A sunset in Barbados, where Ed Smith stayed over the election campaign. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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The Pietersen poll delusion, reading the election, and a tour of Tony Cozier’s Barbados

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean.

Final proof of the abject failings of Britain’s polling industry: the Kevin Pietersen affair. A survey conducted in March by YouGov “demonstrated” that England fans were split 43 per cent to 43 per cent on whether he should be picked for England. Hmm. Meanwhile, the best two pundits on the election, Matthew Parris and Peter Wilby, mostly ­ignored the polls. They sensed a deeper current in the electorate.

Here is my attempt to gauge the cricketing mood, polls notwithstanding: most real fans are sick of the whole issue. They would refuse to talk to a pollster, vote on a website or join a Twitter storm. They are the silent majority. A good number would love to see KP play for England again. Yet most feel not anti-Pietersen but weary of Pietersen. In the long run, he may realise that he is indeed a victim – not of “the establishment” but of exploitative, attention-seeking “friends”.

On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast programme the other day, I did something that I had never done before on air. I lost my temper. The presenter asked me a routine question about English cricket being “split down the middle”. I cut her off with a version of the argument above. Then, as if to prove the division, she read out a text message from a listener. It suggested that Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss (England’s captain and the director of cricket, respectively) were pathetic failures, cowardly nobodies and losers, men of no achievements. (Between them, they have scored 47 centuries and won 37 Tests as England captains.)

We all know the convention when confronted with a vox pop buffoon: “I absolutely hear what you’re saying and you have a total right to think that. I want an open and frank debate that gets to the core of your legitimate and deeply held concerns,” and so on. Instead, I heard myself saying, “That text was written by an idiot.” There was a gasp. Propping up the delusion that every issue can be solved by an online referendum, pandering to the mob and pretending that it represents everyone, is to delude ourselves that there is always a popular and easy solution. If we in the media don’t challenge that methodology, we are accomplices in infantilisation on a massive scale.

 

****

I had a splendid election campaign. I left England for the Caribbean (I was commentating on cricket) when it began and returned to vote on 7 May. I did not consume any British TV or radio, nor pick up a single newspaper or magazine. I returned feeling sprightly, looking forward to the story, in contrast to friends wearied by political overdose.

Hold your opprobrium. I still read a lot about the election while I was away. But that was the only medium: the written word. I downloaded newspapers and periodicals on my Kindle. Unlike the iPad, my Kindle can’t really handle graphics. I absorbed all my news through words. I read the articles from beginning to end. I was not led by cleverly chosen photos; I did not prejudge the writing by decoding images; I did not track the daily news cycle without bothering to confirm first what had happened.

The aesthetic dimension of editing is, without question, central. Yet there is a danger that we impatient readers cede too much power to the people who frame the page and lead our eyes. I relished the Luddite e-reader. How ironic it is that the most analogue-feeling reading experience comes not from the printed newspaper page but from a grainy digital screen.

 

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I love hot weather and especially humidity. The trick to enjoying the tropics is to use dawn and dusk. I would wake at 6am and take sleepy walks on the beach, prolonging the creative torpor of half-sleep, half-wakefulness. Then I’d jump into the sea before heading for the espresso machine. What a delicious juxtaposition: the thick weight of tropical humidity set against the black, treacly fuel of espresso. The comforting froth of milk is for temperate weather.

On days off, I’d write in bed. There is a simplicity to living in hot weather. Clothes are a waste of time and appointments a ­terrible hassle. A writer’s dream: an empty hotel room and a pared-down life.

 

****

In my hotel room in Barbados, a note is waiting at the door, insisting that I call a local number. The voice is unmistakable to all cricket fans: warm, amused and beating to a subtle calypso rhythm. It belongs to Tony Cozier, now 74, who has commentated on West Indies cricket for more than 50 years.

“Edward, you need to see Barbados’s east coast. I’ll pick you up at your hotel at 2pm.” Cozier’s life has mirrored the story of West Indies cricket, its rise and gradual decline. He was already a journalist when Frank Worrell became the first black cricketer to be appointed captain of the West Indies for a series in 1960. Now that Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Richie Benaud are no longer with us, Tony’s mellow tone on the airwaves belongs to a fading tradition.

Accompanied by the ex-England spinner Graeme Swann, we set off. There, the Atlantic Ocean; here, a gorgeously isolated club ground; back there, Tony’s former beach house. Every vantage point – by extraordinary good fortune – was opposite a rum shack. The rum and the stories flowed. Tony described an era when players and journalists were friends and (generally) trusted each other, when the game was defined by a sense of adventure as well as professional advancement. What a contrast with the trench warfare of the Pietersen debacle.

As the sun set, I realised that I had been on a tour of Tony’s life, not just of Barbados. As much as I relish travel, what thrills me most is discovering new places through people – and vice versa.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.