Show Hide image

One was a natural conservative with a deep respect for English traditions – the other was Mrs T

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

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

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 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide