Hard ball: anti-World Cup protests in Sao Paulo on 25 January. Photo: Getty
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Football’s murky economics, a quiet renationalisation and a fond farewell to a friend

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

The real puzzle about the World Cup is not why football’s governing body Fifa chose to stage the 2022 tournament in a country that has little interest in the game and has temperatures sometimes touching 50°C in summer – see the alleged financial bungs detailed by the Sunday Times – but why any­body wants to host the thing at all. To most inhabitants of countries that bid “successfully”, the World Cup is about as welcome as a plague visitation.

Even in football-mad Brazil, the imminence of this month’s World Cup caused riots on the streets. The Brazilian government has spent £2bn on stadiums alone; they were supposed to cost a quarter of that, with business stumping up most of the money. South Africa, which hosted the 2010 tournament, recouped only a tenth of what it invested. The American host cities for the 1994 tournament lost an estimated $9.26bn (£5.53bn). At least Germany didn’t lose money in 2006 but the boost to the economy was an almost invisible 0.07 per cent, tourist revenue being largely wiped out by Germans fleeing the tournament.

Whether or not money finds its way into the bank accounts of leading football officials – as the Sunday Times alleges – is, in a way, beside the point. International sports tournaments are just machines for transferring resources from taxpayers to multi­national corporations and for allowing officials of sports governing bodies, their relatives and hangers-on to stay in posh hotels and travel in limousines.

Inspectors inspected

You’d need a microscope to find the newspaper reports but Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, has made a highly significant move. Next year, he will sack the private firms that carry out inspections of schools and colleges and instead employ inspectors “in-house”. After 25 years, school inspections have been renationalised.

The three firms being shown the door include Serco, which scoops revenues of more than £4bn a year from running outsourced public services such as prisons, transport, health and waste disposal across the world. In 2011, it made £238m in pre-tax profits and paid its chief executive £1.86m but has since fallen on harder times after various scandals. The third-party firms were accused of making erratic judgements in schools, employing poorly qualified inspectors and failing to follow the latest guidelines.

I doubt most parents realised that schools weren’t checked by the respected HMIs of old; they would have been alarmed to discover that, in one of the dafter manifestations of late Thatcherism’s anti-statism, the job had been privatised. I’d be surprised if Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, approves of Wilshaw’s move. I warned Gove that this man, though traditional in his educational views, would be trouble.

Mind your language

More examples of how, as I wrote a few weeks ago, rows over “inappropriate language” dominate the news: Prince Charles comparing Vladimir Putin to Hitler; male critics calling an opera star “unsightly”; a Labour MP repeating Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” description of Gillian Duffy; Joey Barton on BBC1’s Question Time comparing voting Ukip to choosing the best of four ugly girls. I don’t approve of such comments and think it right to hold public figures to high standards of taste and manners. But I can’t help feeling we should perhaps save our anger for other issues. Our rulers in government and the corporate sector must be relieved we don’t.

 

Muscles from Brussels

“Brussels tells UK to increase taxes”, screams the Daily Mail headline, reporting the European Commission’s opinion that the UK should find something less regressive than council tax to control the housing market. Thus is the view subliminally implanted that the commission is an overpowering bossy-boots. The headline should read “Brussels urges UK to increase taxes”.

 

After the storm

My friend Peter Dunn has died at 80. Formerly an Observer, Sunday Times and Independent journalist, he was a frequent contributor to the New Statesman during my editorship. His most memorable piece, in 2003, considered whether there was “something worryingly adrift in the mind of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair” – or, in short, whether the then PM was a psychopath.

Blair’s sanity had already been questioned. But Peter researched it exhaustively, talking to psychologists and psychiatrists, and we made it the cover story. It created a brief storm and the magazine’s then proprietor, Geoffrey Robinson, a close ally of Gordon Brown, was assumed to have instigated it. Robinson was innocent. The idea came entirely from Peter’s fertile and mischievous mind. I shall miss him terribly.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue