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A way out for Brown?

Is Gordon Brown finished? Well not necessarily so, according to the IPPR's Prof. Michael Kenny. And

The idea that the current government is embroiled in an irreversible endgame began to be heard several months ago. With astonishing speed, this has now become a given of current political discourse. The only storylines left for the hapless prime minister, it seems, are resignation, regicide or electoral meltdown.

But are endgames as inescapable and unwinnable as is widely assumed? Or are there strategic responses that have allowed seemingly doomed administrations to regain momentum and turn things round against all expectations?

Those with long memories and more detached minds will recall that this current bout of government-baiting is not without precedent. A common feature of the endgames associated with the final years of the administrations led by James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and John Major, was that in each case a complex tangle of pressures and failings got compressed into one overarching theme in the popular mind.

This motif became both lightening rod and symbol for all that was deemed wrong with leader and government. For Callaghan it was industrial discontent; for Blair, Iraq; Thatcher, the Poll Tax; and Major, Europe. In today’s context, we have to wonder whether the economic downturn has already forged the prism through which Brown and his government are widely viewed. Many believe that Brown’s fate has already been sealed with portions of the electorate.

And yet the historical record also contains some intriguing counter-examples and unforeseen political outcomes. And these ought to provide food for thought for those keen to write the obituary of this government.

The notices served on Mrs Thatcher’s first administration, in 1982-83, and the difficult prospects facing John Major’s before the election of 1992, did not result, as many expected, in electoral defeat. And in Major’s case this was despite a backdrop of economic recession.

Both examples illustrate the importance of unforeseen events, and the lingering difficulty which Labour in opposition had in establishing a relationship with a wary electorate. More directly relevant to Brown’s plight are the remarkable turnarounds engineered by the great electioneer Gerhard Schröder in the German elections of 2002 and 2005.

A mixture of changing circumstances and strategic acumen generated unexpected political momentum and a stumbling response from his opponents. These gave his party a surprise narrow victory in the first of these contests and though it did not win outright in the latter, it did force the Christian Democrats into coalition with the SPD.

The Brown government’s most recent efforts to ‘re-launch’ itself, and its over-hyped economic recovery plan, do suggest recognition of the need to break out of the vicious and self-fulfilling spiral of judgement associated with the politics of the endgame.

But the derision with which these proposals were received is a clear sign that modest measures and conventional political calculations are unlikely at present to shift the force-field of political life.

Policies emerging from cute tactical triangulations – balancing off tabloid editors and core voters - have not given people enough with which to identify. Nor have they communicated a clear sense to the public about whose side it is that the prime minister is on.

What then are the ingredients of the kind of approach that might give the government and its supporters a degree of hope, and interrupt the flow of popularity and initiative away from government to the Conservatives?

Above all, this needs to be a positively defined strategy, expressed in language that gives meaning to disparate policies and ties together important initiatives; not a calculated gimmick or one-off attempt to outsmart the Tories.

The government desperately needs greater definition, a well communicated purpose and a sense of direction. These will most likely come from a policy frame that is plausibly tied to Brown’s own political identity and keenest passions.

A push for greater social justice combined with a commitment to remaking the case for active government in difficult times, could provide a powerful way of framing some valuable and eye-catching measures across different departments, for instance legislating to abolish child and pensioner poverty, a major extension of the public provision of childcare and a further initiative to bring UK class sizes into line with the OECD’s average.

These would provide a more vigorous test of the substance of the Tories’ proclaimed new progressivism.

They could also be underpinned by a straightforward account of the importance and role of the state in terms that express a sharper difference between the politics of progressives and the seductively simplistic idea of the ‘post-bureaucratic state’ favoured by David Cameron.

For sure, economic policy is going to remain the major arena of political life in the next year and beyond. But the government’s ever more defensive tapering of its own agenda in response to the worsening crisis only seems to confirm its declining reputation with the public.

Opening up other related ‘fronts’ in the political struggle over the management of the economy is a vital means of generating the kind of forward momentum and sense of purpose which this government so patently lacks. As well as fairness and social justice, there is a strong case too for turning rhetoric about devolving real decisions and powers to elected representatives outside Westminster into some bold legislative realities.

Giving some real powers to local authorities and communities in areas such as taxation, health and policing, carries undoubted risks. But these are surely now outweighed by the government’s growing reputation as an overly centralising and distantly bureaucratic force.

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Head of Social Policy at the ippr

Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary,  University of London, and an associate fellow at IPPR

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State