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Game, set . . . and Scottish flag

Andy Murray may be wishing he’d never raised his nationality – but the worlds of tennis and politics

1 In 2008, the Williams sisters declared their enthusiasm for Barack Obama but surprisingly declined to vote for him. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they insisted, they were barred from voting in any election. Serena explained: “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, so I don’t get involved in politics. We stay neutral. We don’t vote. So I’m not going to necessarily go out and vote for him. I would if it wasn’t for my religion.” Jehovah’s Witnesses have consistently cited John 17:16, in which Jesus says of his followers: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” as a call to refrain from such lowly matters as the governance of world superpowers.

2 If the British player Buster Mottram had had his way, Wimbledon would have been all-white in more than just dress code. A member of the National Front from 1975 onwards, he once remarked:“I hope Enoch Powell will never die, just as his namesake in the Bible never died.” Mottram subsequently attempted to redeem himself by performing with the black singer Kenny Lynch. But he was shamed again when he was expelled from the UK Independence Party (which David Cameron once described as a “bunch of . . . fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”) for attempting to form an electoral alliance with the British National Party.

3 The German player Gottfried von Cramm had much to be nervous about ahead of his 1937 Davis Cup match against the American Don Budge, so it hardly seemed worth taking a phone call from Berlin minutes before he strolled out on to the Centre Court at Wimbledon. But as he swatted the phone away, von Cramm feared the unknown identity of the caller would distract him yet further. He turned back, to find Adolf Hitler on the line. Von Cramm was a noted anti-fascist, but after Hitler revealed his fantasies of a victory parade, he was forced to reply through gritted teeth: “Ja, mein Führer.” A pallid, trembling von Cramm emerged on court and lost the match by six sets to eight.

4 Alan Johnson soon came to regret applying tennis analogies to Gordon Brown halfway through last year’s Wimbledon. Speaking shortly after Brown’s first anniversary as Prime Minister, the then health secretary declared that Brown was not “interested in playing on the Centre Court of politics”. Johnson insisted that he’d meant the Prime Minister was “just interested in getting on with the job” – but couldn’t resist adding that Brown would “achieve the results and serve more aces than Andy Murray, whether it’s on the outer courts or whether it’s on the Centre Court”. Given Brown’s recent woes, one doubts that Murray has lost much sleep over the challenge posed by his fellow Scot.

5 Fred Perry, the last British player to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, is also the only one to have had a Labour MP for a father. A cotton spinner radicalised by the co-operative movement, Samuel Perry was elected the Co-operative Party’s first national secretary. In 1923 he became the Labour MP for Kettering. Perry fils was himself anti-establishment; Greg Rosen’s book Serving the People: a Co-operative Party History from Fred Perry to Gordon Brown unravels the red thread that links the two men.

6 Burdened by debts of £17.8m last year, Labour was forced to investigate novel means of fundraising, including auctioning off a game of tennis with Tony Blair. The offer helped the cash-strapped party secure at least £10,000 in new funding. Lord Levy, Blair’s usual tennis partner, expressed polite bemusement at the auction, declaring that “desperate times require desperate measures”.

7 Last year, the nine times Wimbledon women’s champion Martina Navratilova announced that she had regained Czech nationality more than 30 years after she fled a communist regime she compared favourably to that of her adopted country, the United States, under President George W Bush. Navratilova was born in Prague; she fled in 1975 after being denied the right to compete in professional tennis in the US, the scene of most serious tennis tournaments. She subsequently became a US citizen. The star, who supports charities devoted to children, animals and gay rights, told the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny: “The thing is that we elected Bush. That is worse. Against that, nobody chose a communist government in Czechoslovakia.”

8 In February, the United Arab Emirates caused controversy when it denied the female Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer a visa for the Dubai Tennis Championships. The world number 48 had been drawn to play the 15th seed, Anna Chakvetadze of Russia, in the first round of the event, which includes the world’s top ten women players. A month before the ban, Peer was the focal point of protests in New Zealand after Israel’s offensive in Gaza. The tournament organisers claimed that they feared public fury over Gaza would threaten Peer’s safety.

9 Tony Blair may have left office with the pay gap between men and women standing at 17.1 per cent, but when it came to Wimbledon he was a consummate redistributionist. Until 2007, the men’s champion was awarded £30,000 more in prize money than the women’s. The All England Club attempted to justify this disparity with reference to men’s best-of-five-set matches compared to women’s best-of-three, but the club finally caved in after Blair “fully endorsed” players’ demands for equal pay.

10 Is he a British champion? Or a Scottish loser? The question of Andy Murray’s national identity may be the source of innumerable jokes, but it is perhaps also a microcosm of the fraught relations between the two members of the Union. As the young star prepares to compete for Wimbledon glory, the bookmakers Paddy Power are holding a survey on whether the public – and especially the English – think Murray is British or Scottish. Speaking for Paddy Power, Darren Haines said: “Middle England has taken a while to warm to Andy but if he serves up a Wimbledon win, they’ll consider him as British as the Union Jack. An early exit, and they’ll consider him Scottish again. And who’s to say Scottish fans won’t vote to keep him for their own?” Here’s one sportsman carrying the weight of a 202-year-old political union on his 22-year-old shoulders.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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