A displaced Iraqi Yazidi family takes refuge under a bridge, 17 August. Photo: Getty
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Our part in the Iraq crisis, a forgotten Labour man and grouse-moor people power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

Faced with the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (formerly known as Isis), compassion demands once more that something be done. But no matter how compelling the humanitarian case for military intervention may be, we should pause. Over the past century, every western act in the Middle East – every national boundary drawn, every move to protect our “vital interests”, every subsidy to supposedly friendly regimes or rebel groups, every bomb dropped, every soldier’s boot on the ground, every rocket, tank or gun supplied – has made things worse, culminating in the horrors we now witness.

Minorities that lived peacefully in the region for centuries are being driven from their homes, starved to death and slaughtered, at least partly as a result of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. Even the Blairite David Miliband acknowledges, in his strangulated way, that the invasion “is a significant factor in understanding the current situation”.

Middle Eastern violence has reached such ghastly extremes that, we now think, we can’t make things worse. But we can, always.

The other Snowden files

To Yorkshire, where my wife and I enjoy the hospitality of my old friend and former NS columnist Paul Routledge (now of the Daily Mirror) and his wife. We travel to Ickornshaw Moor, where the memorial cairn to Philip Snowden, Labour’s first (and second) chancellor, towers above the grazing sheep close to Cowling, the wool-weaving village where he was born in 1864. It states that Snowden “lived his whole life in the service of the common people”.

In this lonely and (I should think) rarely visited spot, where the wind chills even on a warm summer’s day, I find this memorial strangely moving. With Ramsay MacDonald, Snowden “betrayed” Labour in 1931 by forming an alliance with the Tories to impose benefit cuts. Though he later resigned from the national government over the introduction of import tariffs, he was widely reviled in Labour circles and is now almost forgotten. But not here in Yorkshire: new signs were recently placed on the road at the foot of Ickornshaw Moor directing visitors to his memorial. He may have made mistakes in the final years of his life but at least he didn’t profit significantly from office, leaving a mere £3,366 on his death in 1937. Now that Labour has suffered other and arguably greater betrayals, it may be time to rehabilitate Snowden.

An age-old grouse

Only in the NS do diarists visit moors to stare at cairns. In other magazines, they go north on or after the “Glorious Twelfth” to shoot birds. In that respect, Ickornshaw Moor is unusual because rights to shoot are held not by rich individuals but in common by local villagers. That is still, just about, the case. In 1892, the villagers managed to see off two landowners who claimed the rights by congregating on the moor en masse on 12 August, the first day of the grouse shooting season. Disputes over ownership and access rights reached the courts on several occasions, most recently in the 1980s.

This small example of “people power” is not well known and the rising that began in 1536 in St James’s Church, Louth, which we visit a few days later, is only slightly more familiar. Known as “the Lincolnshire Rising”, for which the vicar was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, it was against Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Within a few days, 22,000 protesters had occupied Lincoln Cathedral. Though short-lived, the rising inspired the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace. England has many such examples of resistance to overmighty authority. When we seem powerless to resist the biggest attack in more than 80 years on ordinary people’s living standards, we should study and admire them.

Everyone’s a winner

At least we can applaud one brave contemporary struggle. Around 50 workers for Care UK in Doncaster, which runs recently privatised local services for disabled people, have been on strike for a total of over five weeks since February, protesting mainly against wage cuts. I met several of them at Doncaster Racecourse, where their union was sponsoring events such as the “Unison Defending Public Services Conditions Stakes”, which makes a welcome change from the “Queen Elizabeth II Stakes”, and so on.

As she usually does on our rare visits to the races, my wife picked several winners at longish odds just by assessing the horses as they paraded. (It’s all to do with bottoms, she says.) We were too mindful of our Nonconformist ancestors to wager more than small amounts but we made a tidy sum, which I slipped into the Care UK workers’ buckets. It will, I hope, provide modest support to their splendid campaign. 

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 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war