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The Elvis of golf

Seve Ballesteros was the finest golfer of his generation and the most inspiring figure I ever saw play the game. I hesitate in using the past tense, as Ballesteros isn't dead, even if he is seriously ill. But he departed this world as a professional golfer a long time ago, which is why so many of us talk of him as if he were gone. The 51-year-old Spaniard is, as I write, recovering from two operations to remove a tumour from his brain at a Madrid hospital. The second, a "decompressive craniectomy", involved excising a section of skull. The prognosis is not encouraging.

Between 1979, when he won his first major championship, the British Open, and 1988, when he claimed his last (another Open), Ballesteros was untouchable. He was a golfer of sublime skill and superb showmanship, capable of conjuring tricks with his clubs. He looked like Elvis, played with more swagger than Arnold Palmer, and was followed around the course by a huge fan base and brooding clouds, which loomed over his head, ready to unleash a deluge of bad feeling whenever his mood darkened, as it nearly always did when things went wrong. He dared to be different, and we loved him for it.

Growing up in the fishing village of Pedreña, near Santander, the young Seve learned to play using stones for balls and sticks, which he cut to length and whittled to a point before forcing into the hosel of a rusty old three-iron head. He arrived as an international golfer at the age of 19, when he just missed out on winning the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale. His first major three years later was followed swiftly by two US Masters titles. But it was in Britain where he became a hero. Seve epitomised the bullish, swashbuckling British links champion. "There wasn't a shot he couldn't play," says his old caddy Pete Coleman. "He could be an evil son of a bitch, but everyone wanted to watch him, because in 18 holes you would always get a touch of genius."

He was never unbeatable; he didn't have the patience or desire to grind out results when he was playing poorly, as Tiger Woods can. But he was a fearless shot-maker.

I first saw him play on the day he confirmed his place among the greats: at the final round of the 1984 Open at St Andrews. His joy that day became ingrained as an iconic image - the 27-year-old, a majestic matador in navy blue, punching the air as the winning putt dropped.

His decline, when it came, was sad and rapid. Unlike his peers and old adversaries Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer who, to varying degrees, continue to play competitively, Seve lost what it took before he was even 40. When we met in 2003 he told me that the deterioration in his game was "100 per cent physical". He blamed his decline on arthritis that had its roots in an old childhood boxing injury. Golf is a game of confidence, instinct and willpower. All of these deserted Ballesteros.

He raged against his own decline, as if an inexplicable wrong had been done to him. His marriage ended. He continued to miss cuts. He fiddled with his technique. To watch him play during these last years was in many ways to watch a broken man. But that image of him in his younger days, dressed in blue and punching the air on the final day at St Andrews, will remain forever inviolate.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times