Will Self: It’s no wonder sport fans are angry so often, they’re the victims of a massive con

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

You’ll be aware by now that of all the frenzied crowds that trouble my uneasy sleep, sporting ones bother me the most. I mean to say, to be crushed to death by a mob that is rampaging because tyranny flies at its backs has a certain justness but to be stomped on by people driven berserk by a ball game would be a pitiful end. Sporting events by their nature embody the worst excesses of late capitalism: the spectators are mere passive consumers of the commodified prowess of the athletes and the seasonal character of the spectacles mimics the cyclic time that this new peasantry is trapped in, while the masters of money and power forge ahead. No wonder sports fans are so often pissed off: they’re the victims of a massive con.

When I stopped going to sporting events, the crowd at the Arsenal still strongly resembled an L S Lowry painting: rank upon rank of mufflered and capped men, raising their Bovril cups to their chapped lips with the monstrous synchrony of a group mind. Around this time – the early 1970s – I also went to Wimbledon a couple of times. This was a different sort of crowd – blazered and frocked, bourgeois – and the Centre Court also had a sort of hushed intimacy: the net stretched decoratively across the carpet of grass, the tiered seating somehow G Plan.

Nevertheless, here was the same disturbing unanimity, the eyes sliding back and forth like those of automata, the counterpoint of players’ grunts and spectators’ groans suggesting – even to my pubescent mind – participation in some mass act of sexual congress. (I may have been reading Brave New World at the time.)

Still, at least tennis had the virtue of a certain individualism – single combat, armed with catgut, wood and rubber – and I think I went on watching it on TV until at least the middle of that decade. Plonking myself down in front of the set some 35 years later, I was heartened to discover that little seemed to have changed with the Wimbledon crowd: there were a few more handmade signs and some garish tam-o’-shanters that I didn’t recall from the days when Ilie Nastase flipped his wig but otherwise it was business as usual. (Andy Murray was even drinking what was unmistakably Robinsons Barley Water.) Yes, you guessed it, the Championship bid by the down-home boy from Dunblane had lured me out of my sporting retirement.

True, I wasn’t court-side but the way the BBC chose to cover the Wimbledon crowd was surely indicative of this aspect of the zeitgeist: the distraught relationship between the particular and the many. Murray’s authenticity as a sporting hero derives as much from his intractability when it comes to the usual skill transfer of celebrity as it does from his prowess. As yet, there’s been no smelly water line or pseudo-styled sunglasses – his product placements at least superficially appear to be out of necessity and he even (for which I could’ve kissed him) appeared to pooh-pooh the idea of a knighthood when old buttock-face had him straight round No 10 the day after his win. I suspect that lurking behind this is a deeper level of crowd consciousness, because if modernity teaches us anything, it’s that the seeming omnipotentiality of the notorious – so you’re a cabinet minister: why not chance your arm at ballroom dancing? – rests on a correlative loss of true expertise. If you can be anything, how can your ability at one thing be credible?

Murray is a personification of the most physical possible impact between the anomie of the individual and the madness of the crowd; he is thus a hero twice over. No wonder, as the camera nosed about the arena, we were treated to the disgusting spectacle of Messrs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Salmond-with-saltire almost sucking each other off, such was their desire to repose in the crotch of the champion.

Murray, meanwhile, submitted to the bizarre court-side interview – a ritual I cannot remember from the 1970s and one in which the well-known faces in the crowd, picked out by the camera, are integrated into the mass to reinforce the hoary new delusion that they’re just like us, really.

You may have detected a certain soft, emollient tone in this week’s column – but have no fear, readers, remember: Murray the Minted is a sports “ambassador” for none other than RBS. It’s given the feisty wee chap thousands of our pounds to play big pingpong, so mind, we own the fucker. Now, new balls to kick, please!

Andy Murray's authenticity as a sporting hero comes as much from his intractability as from his prowess. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

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 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left