Sole-searching: Theresa May has launched an enquiry into child abuse allegations. Photo: Getty
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A very British “cover-up”, the truth about the Isis crisis and the Tour de France in Essex

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Many institutions – the Catholic Church, elite fee-paying schools, the BBC, children’s homes – have covered up instances of sexual abuse among their own. So it is hardly surprising that Westminster and Whitehall are now accused of doing just that. It’s hard to shop people you’ve worked with most of your life and all the more so when you believe, as most priests, schoolteachers, BBC employees, politicians and civil servants do, that they need to maintain collective moral authority.

“Cover-up” isn’t quite the right term. It’s a matter of casually brushing things under the carpet – or more precisely shoving them to the back of the filing cabinet – and trusting to the old British practices of secrecy, discretion, quiet words here and there and believing that chaps who went to the right school wouldn’t do anything truly wicked. That was how Soviet spies such as Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt got away with it and so, it now seems, did child abusers in high positions.

 

No slice for Pie

Nowadays, the mere mention of paedophiles, even if they’re mostly dead, causes everyone to lose their head. As Theresa May announced what the Guardian called “a soul-searching national inquiry” into how public authorities handled child abuse allegations, the Home Office released a report on media claims that it provided direct funding to the Paedophile Information Exchange (Pie) in the 1970s. We learn that its voluntary services unit gave £65,750 over five years to the Albany Trust, a charity for sexual minorities, which reportedly held a series of “meetings” with Pie in 1975 and, in 1970, arranged the translation of a Dutch report on lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. The same Home Office unit (through another charity, the Princedale Trust) gave £410,000 over ten years to Release, the drug users’ charity, whose address was also used by Pie for correspondence. Incredibly, civil servants spent three months investigating this non-story.

 

Simple twist of caliphate

Sir Richard Dearlove, the ex-head of MI6, now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, says that members of Isis are “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures”, who present little threat to Britain.

This is a refreshing change from the credulous consensus that has emerged after Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed he was the new caliph. If you believed most politicians and journalists, you’d think the caliphate was already a done job. In reality, Isis has an awful lot of Shias and rival Sunni factions to win over – or, more likely, behead – before one is established in the Middle East, never mind Europe.

The last widely acknowledged caliphate was the Ottoman empire, where in 1914 the sultan-caliph declared jihad against western imperialism (that is, the British and French) and rumours later spread that the German kaiser had converted to Islam. It didn’t end well. Empire and caliphate collapsed during the war and were succeeded by a determinedly secular Turkish state.

 

Two wheels good

To Epping in Essex to see the Tour de France on its way to the Olympic Park and the Mall in London. A friend observed that it is one of the few great sporting events free to watch. Given that you see the cyclists for no more than about 30 seconds, it would be poor value if it charged. Moreover, long before anyone on a bicycle appears, you endure about 20 minutes of marketing – cars, vans and floats tear past, all blaring horns and throwing free samples – for just about every brand you’ve ever heard of.

Even the police seemed to be in on the act, riding motorbikes in advance of the race, waving as though they were conquering heroes and, in one case, slapping the hands of spectators lining the route.

The Tour de France was never just a cycle race. It started in 1903 as a promotion for a French sports newspaper that, since the paper’s circulation rose from 25,000 to 854,000 in 30 years, probably counts as the most successful sponsorship in history.

 

Call me Peter

Npower, which is reported to have the worst customer relations of any energy company, sent me an “annual summary”, saying that I was more than £1,200 in credit. I rang and asked if I could have the money back. No, I was told, the credit existed only because I hadn’t been sent a bill for six months. The next day, the company emailed me: “Thank you for contacting us . . . We’ll change the name on your account to PETER.” That must be its solution to the customer relations problem: to put us all on Christian-name terms.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era