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31 January 2023

The myth of England’s “fair play” fetish

In sport and politics, the English boast that they always play by the rules – but history tells a different story.

By Jonathan Liew

Last September Liz Truss made her first speech as the country’s new prime minister in front of 10 Downing Street. “What makes the United Kingdom great,” she said, “is our fundamental belief in freedom, in enterprise and in fair play.” She would later expand on this point in her speech to the Conservative Party conference. “I believe that you know best how to spend your money… That is what Conservatism is about,” she said. “It is a belief in freedom, fair play and the great potential of the British people.”

Two months earlier, meanwhile, Keir Starmer had deployed the same phrase with a subtly different emphasis. Speaking about his threat to resign if found guilty of the alleged lockdown breach known as “Beergate”, the Labour leader explained: “I wanted to show that politicians will risk their careers on matters of principle. That we are not… only in it for ourselves. And that I am committed to the values which earn Britain respect all around the world – fair play, respect for difference, the rule of law.”

When did this simple term – “fair play” – become so powerful and yet so rhetorically versatile? How had these two politicians settled on the same choice phrase to evoke two quite different ideas? Can it bear the weight of both a small-state neoliberalism and a progressive, rules-based tolerance of others? And why has it become such an intrinsic, inseparable part of our self-image? This is the matter examined in Jonathan Duke-Evans’s book.

[See also: The problem with sport’s endless “greatest of all time” debates]

An English Tradition? is much more than a simple study of two words. It is the history of an idea, one that has conditioned not simply how the English (and often the British) see themselves, but how others see them. In 1844 the Irish reformer Daniel O’Connell appealed to “the principle of fair play, which is the highest and most dignified trait in the English character” during his campaign to repeal the Act of Union. In British-invented sports such as golf and cricket, the trope of “fair play” – along with close cousins such as “sportsmanship” or “not cricket” – lie at the heart of their self-mythology. Indeed, cricket is engaged in a bitter culture war over “Mankading”, the practice by which a bowler suddenly aborts their run-up to break the stumps and dismiss a batter who has strayed out of their ground. For most English players and fans, this is a form of gamesmanship akin to cheating. In India, on the other hand, it is another tactic within the rules of the game, and players regard English moralising on the subject as a form of condescension, even a kind of vestigial colonialism.

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But as Duke-Evans asks, how do the English and their establishment reconcile the notion of fair play with the many injustices committed in their name? Why does “so much of the history of this country [consist] of numerous examples of brutal unfairness committed by the strong upon the weak?” And in any case, to what extent are mythologies such as this – English fair play, Japanese honour, Latin American cunning – any more than crude generalisations? At what point does the identification of a national character or trait lapse into stereotyping?

For all the insight here, the elegant prose, the years of research that necessitate almost 1,000 footnotes, it is a question Duke-Evans never manages to answer. Based on exhaustive data analysis, he charts the evolution of the term “fair play” from its origins in the late Middle Ages to its popularisation in the 1700s and 1800s. It reached its apogee around the start of the 20th century, when Robert Baden-Powell codified the idea of fair play in the form of the Boy Scout movement. “Britons, above all other people, insist on fair play,” Baden-Powell wrote. “If you see a big bully going for a small or weak boy, you stop him because it is not ‘fair play’.”

At the same time Duke-Evans embarks on a gargantuan task: chronicling the history of fair play as a concept, from the Olympic Games of ancient Greece, through the Bible and Beowulf, to the chivalric code of medieval times. It developed multiple connotations over the centuries, incorporating not just an element of fairness and reciprocity but also at times a kind of circumscribed freedom, the sense that the world is akin to a game, governed by its own invisible set of rules and unspoken moral code. More recently “fair play” has taken on an ironic, almost sarcastic veneer: delivered in an acrid or underwhelmed tone, an expression calculated to provide the minimum acceptable measure of approval.

But there is a compelling, if tentative, thesis proffered here. From his research of the English written language, Duke-Evans demonstrates that there is an element of “fair play” – the avoidance of treachery or chicanery, respect for the rules and those who administer them, the equitable treatment of others with a reciprocal expectation of such treatment – that is discernibly English or British in character.

He argues that during the early modern period when the phrase took root, English society erected fewer barriers between social classes – both physically and economically – than other European countries. This was the era in which principles of fairness such as jury trial and the right to silence became enshrined in common law, when Shakespeare articulated a concept of Englishness that, as Duke-Evans puts it, “links the groundlings with the people in the expensive seats”. These developments pre-dated the rise of organised sport, suggesting that the popular assumption of “fair play” as an invention of the late-Victorian upper class, a product of the growing divide between amateurism and professionalism, is mistaken.

But of course fair play is not simply a means by which the English define themselves, but a means of defining others. At the more trivial end of the scale, this manifests itself in the interminable debates over cheating in sport, in the trope of diving Argentinian footballers or Pakistani ball-tamperers in cricket. (Never mind that throughout history there have been countless examples of good honest Englishmen doing exactly the same.) At the more serious end, a sincere belief in English fair play – and its natural extension, the absence of it in other cultures – has provided an emotional framework for the worst excesses of English intolerance, up to and including the travesties of colonialism. If, after all, we are all playing the same game, then by definition we also know our place in it.

[See also: Gareth Southgate’s real legacy will be measured not in trophies but in happiness]

Duke-Evans does not interrogate this connection as rigorously as he could. He acknowledges the limitations of fair play, its contradictions and even hypocrisies. He points out that the rhetoric of fair play was frequently appropriated by progressive causes, such as the demand for women’s suffrage or the rights of Britain’s imperial subjects, even while it was being used to sustain the same inequities and divisions being fought. But for the most part he fails to explore the manifold ways in which fair play has been deployed as a subterfuge, part of the propaganda package a nation compiles for its own consumption. At times he comes close to conflating the invocation of fair play with fair play itself. As a literary history, An English Tradition? is immaculate. As a social history, it doesn’t quite hit its target.

For then, as now, fair play has been a contested expression, one that can mean pretty much anything you want it to. For the lobbying body Fair Play For Women it explains why trans women must be excluded from women’s sport; for many trans people it impels their inclusion. For football’s governing bodies fair play remains a crucial trope, whether in the form of “financial fair play regulations” or the meaningless “fair play trophies” handed out after international tournaments. By contrast fans, particularly younger ones, now celebrate gamesmanship in the form of deliberate fouls and provocation of opponents (more often described as “shithousery”). For Truss, it meant low taxes and deregulation. For Starmer, it means safety nets and the rule of law.

This maddening ambiguity illustrates the sheer breadth and ambition of the exercise. Duke-Evans has committed himself to providing a global overview of a hazily defined ethical concept from virtually the beginning of recorded human history to the present. It is messy at times and ridiculously interesting at others. And if it occasionally ties itself in knots, then in a sense it’s in keeping with an expression that in letter and in spirit has been so malleable and adaptable as to become elusive. Perhaps this was not the point Duke-Evans intended to make. But if it was, then – and with no irony whatsoever intended – fair play to him.

An English Tradition? The History and Significance of Fair Play
By Jonathan Duke-Evans
Oxford University Press, 464pp, £35

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con