In this week's New Statesman: Why can't we be more like Germany?

From politics to football, Britain is losing out...

COVER STORY: WHY CAN’T WE BE MORE LIKE GERMANY?

This week Philip Oltermann, Jonathan Wilson and Maurice Glasman explore why Britain is losing to Germany in so much more than football. First, Oltermann, the author of Keeping Up With the Germans, argues that the cultural cross-pollination between Britain and Germany runs deeper than one would expect:

Germany has always been more anglophile than the British dare to imagine, mainly because the British Isles have played an important role in every single one of Germany’s foundation myths. Goethe and Schiller’s “Germany of the mind”, the nation of thinkers and poets? Every child knows that without Shakespeare, it wouldn’t have happened (“Schakespär”, wrote Herder, was destined to “create us Germans”). Germany the football nation? Hard to imagine without the Fußball-Mutterland. Germany the industrial engine room of Europe? If you look closely enough, you’ll find that each of Germany’s three “economic miracles” carries a discreet British trademark . . .

Next, following the upsurge of talk about Thatcherism, the Labour peer Maurice Glasman analyses the areas in which Germany’s Social and Christian Democrats succeeded and that have implications for his own party. Glasman suggests that the way “incentives to virtue were built into the German system through institutions that renewed knowledge, good practice and intergenerational solidarity” is missing from both neoclassical and Keynesian economic theories. “Nor is there a vision of Europe that involves the strengthening of decentralised institutions, cities, universities, vocational colleges, regional banks and community-owned football clubs.”

Finally, Jonathan Wilson explains how German football, unlike in England, has gone back to basics. In May 1999, after a period of crisis in the national game, “All clubs in the top two [German] divisions were required to build academies, and 121 national centres were established to help ten-to-17-year-olds with technical practice.”

He also argues that the economy helped, ironically, by faltering at the right time:

By 2002, 60 per cent of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign. But then the Kirch TV conglomerate, which had underwritten the Nineties boom, collapsed. Facing ruin, most of the clubs sold off their expensive foreign stars and invested in cheaper local youth. The pioneers were VfB Stuttgart, who finished second in the Bundesliga in 2002-2003 with a team that included the young talents of Timo Hildebrand, Andreas Hinkel and Kevin Kurányi. This season, only 47 per cent of players in the Bundesliga are not qualified for Germany. Now, with Germany’s economy at least stronger than most, if not quite booming, the top German clubs are able to hold on to talent for longer and to be more selective about buying foreign talent.

THATCHER THE GLADSTONIAN: SIMON HEFFER ON WHY MARGARET THATCHER WAS NOT RIGHT-WING

At our recent NS centenary debate on the motion “The left won the 20th century”, the author and Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer argued that Lady Thatcher was not, in fact, a politician of the right, but rather that she was a “Gladstonian liberal”:

She quite ruthlessly used the Conservative Party as a flag of convenience to participate in a political organisation with some hope of forming a government. Once leader, she engaged in the usual business of taking a party and altering it to suit what she regarded as the needs of electability.

Gladstone and Mrs Thatcher were both radicals, Heffer argues. “Unlike the socialist radicals of the Chartist movement, or the early trade unionists and the founders of the Labour Party, neither of them believed in collectivism, but rather the radical individualism unfettered by the suffocating hand of paternalism.”

THE ANTI-FOX NEWS: OLIVER BULLOUGH ON THE KREMLIN-FUNDED TV STATION RUSSIA TODAY

Oliver Bullough reports on the growing influence of Russia Today (RT), the television station funded by the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications and watched by up to 2.5 million people in Britain. Bullough visits the RT offices in Moscow and interviews its editors and reporters, as well as devoted British viewers. He writes:

It has become a televisual home for disaffected viewers in the west, a refuge for the Occupy and hacktivist generation, which believes that its own countries’ TV stations are in the pocket of corporate interests. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, is even prepared to call it the “anti-Fox News”.

MEHDI HASAN: IS IT TOO LATE TO STOP SYRIA’S DESCENT INTO HELL?

