Will Alex Salmond and his opponents seek to gain political capital from the Commonwealth Games? Photo: Getty
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The Commonwealth Games begin: will they be a political spectacle?

The Commonwealth Games will open in Glasgow today, and Alex Salmond has promised not to use them for political purposes. Will he keep his word?

The torches are lit, lurid lycra is being donned, Rod Stewart and Lulu are doing some vocally-beneficial gargling and some poor soul is dressing up as a larger-than-life cartoon thistle called Clyde. The 20th Commonwealth Games begin later in Glasgow’s Celtic Park.

But big sports events are never uncomplicated, and we can be sure to see some politics playing out in this year’s spectacle, not least because of its location. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond will no doubt be considering how useful the Games could be for his Scottish independence cause, what with the referendum coming up in September.

He’s already bemused Andy Murray and family, as well as all Wimbledon viewers, by waving the saltire in the Royal Box at Centre Court when Murray won Wimbledon last year. He also controversially urged Scots to get behind the “Scolympians” in the Olympic Games in 2012, a name he came up with to describe Scottish competitors rather than “Team GB”.

The BBC’s Today programme this morning asked whether the Games would be a “politics-free” zone, and explored this question with Jim Naughtie visiting the 1990 City of Culture (now it’s known officially just as a “City of Culture”) and asserting that the Games are bound to be about “national feelings” and “questions of identity”. He said the Games would be a significant “backdrop” to the debate the Scots have been having about their role in the UK and the world.

Yesterday, the Independent’s Chris Green asked whether the Scottish referendum would be the “elephant in the stadium”, writing how both sides of the debate will probably be planning how to play their part in the Games with political shrewdness:

For the next fortnight, leaders on either side of the Scottish independence debate will desperately try to avoid being seen to make political capital out of the sporting spectacle unfolding in Glasgow – while privately hoping that their attendance at the Commonwealth Games will do just that.

While Nick Clegg has commented that, “the less politics, particularly politics relating to the referendum campaign, the better. Let’s celebrate the sport, not the politics, at the Commonwealth Games”. And the government’s Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has warned Salmond not to pull another stunt like he did at Wimbledon, saying it would be “exceptionally foolish” and an “enormous mistake and a misjudgement of the mood, especially in Glasgow…

“People in Scotland will react badly to anybody who tries to make political capital from the endeavour of sportsmen and women.”

Salmond himself has promised not to use the Commonwealth Games for political capital, announcing his “self-denying ordnance” over referendum campaigning for the ten-day duration of the event:

I’ve taken a kind of self-denying ordinance to concentrate on the Games over the next 10 days and I think that’s what the people of Scotland want.

However, as the Telegraph pointed out yesterday, Salmond has already gone back on his promise criticising the Chancellor George Osborne for being based in London and arguing that Scottish athletes would “flourish” in an independent Scotland, during a Games press conference.

So, aside from the 6,500 athletes and 17 different sports, a spectacle worth watching will be both sides of the referendum debate trying to gain traction for their causes in the final lap of campaigning.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.