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14 July 2021

Roy Hattersley’s Diary: A perfect question for Boris Johnson, cricket’s mysteries, and reading the Telegraph in lockdown

Labour’s prospects are improving because Boris Johnson is changing from political asset to electoral liability.

By Roy Hattersley

This should have been the week of the Great Redemption – when the English football team demonstrated that this scepter’d isle remains unconquered and unconquerable. But three missed penalties – three misdirected kicks at an inflated synthetic leather ball – has changed the national mood from optimism to apprehension. The gloom is as irrational as the premature rejoicing. But the hurt is personal. The European title is going to Rome and I, for the first summer in a decade, am not.

The price of lockdown

As I write, later today the government will publish statistics which demonstrate that the pandemic is about to peak, and even those of us who rejoice at the relaxation of the lockdown rules have begun to count the cost of a full year in semi-quarantine. I admit that the high price I have paid amounts to little less than intellectual and cultural collapse with symptoms which, at their worst, included reading the Daily Telegraph and watching daytime television.

There were moments of hope. Some Tory MPs, who are members of the Covid Recovery Group, at last came to understand that wearing masks is intended to stop the wearer spreading the virus, not from being contaminated by it. But the prospect of convincing the 1922 Committee that there is no theory of freedom which enshrines the right of one man to infect another suffered a recent setback when the Telegraph included a column speculating on the dangerous possibility that some citizens of this demi-paradise had given up on liberty.

Liberty and Labour

The analysis was built, very loosely, around Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 lecture in which he distinguished between “positive” and “negative” liberty – freedom to and freedom from. Unfortunately, the column ignored more recent arguments about practical as distinct from theoretical freedom – the chimera which George Bernard Shaw ridiculed as “the freedom to have tea at the Ritz – for anyone who could afford it”.

Freedom from arbitrary arrest, religious persecution and the suppression of minority opinions is usually accepted and protected in liberal democracies. But freedom to enjoy the benefits available in a libertarian society is rarely universal. A child’s freedom to receive the education that is commensurate with her or his talents is enshrined in acts of parliament, United Nations resolutions and clauses of federal constitutions. But, like security in old age, a decent house and the prospect of remunerative employment, it is denied to half the inhabitants of the theoretically democratic world.

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Freedom to enjoy the fruits of prosperity depends on agency – but the Telegraph journalist did not mention either agency or John Rawls, its principal exponent. And there is no doubt why. Rawls demonstrates that liberty and equality, far from being mutually exclusive, go hand in hand.

For almost 50 years I have argued that Labour should become the “freedom to” party and be committed to the redistribution that the policy demands. As well as giving consistency and meaning to manifesto promises, it would help win the next election – which is less unlikely than current opinion polls suggest.

Addicted to untruth

Labour’s prospects are improving because Boris Johnson is changing from political asset to electoral liability. In any other era of democratic government, the commentators would already be asking: how long can a prime minister openly accused of lying survive? In fact, “accused” is not the right word. That Johnson lies is accepted as a fact.

Earlier this month, the Financial Times explained that the hope of a fruitful review of the Northern Irish protocol was prejudiced by memories of lies told during the original negotiation. Max Hastings, his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, has written of Johnson’s “contempt for truth”. I long for the leader of the opposition to set alight one Prime Minister’s Questions by asking Johnson why he is so reluctant to defend his good name.

Cricketing wisdom

Cricket on Sky television has profoundly reduced my self-esteem. Once upon a time, when I listened to the ball-by-ball commentary broadcast on BBC radio’s Test Match Special, I believed that I knew more or less everything about the game. Watching Sky has convinced me that I know virtually nothing.

A couple of weeks ago, a wet weekday morning was enlivened by an hour-long discussion on the tendency of modern Test batsmen to take guard on middle or even off stump rather than middle and leg, or leg stump alone. For the best part of ten years, as I struggled as a club cricketer, I took guard in the belief that the mark I scratched on the crease had the single purpose of keeping my feet more or less in line with the stumps. Now I know that it determined the position of my head at the moment ball hit bat or vice versa. And the correct position of the head is one of the secrets of successful batting. If only I had known that 70 years ago.

Not going gently

Watching cricket on Sky involves the risk of switching to one of the terrestrial commercial channels by mistake – here I am shown advertisements that offer cut-price funerals and insurance that covers the cost of cremation. The actors who play prudent pensioners – determined to save their surviving relatives the anxiety of finding enough cash to finance a good send-off – simulate the absolute composure of geriatrics who no longer fear death. They exhibit an unworldly willingness to take Michael Parkinson’s advice about dependable insurance, and touching gratitude for the free pen. I, on the other hand, am not ready to go. After all, I have only just discovered that the secret of successful batting is holding your head in the right position.

Roy Hattersley is a former cabinet minister and deputy leader of the Labour Party

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This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook