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Harriet Harman: the irresistible force

Is Harriet Harman the most successful politician of her generation?

As the year 1982 began, Harriet Harman had a plan. She was already the parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of Peckham, where her 66-year-old predecessor, Harry Lamborn, had announced he was standing down. If she had a baby now, she could get back to work before the next general election the following year.

Once she was pregnant, she and her partner, the union official Jack Dromey, swallowed their qualms about the patriarchal institution of marriage, “for the sake of my parents and my constituency”. In her memoir, A Woman’s Work, she records the scene at Willesden Register Office, north London, in August 1982: “There was no wedding ring, no white dress, no flowers, no vowing to obey, no father giving me away. Neither my, nor Jack’s, parents were invited.” In fact, there were no guests at all – just two witnesses. Harman wore a hot-pink dress and made no effort to disguise her bump.

Immediately afterwards, the newlyweds set off for La Rochelle in south-western France, with Dromey stopping the car frequently so his new wife could lean out and be sick. Sitting by a lake in the sunshine, they found a three-day-old copy of the Times, which carried the headline: “Labour MP dies”. It was Harry Lamborn.

And so Harman contested the resulting by-election while five months pregnant. She says the campaign of her SDP challenger, Dick Taverne, tried to suggest this was a problem – but the strategy backfired when working-class women in the constituency pointed out that they’d held down a job while raising their children. (Taverne says this claim is untrue, and that in his election night speech he expressed his happiness that Harman’s pregnancy did not stop her being elected. “I did not approve of her political views at the time, which have somewhat changed,” he tells me now. “I have much admired her record since and wish she had become Labour leader. The party would not be in the desperate and tragic state it is now.”) 

On election night, Harman ended up babysitting for a woman on the Glebe Estate who had wanted to vote but whose husband was late home from work. “That was just one of so many encounters which reinforced in me the belief that I had a particular mandate from women, and that it mattered to them and was important that I was different from the men,” she writes.

In her Commons office overlooking the chocolate-box grandeur of Big Ben, I ask her if life became easier once she’d arrived in parliament aged 32. In 1982, there were only 19 female MPs: eleven from Labour, and eight from the Conservatives – including Margaret Thatcher. “I was expecting to come in with other women,” she says now. “And then it was me, pushing open that enormous door. You know the doors to the House of Commons, opposite the Speaker? They are so huge and heavy . . . it was like the women’s movement was this irresistible force, but meeting the implacable object of the House of Commons.” She remembers hundreds of men in grey suits, with an average age of 54, surrounding her in her red velvet maternity dress. “It was awful.”

In December 2016, the 66-year-old Harriet Harman became the longest continuously serving female MP. After the 2015 election, there were 191 women on the green benches, including 99 from Labour. Her memoir is one giant rebuke to those who would dismiss efforts for more equal representation as tokenism or anti-meritocratic. There is strength in numbers; the equalities agenda to which Harman has dedicated her life would have faltered without a movement behind it.

 

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Harman now occupies a unique position in British politics. There is a faction of the right that finds her more irritating than almost any other politician from the Blair years, possibly because she is still around to annoy them. The work of Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail encapsulates the charge sheet. She is posh: “Educated at St Paul’s, this scion of the Pakenham family has become the Gromyko of Camberwell”. She has aged: “Those cheeks (on her face) have lost some of their usual pouchy pulchritude,” he lamented in 2007. She is humourless and perpetually vexed, “the frumpish Lady Indignant” (2015). And above all, she is Harriet Harperson, “Britain’s most ear-drillingly insistent feminist” (2013).

Over the years, such attacks as these have been counterproductive. Whatever problems other women in the party had with Harman, they could see how unfairly she was treated. And for the next generation, her resilience in the face of endless brickbats was inspiring. Jess Phillips, who was elected the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015, opens her book, Everywoman, with Harman warning her that being a public feminist means “you will never be popular”; she says it felt as if the older woman was passing on the baton. A review of both books by Julie Burchill favourably contrasted the “gobby Brummie” Phillips with the “bogus and bossy” Harman. But the 35-year-old says this misses the point. “I get to be me, because she was so derided for so long,” Phillips says. “It’s like: my mum had to moan about the patriarchy, whereas I get to be funny about the patriarchy.”

Phillips says that Harman’s strength came from rejecting the idea that women should be in competition with each other. “She said to me, ‘There’s no need for people to compare us. We’re from different generations. You’re like Deliciously Ella, and I was Delia.’ And it’s true! Like we are using limes now, it feels like we always had coconut milk in our lives, and now people like us can make curries. That’s what Harriet did: she brought flavour to the Labour Party. So now I get to have a cocktail.”

