Last week, more than 2,000 people gathered at St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate the life of a natural conservative. The service was steeped in the deepest traditions of faith, flag and family. Each reading and every hymn, all the tributes from friends: everything was stamped with the restrained Anglicanism, emotional understatement and lyrical reverence for the English landscape that had sustained the life we came to celebrate. It was, of course, the memorial service for Christopher Martin-Jenkins, cricket writer and, above all, commentator for the BBC’s Test Match Special.
The following day St Paul’s marked the life and achievements of Baroness Thatcher. The two occasions provided an unmistakable metaphor for two different and often contradictory strands of British conservatism: gentlemanly restraint versus animal spirits; the educational establishment versus entrepreneurial vigour; institutional wisdom versus personal liberty; the village green versus the free market. Over two consecutive days in spring, the same cathedral witnessed an accidental debate about the soul and identity of British conservatism.
Martin-Jenkins’s career had nothing to do with the promotion of the free market. It could be argued that he was the beneficiary of it, at least as a print journalist. But in his opinions and advocacy, he never sided with entrepreneurs against the establishment.
Twice in modern history, cricket has experienced commercially driven revolutions that might loosely be termed “Thatcherite”. In the 1970s, the Australian tycoon Kerry Packer saw a commercial opportunity in the low morale and poor pay of international cricketers. He used his deep pockets and taste for conflict to entice the game’s stars to play in a start-up league, World Series Cricket. Packer’s rallying cry was simple: “Come on, we’re all whores, name your price!”
A schism followed, with Packer’s players expelled from the traditional game. It was a horrible, fractious era in cricketing history. But Packer’s legacy today looks very different: the commercially successful features of modern cricket (floodlights, coloured clothing) can be traced to his innovations. Whatever his motives, a case could be made that Packer saved cricket.
Today, the free market provides an even more ruthless attack on cricket’s traditions. The Indian Premier League (IPL) pays higher wages for a few weeks than cricketers once dreamed of making over a whole career. Some top players have given up playing for their countries; they travel the world as mercenaries, revelling in the riches and celebrity of Twenty20, which has undoubtedly inspired new, younger audiences.
Martin-Jenkins vigorously opposed both arriviste entrepreneurial interjections. First, he led the establishment attack on Packer and his “circus”. “It’s every man for himself,” he wrote, “and the devil take the hindmost”. He despised the idea that cricketers had been lining up an alternative career, while simultaneously playing for their country. Three decades later, he sounded the alarm about the IPL, arguing it had pushed his beloved Test cricket off centre stage.
What would Baroness Thatcher have made of the causes that Martin-Jenkins fought to protect and preserve? County cricket was his deepest love. He had an instinctive feel for the rhythms and history of a competition that has roots deep in the 18th century.
But county cricket has been losing money for decades and relies substantially on handouts from the England and Wales Cricket Board. Not much imagination is required to know how Thatcher would have advised county chairmen who face declining gate receipts alongside demands for pay increases from South African overseas players. “It’s quite simple, dear, you can’t spend money you don’t have. If you want to sign new players, you’ll have to sack old ones.” And how would she have responded to the county chairman’s rejoinder that the fans would grumble at the loss of popular players? With an icy stare and a call to arms.
The whole mood of county cricket would have made Thatcher uncomfortable: shaky business models, burgeoning debts, well-intentioned men in blazers avoiding difficult decisions, club ties, hazy lines of accountability, problems with discerning the bottom line let alone resolving it. I asked one of her former cabinet ministers what she would have made of county cricket. There was a long pause and a slight smile. “More of an IPL person, I think,” he replied.
The two ceremonies at St Paul’s demonstrated that some conservative lives are spent mostly fighting the establishment, others mainly serving it. Thatcher saw belonging to the Conservative Party as the best means to fight what she saw as a sclerotic and ineffectual status quo. Martin-Jenkins’s career in cricket, in contrast, was an attempt to apply the brakes; not to reject change entirely but to manage its pace and steer its direction – always towards civility, history and dignity and, just as important, away from vulgarity and the profit motive.
Their styles were as different as their visions. Baroness Thatcher thrived on conflict; for Martin-Jenkins, it was a last resort. He attracted few enemies, even among those whom he opposed ideologically. Margaret Thatcher’s downfall followed from her own teammates.
All of this leads to the uncomfortable question: can two people, so different in character, motives and opinions, belong to the same political movement? What is “conservative” about the free market, with its “creative waves of destruction”? How does saving post offices and village greens, or preserving the green belt, fit alongside economic necessities and social aspiration? For over 30 years that fault line within British conservatism has been left unresolved.
“Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury) is out in paperback this month