Consigned to history? Will we see similar leaders' debates to the ones in 2010 this time around? Photo: Getty
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The boon of election debates, remembering the Brighton bomb, and a school inspector’s power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

The 2010 TV election debates turned out to be rather like leylandii: they killed off everything around them. The old-fashioned morning press conferences almost vanished. Instead, the parties designed their strategies around the weekly debates, which changed the texture and rhythm of the campaign to an extent nobody had anticipated. The defining moment was Nick Clegg’s “victory” in the first debate, which ultimately led to an 850,000 rise on the Lib Dems’ 2005 vote (though they won fewer seats). The only other memorable event was Gordon Brown’s encounter with the Rochdale grandmother Gillian Duffy.

Following the broadcasters’ proposal that next year Nigel Farage should be included in one debate, Clegg excluded from another and the Greens still left out in the cold, it seems possible that, with litigation threatened from all quarters, what happened in 2010 will not be repeated. If so, it would be a pity. The debates should continue while other forms of electioneering, including party political broadcasts and leaders’ walkabouts, wither away. Nothing is perfect but 90-minute debates, free from filmed sequences, computer graphics, spontaneous audience intervention and other irritating media tricks, seem to be a relatively good way to decide an election. They are cheap, leaving politicians without need for either big donations or taxpayer subsidies. Perhaps similar debates, between candidates in each constituency, could go out on the web.

Aid prescription

As large numbers of Britons, moving serenely towards early deaths from excessive food and alcohol, panic over the ebola virus, you couldn’t have a better argument for overseas aid. Like nearly all diseases, ebola spreads in countries with poor public infrastructure: insufficient doctors, nurses and public health workers; inadequate sewage systems; absence of running water; unreliable electricity supplies; low literacy levels that make it hard to convey vital health information. Only by developing better public resources can this virus and others be stopped at source, ensuring hypochondriac westerners can continue undisturbed with their sugar-saturated diets. Aneurin Bevan, architect of the NHS, said that when a bedpan was dropped in Tredegar, it should resound in Westminster. The same could now be said of a bedpan dropped in Monrovia.

I doubt that Farage, the most prominent advocate of abolishing overseas aid, will be impressed. He seems to believe the answer to everything is to keep foreigners out. Ebola, he will think, strengthens his argument for a return to the 1950s when migrants came only by boat and hardly anybody ever got on planes.

Wages of sin

It is hardly surprising that NHS staff went on strike. Since 2010, nurses’ and midwives’ pay has gone up 5 per cent while the service’s top managers have enjoyed rises of almost 14 per cent. Meanwhile, boardroom pay in the biggest UK companies is up 21 per cent in a year while average earnings continue to fall. Nobody is any longer surprised by such figures, which pass almost without comment. Why are they not at the centre of political debate and why does no politician seem to know what to do about them?

Blissfully unaware

The 30th anniversary of the Tory party conference bomb in Brighton reminds me that, before mobile phones and the internet, it was possible to go for long periods unaware of even the most dramatic news. The bomb went off at 2.54am. That morning, I overslept and dashed straight to the station with the morning’s Guardian, printed too early to carry the news. I then worked for the Sunday Times in a small office hidden down a corridor where other hacks rarely ventured.

Up against a features deadline, I worked alone and single-mindedly, ignoring phone calls, until I left for a lunch appointment. I spotted an evening paper billboard about a Brighton bomb as I entered the restaurant and greeted my fellow luncher with: “Ha! Somebody’s put a bomb under the Tories!” Only then, nearly 12 hours after the event, did I learn the full, grisly story.

At least this was an improvement on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the Munich Olympic massacre, of which, being on holiday, I remained ignorant for two, three and five days respectively.

An inspector’s call

I thought the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, was going too far in June when he proposed that heads should have the power to fine parents who didn’t read to their children. However, Nigel Gann, a former head teacher who now runs an educational consultancy, recalled at a conference I attended the other day that Matthew Arnold had gone further. He told a six-year-old girl that, if she didn’t quickly learn to read, he would put her parents in prison. Startled and frightened, she asked her father if a poet had such powers. After some hesitation, he said he didn’t think so but that, since Arnold’s day job was schools inspector, perhaps he could.

Arnold’s threat worked: the child (who grew up to become Lina Waterfield, the Observer’s correspondent in Italy, and recalled this episode in her autobiography) was reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales within weeks. But please don’t tell the power-crazed Wilshaw.

Dangerous mind

Sally Tomlinson, who has been an education professor at three universities, received an email last month inviting her to the 15 October launch of a campaign, supported by all the mainstream party leaders, to have more people visiting primary-school classrooms to “make the connection” with “the world of work”. The email demanded an immediate reply and a postal address to allow security checks prior to formal printed invitations. Tomlinson duly replied, giving her Cotswolds address. No invitation followed. Are professors of education now regarded as security risks? 

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 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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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