One of the most interesting questions to ask anyone in Labour is this: is Harriet Harman funny? Half of those you ask will say that she is. “She learned how to slay with a joke,” says a former staffer. “At home, she is fun, silly, warm,” says her daughter, Amy. Yet others see someone who has learned to smother her humour for fear of being misinterpreted or dismissed. “Her generation – including Jack – are a bit humourless,” says one woman in the current parliamentary party. “They couldn’t be funny, because ­being Labour was so hard in the 1980s.” ­Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South, puts it another way: “Women can’t be funny, because we’re already not taken seriously.”

The other criticism is that Harman is robotic – that she is typical of the control-freakery of the New Labour era, in which ministers were discouraged from thinking for themselves. “I can’t stand her,” one BBC producer told me recently. “She just parrots the line.” I put this to her: isn’t the rise of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, in their different ways, a reaction against her style of politics? Being loyal to the point of repetition has firmly gone out of fashion. “Yes, but it hasn’t in terms of what makes things work in politics,” she replies, crisply.

That loyalty has led to situations she now finds it uncomfortable to discuss. In her book, she mentions being sent out to defend Gordon Brown after Caroline Flint accused him of using women as “window dressing”. Soon afterwards, the prime minister revealed that – having refused to make Harman deputy PM despite her being deputy Labour leader – he had, in effect, given the job to Peter Mandelson, making him first secretary of state. So Flint was right, wasn’t she? Trying to explain her response, Harman’s already frequent use of the word “like” in conversation steps up a gear. At the end of it, she adds: “I was very careful not to criticise Caroline, and did words like, ‘We all want to make more progress.’”

I ask Flint how she felt about the incident. “Lonely and isolated”, she says. “Everything that Harriet has said since goes some way to vindicating what I was saying – you can have women around the table but unless they have meaningful influence, it feels like you’re there for the appearance only.” Nonetheless, Flint says that their relationship is now positive. “In shadow cabinet [under Ed Miliband], she did try to draw ­attention to some of the issues I was trying to raise about who we’re appealing to.”

For at least a year now, I’ve been putting a startling proposition to former and current Labour politicians, staffers and activists. Is Harriet Harman the most successful left-wing politician of her generation? She has dramatically increased the number of female MPs and ensured that women’s lives and needs are part of the political conversation. The Equality Act 2010, passed in the dying gasps of the Brown government, made significant demands on employers. They were no longer allowed to bar workers from comparing their pay; laws were brought in against age discrimination; positive action was allowed to increase the recruitment of minorities.

Its “Clause One” was so radical that it has still not been enacted. After all, it asked public bodies to strive to “reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage”. In other words, the public sector would have to take class into account in everything it did. (At the time, the journalist Polly Toynbee called it “socialism in one clause”.)

Harman regrets now that it was never enacted: “It would have been a big signal that class inequality is at the heart of what we’re concerned about.” But getting the bill passed at all was a struggle. Ayesha Haza­rika, who worked as Harman’s special adviser for women, compared the mood in her office to the film Cool Runnings, in which the Jamaican bobsleigh team improbably get to the Winter Olympics. “The civil servants said [the bill] was a mopping-up exercise, and she stood up and told them it wasn’t: it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something radical. Their faces were full of horror and disbelief.” Other parts of Whitehall, particularly the Department for Business, were obstructive. “I came back browbeaten by a load of male special advisers and she would say, ‘Ayesha, we will not take no for an answer.’”

 

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Here’s an easy way to wind up a right-winger: tell them that Harriet Harman is an anti-establishment politician. Yes, like Nigel Farage, she is the product of a comfortable home – her father was a doctor and her mother was a lawyer – and attended private school. But during her early career, she challenged the male dominance of parliament, the Labour Party and lobby journalism. She tells me early on in our conversation that she has a challenge she wants to throw down: Labour should publish its gender pay gap. “Let’s not just be [saying] we believe in equality – let’s be prepared to confront what is going on. So in each workplace, the women and the men can see how they’re differently valued.”

Unsurprisingly, this willingness to criticise her own party’s structures has made her enemies. John Prescott couldn’t stand her, muttering as she walked back from winning the Labour deputy leadership that he wouldn’t help her. (By contrast, Alan Johnson – whom she beat by less than 1 percentage point for the role – wrote in his memoir that she was the better candidate.)

