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Now we’re the sporting top dogs, please let’s not take ourselves too seriously

This year's success is doubtless going to taunt us for years to come, in the manner of 1966.

There is no bear garden in the Olympic Park. You’d think they might have had the nous to rustle one up. It could nestle between the Panasonic Full HD 3D Theatre, the Coca Cola Beatbox and the London 2012 Megastore. You don’t need much: a pit, some seating, a post, a chain to tie the bear to the post, a bear, a few rabid bulldogs to unleash on the bear. But then bear-baiting, oddly, isn’t an Olympic sport. It’s not even under consideration. There’s barely a whisper about it around Stratford, its fan base has atrophied, its glory days are over.

The Spice Girls aside, the time for unlikely comebacks is over. And to think that we were once masters of the sport, and our monarchs – instead of cheering on the long jump and the pommel horse – were its champions (Henry VIII built a pit at Whitehall; Elizabeth I overruled parliament when it tried to ban the gory entertainment on Sundays).

Obviously, this is progress, as bear-baiting was a vile, brutal pastime involving pointless animal cruelty for the amusement of bloodthirsty spectators and was prohibited in 1835. Still, we absolutely loved it.

“It was a sport very pleasant,” wrote a spectator in 1575, “to see the bear with his pink eyes leering after his enemies approach, the nimbleness and wayt of the dog to take his advantage, and the force and experience of the bear again to avoid the assaults. If he were bitten in one place, how he would pinch in another to get free, that if he were taken once, then what shift, with biting, with clawing, with roaring, tossing and tumbling, he would work to wind himself free from them. And when he was loose, to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slather about his physiognomy, was a matter of goodly relief.” What larks.

Anyone nostalgic for the biting and clawing, for the blood and the slather, can be reassured: bear-baiting lives on in the form of a reliable sporting metaphor. The dogs that were set upon the benighted bear were known as the top dog and the underdog. The top dog was trained to attack the bear’s head while the underdog went for the bear’s underbelly. The top dog had a good chance of confounding the bear and surviving. The underdog was toast. And so a commentator’s lexicon was born. The funny thing about underdogs is that you don’t often hear about their entirely predictable failure or death. We like underdogs who, against the odds, win: Robert the Bruce versus the English, the English versus the Armada, Goran Ivanisevic.

One of the most heart-twanging sights of the Games so far has been the supreme top dog Michael Phelps touring the pool with the 20- year-old South African swimmer Chad le Clos, after the youngster beat his hero in the 200m butterfly. Phelps had a paternal arm around le Clos as he steered him from crowd wave to interview to podium, the old dog teaching the new one its tricks. (Phelps quickly reclaimed top dogness, of course, beating all records for medals won and so ascending every conceivable statistical table and generally becoming The Best of All Time, Ever.)

But how we love the unexpected underdog triumph: the plucky chancer, who, emboldened by the unlikeliness of success and the presence of a far superior opponent, springs a surprise victory. We like them, because that’s what we, Britain, have been for years. Once, a long time ago, we won things – sports, wars – but now we’re reliable underdogs with the odd exception, which we celebrate with open-top bus parades and all the lunatic abandon of those unused to the sweet taste of victory.

I like this about us. We’re not natural winners. We don’t particuarly take to the notion of “positive thinking”. We bottle. We collapse. We stumble. Until now. I’m not sure when exactly but at some point during the alien course of “super Saturday”, as we nonchalantly slung another gold medal into the war chest, the doubt evaporated. As the medals kept flowing, we began to expect them. A silver started to seem a little, well, tinny. Somehow, out of sight, we’d done a Clark Kent costume change and emerged from the phone box as winners. We’d switched from underdog to top dog in what will forever uncatchily be known as “doing a Chad le Clos”.

There is some very legitimate anxiety to be felt about the reclaiming of top-dog status.

1. Will we lose our sense of humour?
2. Will we become unbearably smug?
3. What happens when we start losing again?

To answer the questions in turn:
1. The famed British humour is predicated on our rapid descent from being a nation that “ruled the waves” to a tinpot country whose capital city has a mayor who gets stuck in a harness on a zip wire. If we start winning regularly, we run the risk of taking ourselves seriously and endangering our most precious and enviable personality trait, which is pretty much the only thing that makes us attractive to more aesthetically blessed populations.

2. If there’s one danger greater than loss of humour, it’s accumulation of smugness. Not just smugness, self-belief. There is an overlooked beauty in lacking self-esteem. You’re less likely to be a bully. You’re less likely to be an unlikeable, arrogant arse. You’re much less likely to start a war.

3. The pessimist’s role in life is to know that when things are going extremely well, soon enough they will go extremely badly. Our gloom makes us stunningly unpopular, but at least we speak truth to power (at least this is what we tell ourselves as we cower from the steely-eyed optimists). The thing is, we can’t keep winning. In about 30 years’ time, when we’re limping home from the Olympics in a Chinese city that hasn’t even been built yet and some man-child politico is launching a public inquiry into why we only managed to win a single bronze medal in crazy golf, every front page will wonder what went so wrong in British sport after the Golden Summer of the London Games? The year 2012 will hang around our necks like the albatross of 1966, taunting us with images of faded glory. Ah well, something else to blame on Nick Clegg.


Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.