In his column this week, Mehdi Hasan assesses recent calls for western military intervention in Syria, particularly after recent evidence suggesting the use of chemical weapons:

The clamour for a military intervention in Syria is getting louder – especially following the (as yet unsubstantiated) chemical weapons claims. On the right, there’s the US senator and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain, who, in recent years, hasn’t come across a war he didn’t want to fight.

On the left, there’s the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a driving force behind Nato’s 2011 war in Libya, with whom Hasan recently conducted an interview for al-Jazeera:

[Lévy] said “there is no question” that a military intervention in Syria, beginning with a no-fly zone, is “doable”. When I asked him how he could be so confident, he shrugged: “Bashar al-Assad is weak . . . a paper tiger.”

Not everyone agrees.

IVAN LEWIS: LABOUR’S BLUEPRINT FOR PUBLIC SERVICES

Ivan Lewis, the shadow international secretary and Bury MP, sets out a vision of how Labour might govern in an era of austerity. In the clearest and widest-ranging account of the new ideas to emerge from inside the shadow cabinet so far, Lewis accepts the need for “tough choices” on spending and clear budget priorities.

Labour must also be hard-headed because the country will take time to change. Tight financial constraints will require tough choices. As some budgets are increased to reflect our priorities, others will have to be scaled back. These “switch spends” will be a necessity, not an option . . . The road will not be easy, delivering change in an era when there is less money around.

Lewis insists that Labour in government would not flinch from the task of reform. He writes:

Labour believes that an active state is an essential force for good but that it should never be suffocating or overcentralised, or undermine autonomy. We will reduce the role of the state where appropriate and strengthen it where necessary.

In comments likely to be controversial with the left of the party, Lewis reaffirms a role for the private sector and for choice in public services and he calls for greater transparency in public-sector pay.

IN THE CRITICS

David Owen, the former foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democratic Party, reviews Charles Moore’s new and, in Owen’s view, “exceptionally good” biography of Margaret Thatcher. Describing his own memories of encounters with Thatcher, Owen says she was

. . . conscientious to a fault yet insensitive to someone she perceived as a non-achiever. This became ever clearer over the years in her attitudes towards poverty, social problems and the ethos of organisations such as the NHS.

Owen cites the Falklands war as the turning point in her career as prime minister:

The Thatcher premiership was never the same again. She would succumb to hubris and that started with her taking the salute, instead of the Queen, at a victory march-past in the City of London, something that this book mistakenly passes off as of little consequence.

ALSO IN BOOKS:

  • Michael Wood reads Italo Calvino’s letters. Wood points out that Calvino pre-empted Roland Barthes in the idea of “the death of the author”:

Calvino was also inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. “For the critic, the author does not exist,” he writes, “only a certain number of writings exist.”

  • Stuart Maconie on Maggie & Me by Damian Barr, a coming-of-age memoir that “manages to deliver and short-change simultaneously”.
  • David Herman reviews Michael Burleigh’s history Small Wars, Faraway Places: the Genesis of the Modern World, 1945-1965.
  • Leo Robson on two books concerned with ballooning – Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air and Julian Barnes’s multi-genre Levels of Life. Barnes’s essay on the loss of his wife, Robson argues, “combines the weakest elements of his personality and thought”.
  • John Lloyd on Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. “To understand the Grillo phenomenon,” writes Lloyd of Italy’s emerging Five Star Movement, “is to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going.”

ELSEWHERE IN THE CRITICS:

  • Ryan Gilbey watches I’m So Excited!, Pedro Almodóvar’s new “disaster” comedy.
  • Kate Mossman listens to Van Dyke Parks’s new album, Songs Cycled. “ ‘Dreaming of Paris’ is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée.”
  • Matt Trueman reviews Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre and Forest Fringe at the Gate.
  • PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals takes a detour through the banlieue of Paris for lunch at the Buffalo Grill. And in Left Field, Sophie Elmhirst stands in for Ed Smith.

Read nore in our "In the Critics" blog here.

Purchase a copy of the New Statesman on newsstands today, or online at www.newstatesman.com/subscribe.

Matthew Lewis/Getty
Show Hide image

120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.