Now, she won’t be drawn on what Prescott’s problem was, though she contrasts him unfavourably with Johnson. “Alan is very unusual in that he can see the bigger picture, and knows what is the right thing to do, and the right thing is to pull people together if you’ve lost an election.” She then drops in a casual criticism of the kind that occurred so often in her book, I gave it a nickname: the Harriet drive-by. “And David Miliband didn’t do that.”

It is hard to recall, now that feminism is so mainstream, but during the 1980s Harman was regarded as a dull, single-issue crank. (Her maiden speech in the House was on childcare.) When she called for half of Labour MPs to be female, “all the men felt it was a personal attack on them”. When she returned to work after her first maternity leave, one of her colleagues reported her to the serjeant-at-arms for taking the baby through the division lobby under her coat. She had to explain to the official that, in fact, “I was still fat from being pregnant.” She now says that such behaviour “was like harassment, really” and it made her want to give up. “But I couldn’t leave, because it would have been literally sending out the message that women can’t hack it.”

She describes it as “a bit of a mortification” that the Conservatives have elected their second female leader before Labour has managed a single one. She prefers not to use Theresa May’s name, referring acidly to “her”, and is sceptical of May’s pledge, in her first speech outside Downing Street, to be a champion of equality. “It’s like how I felt when Margaret Thatcher said ‘let there be peace’ when she was causing absolute misery and division within and between communities . . . If you want to change things, and change them for the better, you don’t join the Tory party.” She believes most Conservative attempts to increase female representation spring from the realisation that it’s good PR. In 1997, when 101 female Labour MPs were elected, she says, the Tories realised “they were going to have electoral problems if they looked like the 1950s Politburo and we looked like today”.

Her book is clear on the highs and lows of politics. The lows include her sacking from her first cabinet job, and the highs include the back-room role of solicitor general, improving the conduct of domestic violence and rape trials. She survived the unbroken opposition of the 1980s with her drive intact, but admits that the party is once again in “wilderness years”. She adds: “What we learned in the 1980s is that there’s no point kidding yourself that things are better than they are . . . and you can’t just wait for people to get fed up with the Tories, because people were fed up with the Tories in the 1980s. I mean, Thatcher had become such a hate figure, they even had to get rid of her, but it still didn’t mean people came to us.”

Harman admits she has struggled throughout her career with the idea that she was a bad mother, though the culture of parliament did little to help. In 1989, she took her son to the cinema at half-term, only to receive a pager message asking her to stand in for the shadow health minister Robin Cook in the Commons. She decided not to reply and expected a reprimand when she later told him simply: “I was not available.” Instead he beamed at her and let her go. On her way out, she realised that he had assumed she was having an affair.

The incident taught her two things: first, that no one is indispensable (in the end, Frank Dobson stood in). Second, it showed the double standards of a male-dominated workplace: “It would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, [but] falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.”

She is still unashamedly maternal. Jess Phillips calls her “the mom of the Labour Party”. (Another female MP describes her as a “queen”, noting that her initials are HRH.) When I spent a day with her in 2015, Harman joked that she had subsumed her hunger for grandchildren into buying two Burmilla kittens, Minky and Silvio. Her daughter, Amy, is a classical musician, her older son, Harry, works at Channel 4, and Joe is a Labour councillor in south London. (The boys have their father’s surname, while Amy is a Harman.) Harman tried to shield them from the press interest in her life, though that wasn’t always possible. “I never found it weird seeing her on TV,” says Amy now. “But once, a classmate said that their dad told them that my mum hated men. And I was like, ‘She likes my brothers and my dad!’”

A frequent criticism is that Harman’s brand of feminism focuses too much on women like her. “She’s always employed women in her office,” says a Labour staffer. “But mostly they are quite privileged. I don’t know if she doesn’t see it, or if she just thinks it’s not her job.” One female Labour MP says “if you’re in her gang, she’s a tiger. But if you’re not, it can be quite brutal.”

Another former staffer describes a story about a Glasgow housing estate that circulated during the Gordon Brown years. “The story is that Harriet is door-knocking and a guy comes to answer in a football shirt, drinking a can of beer. And she asks him what he’s up to, and he says, ‘Watching the horses’. And she replies, ‘Oh, showjumping?’”

The story is almost certainly untrue – it has the same structure as the one told about Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas in a chip shop for guacamole – but the person who told it to me said it persisted because of its fundamental truth. Yet even if Harman is posh, she’s not elitist. “I’ve been out with other politicians who wouldn’t have got out of the car in that kind of estate,” he said.

