coming up with the above, a slightly exaggerated version of the truth (MCC passes are actually posted in April), isn’t going to stop me from getting a certain amount of flak from sections of this magazine’s readership. My politics may place me firmly on the left of the Labour Party, but confess to owning an egg-and-bacon tie and people start looking at you in a whole new light. Which is funny, because it’s like a mirror image of what happens when you sit down in the smoking enclosure in front of the Pavilion at Lord’s with a copy of the Guardian and the latest New Statesman.

“Goodness me,” one of the adjacent members will say. “Is that the old Staggers? I didn’t realise it was still going.” They may then ask if they can have a look. I watch as he flicks through its pages. A slight empurpling of the features may follow.

“Do you really read this?”

“It gets worse,” I say. “I write for it.”

By the afternoon, after a few drinks have been taken, the mood tends to mellow, and once or twice I have even elicited a vague promise from my neighbour to give this magazine another go, because it’s much more fun than it was in 1923, which was when he last saw a copy.

But I do not care too much, because, as I have got older, I seem to love the game more and more, and in particular the long form of the game, with its easy pace, its relative courtliness; the very sound of it and the look of the whites against the green. Also, you can’t see the sponsors’ logos from where I sit; and, as I refuse to pay for Sky TV, and couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to, this is the only way I can get to see live cricket. For a yearly outlay considerably less than that for a satellite or cable subscription, I can stroll into Lord’s for any game I like without buying a ticket. Last year, after a particularly glorious day, during which all cares, and there have been plenty of these, had disappeared, I found my eyes brimming with tears of happiness and gratitude. This is not an exaggeration.

“Do your colleagues ever give you stick for being an MCC member?” I was asked the other day.

“Sometimes,” I say. “But I tell them to go **** themselves.”

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle