The NS Interview: Neil Kinnock

“Will we win on 6 May? At the moment, it doesn’t look like it”

How is life in the House of Lords?
When I was chairman of the British Council, I didn't go a lot. But I've been more in the last ten months or so. It's not a preoccupation.

And is the Lords all it should be?
Oh, no - it should be abolished. Before I accepted the nice invitation to go, I asked Robin Cook what he'd do. He said, "If we're going to change it, we need people there to vote for it."

What about electoral reform more generally?
I've long been in favour [of it]. I will enthusiastically campaign for it and vote for it.

How would you feel about a Lib-Lab coalition? A cabinet with Nick Clegg or Vince Cable in it?
I'm not even going to speculate on that. I am not as fearful of hung parliament as some. What the country wants is stability.

Many believe that having Cable as chancellor, for example, could help achieve stability.
The likely outcome of this election is more difficult to predict than any other in our political life. I've got a lot of time for Vince. I'd have more time for him if he hadn't torn up his Labour Party card, of course.

When was the Labour Party at its best?
Probably in 1997. Gutsy, purposeful. I hugely respect the party of 1945, but we're not fighting the same battles.

And who are the party's rising stars now?
Ed Miliband, definitely. Ed Balls. And Yvette Cooper has massive potential. I knew her when she was a student - she's a very good woman.
Are any of them a future Labour leader? The future is a long time. And if I was to single one out, I would probably ruin their career.

Why isn't Gordon Brown more popular?
He has been poisonously misrepresented by the press. People say they haven't been as nasty to anyone since I was leader, but I hadn't been the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Gordon produced this long period of sustained growth.

What part have the Murdochs played?
They never intended to support us. Untrustworthiness is in their DNA.

Do you regret Labour's courtship of them?
Tactically, it was handy, but a democracy that defers to them is a much-weakened democracy.

Will Labour win a majority on 6 May?
At the moment, it doesn't look like it. But it is within reach. The cliché "too close to call" really fits. And the current electoral system makes it even closer.

Why are the polls looking so bad now?
Thirteen years is one reason. Some in the party speak to journalists like therapists, articulating worries about this person, that figurehead.

Aren't there other considerations - Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance?
Iraq and Afghanistan certainly don't help. And I recognise the depth of feeling generated. But the people who are most concerned by the circumstances of these wars should be the most ready to support a progressive government.

What are your memories of the 1992 election?
The biggest difficulty was not communicating my conviction that we couldn't make it. I told Charles Clarke I only had a dilemma if we lost by ten seats: then I might have to hang on.

Do you regret shouting, "We're all right!" at the Sheffield rally in 1992?
It wasn't until about ten days after the election that people started writing about the "hubristic Sheffield rally" and all the rest of it. Given my time again, I wouldn't repeat it - but the great legend is complete, bloody rubbish.

What political decision do you regret most?
I didn't call for a ballot at the start of the miners' strike in 1984. I'll regret that until my dying day.

Does Labour still need the unions?
They played a very significant part in the party's formation and survival. It's vital the alliance continues. The myth is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. They never called the tune.

Your wife, Glenys, is a minister of state now. What is it like being married to a politician?
We've been married for 43 years, and the reason we maintain such loving amity is that we've only lived together for two. Glenys has a mission: justice. I watch her in action and think, "My God, I'm glad I'm on her side."

Was there a plan?
No. My first real experience of ambition was as party leader. It was my ambition for Labour to win, in which event I would be prime minister.

What would you like to forget?
I could tell you the things I would rather hadn't happened. But those, I simply can't forget.

Are we all doomed?
Far from it. This is the best time to be alive.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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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