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The first torchbearer

Who do we have to thank most for our glorious Olympic summer?

Who do we have to thank most for our glorious Olympic summer? Tony Blair? Ken Livingstone? Seb Coe? Tessa Jowell? No. The driving force behind Britain’s triumphant 2012 bid was Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West.

“Gareth was the first one to pick it up,” says a former Blair adviser. “Before anyone else was interested, he was putting down PQs [parliamentary questions] about the costs and benefits and making little parliamentary interventions.” Thomas’s lonely campaign culminated in a meeting with Blair in the autumn of 2001.

“That was a key moment,” says an insider. “Gareth came round behind the back of the Speaker’s chair after PMQs to Tony’s office. Up until then, he [Blair] had been very cautious. There had been some bad experiences over the Manchester bid.”

Thomas knew precisely what buttons to press. “Gareth was pushing this vision of what the whole thing would look like. Modern London. Modern Labour. Tony started to get attracted by the boldness of the whole thing.”

Blair may have been – but others remained wary. One sceptic was Alastair Campbell, who didn’t want his man associated with a high-profile failure. Patrick Hennessy, the Sunday Telegraph’s political editor, recently tweeted an article he wrote for the Evening Standard in January 2002 which provided the first indication that Downing Street was entertaining a bid. The final paragraph reads: “Asked if Tony Blair was personally enthused by the Olympic idea, his spokesman replied today that things were a long way from headlines which might read: ‘Blair backs bid for 2012 Olympics’.”

Even when Blair began to warm to the idea – prompted in no small measure by Jowell’s enthusiastic framing of what it would mean for his legacy – obstacles remained. Among the principal ones was Gordon Brown, who worried over the cost. “Gordon was initially dead set against the idea,” says a former supporter. “Then someone pointed out that if everything went to plan, it would be him standing next to the Queen at the opening ceremony. After that, his opposition waned a bit.”

Riding the wave

Right up until the end, there were few in Downing Street who believed that the bid would succeed. I remember speaking at the start of 2005 to a No 10 adviser who told me: “Just off to a meeting about our 2012 bid. Ha, ha. Paris has it in the bag.”

Paris didn’t, of course, and the rest is history. Yet even at this late hour, quite a few seem intent on squabbling over it. “It would be nice every now and then to hear David Cameron and Boris Johnson and co pay proper tribute to their predecessors in making it all happen,” Campbell blogged the other day.

Fat chance. Cameron’s attempts to appear at the scene of every British medal triumph would put John Terry to shame, while Johnson is determined to ride the Olympic wave – if not the zip line – all the way to Downing Street.

But they are mere bit players in the great British Olympic narrative. Blair, Campbell, Cameron and Johnson can scrap among themselves over who basks in the glow of the sacred flame. Gareth Thomas, a grateful nation salutes you.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.