Grexit may now be his best option. Photo: Getty Images
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Failure may now be the least-worst option for Syriza

Abjectly losing the negotiations in Brussels, and being kicked out of the Eurozone, might just be the best outcome that Syriza can hope for, says Michael Chessum in Athens.

Just over a week ago, while most of the world predicted that Greece would vote Yes in its referendum and that the government would fall, almost every campaigner and bypasser we met predicted that No would scrape it. They didn’t predict the massive 61 per cent mandate that Syriza would get for resisting austerity, but the universal response you got from campaigners – especially during and after the gigantic rally in Syntagma Square two days before the poll – was “yes, I think we’ll win.”

This weekend, there is a similar but less pronounced gap, focussed not on the feeling in the streets but on negotiating rooms thousands of miles away where the fate of Greece and of the dreams that Syriza carries with it are being decided upon – or torn up, depending on your perspective. Some – including, apparently, the departed Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis – simply refuse to believe that the Greek deal, no matter how much betrayal it contemplates, will be accepted by Schauble and his allies in the Eurogroup. In both cases, the subconscious predictions made on the Greek left and beyond may well stem at least as much from a desperate sense of hope as they do from a political calculation, let alone ‘game theory’. As with winning the referendum, the rejection of the deal by the Eurozone is in many ways the only way out for the current Syriza administration – a means of saving it from its own capitulation.

Over the weekend, large numbers of young Athenians head to nearby islands to get out of the city, go camping and swim. On a ferry going in the opposite direction from the small island of Agistri this afternoon, I chatted to Nefeli, 23, and Ioanna, 20, both students and, as it turned out, members of Syriza. “We voted for a leftist government,” says Nefeli. “Then we voted, 61% of us voted, for ‘no’. But they still want to destroy us, they still want to destroy the left.” After months and months of fighting the country’s creditors, the tone of many on the Greek left and in the wider population is now understandably one of exasperation.

Many Greeks, though they disagree with the deal and the idea of another memorandum, do not blame Tsipras primarily for the current situation. The emphasis for many is on the behaviour of the Eurozone – as Nefeli puts it, “not the people of the EU but its leaders” – which has pushed Greek society to breaking point, and tested many Greeks’ support for membership of the EU. Tsipras, she says, is “doing his best”. But the credibility of the government is in jeopardy as a result of the proposed new deal, in the context of widespread politicisation and high expectations. “People have started to think more,” says Ioanna. “And I’m afraid that they won’t believe the left anymore.”

A poll for Skai, a right wing local news station, announced in time for the parliamentary vote on Friday, declared that 55.5% of Greeks ‘feel fear’ at the idea of a Grexit. But in the current climate, everything is scary: a unilateral default and a return to the Drachma would bring chaos, at least for the moment, while a continuation of the austerity contained in another memorandum would mean more suicides, more poverty, more desolation. Both outcomes bring a humanitarian crisis; and many of the 55.5 per cent who fear a Grexit will now be concluding that it is inevitable, even desirable.

In many ways, winning the referendum was the real gamble for Tsipras. Falling at that hurdle would have meant, at least in the short term, the return of the old order and the implementation of austerity, while the left resisted cleanly from opposition. Falling from power in a few weeks’ time, having sold out to Brussels in spite of an overwhelming popular mandate, could, after a bit of time and political stagnation, bring much darker forces to the fore: “If the left falls,” says Nefeli, “Golden Dawn is next. That’s what history tells us”. The far-right in Greece has positioned itself cleverly, and has been waiting for exactly this kind of compromise. Abjectly losing the negotiations in Brussels, and being kicked out of the Eurozone, might just be the best outcome that Syriza can hope for. 

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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