It sounds odd to use a book on the economics of sport as a source of what is going wrong with our society. But Stefan Szymanski’s new “Playbooks and Checkbooks” provides us with the raw material for just that.
Szymanski explains why so many of the games played around the world were first encoded here in the UK , why they spread with their methods of organisation. Yes, Empire gets a look in but more important is the development of “associative society”. After the Civil War the monarchy and government were no longer the instigator, regulator or supervisor of every public affair. People were, for the first time, free to combine in clubs, whether for sport, for drinking, journalism or science, without permission.
This led to an explosion of clubs and associations in every corner of life. As he says:
“By the end of the eighteenth century visitors to England became quite bored with the tendency of Englishmen to proclaim their liberty and to declare that other nations lived in servitude. Contemporary Germans and Frenchmen often found this national pride quite puzzling, because they did not see what the English were free to do that they were not.”
By contrast, in France at the time any association of any kind required a licence from the King.
Moving from sporting matters, that same freedom of association is what led to the explosion of the communal and social groupings that followed. The friendly societies, the providents, mutuals, owe their genesis to the fact that people were free to associate in such ways. There was no requirement for permission, a licence, from those in authority stating that they would be privileged by an allowance. It was a freedom to be exercised as of right not applied for. Yes, this was sometimes more honoured in the breach, as with unions and the Combination Acts but those exceptions were indeed exceptions.
Freedom of association is something that I fear we’ve lost in our society today. Retained firefighters are about to fall foul of the Working Time Directive. We used to understand that those who offered themselves on call to help in an emergency were a benefit to society. Now we make such public spirit illegal.
To take an entirely trivial example, it is currently illegal to add apple geranium leaves to gooseberry jam but legal to do so to quince. To avoid a 6 month jail sentence and or a £5,000 fine by doing so one would have to petition the European Commission to change the jams and jellies regulations.
Not all of these restrictions come from Brussels. You couldn’t have a folk music club meeting in a pub these days without a licence, you can’t stick up a barrel of beer at the line dancing club without one: indeed you cannot have either dancing or music without permission from someone, somewhere.
Perhaps line dancing, folk music, jam, even our unique system of retained firefighters, are not important matters. But if civil society is to flourish, then we have to be free to be civil society without permission or a licence from anyone. In short, we need to reclaim our freedom to associate if we’re to have an associative society.
Of course, Edmund Burke got there first when he described society as relying upon the “little platoons”. This is only true if said platoons are not regimented, ordered, inspected and controlled. Only when we strip away that regimentation - whether it comes from Brussels or Westminster - will we see a flourishing of civil society to match that of our forefathers, that thing which so confused and confuses the French and the Germans.