This perception of her class privilege has made her life more difficult. When I ask Alison McGovern why so many people hate Harman, she replies, “There’s a simple answer to that: because she’s a woman. The more complicated answer is: because if you’re a working-class man, you feel she hasn’t struggled in the way you have.” This tension is a running theme between the trade union movement – long dominated by men – and left-wing feminism. “If the Labour Party’s central job is to raise wages at the bottom of the income distribution, right now that’s women,” adds McGovern. “The care sector, the hospitality sector – those are dominated by women.”

This chimes with my memories of shadowing Harman on the much-mocked “Woman to Woman” tour during the 2015 election – you know, the one with the notorious Pink Bus, which she insisted was actually “one-nation magenta”. It felt totally different from the rallies and set-piece speeches that otherwise dominate election campaigns; at one point, we ended up in a café in Leamington Spa, passing round an adorable baby as the child’s mother told us how she was struggling to find work that fitted around her ability to find childcare. Harman listened intently.

 

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There is a strange circularity to Harriet Harman’s front-bench career. It began in 1997, under Tony Blair, when she was made minister for social security. From the start, the appointment was troubled. She was also minister for women and equality, and her department resented half her focus being elsewhere. Turf wars broke out: the Home Office wanted to lead on domestic violence, while David Blunkett at Education wanted to be in charge of childcare. Her deputy at Social Security, Frank Field, had been working on benefits reform from the back benches and, Harman says, saw her as a “Blairite loyalist”. It also transpired that Blair had given Field the impression that Harman was merely keeping the seat warm until he could become secretary of state.

Her downfall came through a manifesto pledge: Gordon Brown as chancellor had committed Labour to observing Tory spending limits for the first two years in government. So she had to cut benefits for lone parents by £6 a week. By 1998, in the middle of press reports about her uselessness, she realised she was a dead woman walking. “I could even sense my diary secretary hesitating to schedule appointments,” she writes in the book. She was duly sacked in the next reshuffle. (Frank Field
resigned rather than be moved to another department, and has remained on the back benches ever since.) “What I should have done is made it not just my problem but everybody’s problem,” she says now. “If I’d had the energy and the political experience, I never would have got into that position.”

But fast-forward to the summer of 2015, when Harman – now acting leader – was again confronted with a manifesto pledge to match Conservative welfare cuts. The “benefits cap”, restricting the maximum amount a household can claim, was in Ed Miliband’s programme for government and was incorporated into the Tory welfare bill after he lost the election. Harman decided that the party would abstain on the second reading, call for amendments, and then vote against on the third reading. She intended this to send a signal to the party’s core working-class vote, which felt that Labour was a soft touch on welfare.

The move backfired. The abstention was seized upon by the left in the party to demonstrate that Labour was “pro-austerity” and “Tory-lite”. The leadership contenders in the cabinet had to vote with the whip, while, on the back benches, Jeremy Corbyn was free to oppose the bill at both readings. The decision is often credited with giving him the momentum he needed to win the leadership. (Ironically, Corbyn ordered MPs to vote for triggering Article 50 on its second reading because of a similar political calculation: it was unpopular with Labour members but popular with swing voters.)

Does Harman now regret her decision? “It was jumped on because there was a mood in the party to swing to the left,” she says. If not that issue, she believes that discontent would have crystallised around something else. “A lot of people were disaffected when we were still in government. That had grown, but because we only lost narrowly in 2010, and there was only a coalition, it was masked by people still hoping that we would get in. But once it was evident we weren’t, it was like ‘We told you so’ . . . repressed resentment, anger, disappointment just burst out.”

Ayesha Hazarika believes that there was no right decision: “She felt she was taking a personal hit, but she was trying to show the voters we had listened.” In any case, the mood inside Labour HQ was already bleak. “When Ed Miliband resigned, it was so fast. Ed Balls had lost his seat. We’d lost Scotland. Everyone was in tears in Victoria Street. Harriet said: ‘Go into the bathroom, dry your tears; we’ve got work to do. We’ve got a party to keep together.’ I thought it was harsh but it was so right.” Hazarika ­believes this is why the welfare vote will not cloud Harman’s legacy. “They see her as a trouper, even people who don’t like her.”

Alison McGovern also sees her as someone willing to subsume her ego into a movement. “Harmanism isn’t a thing . . . It’s why she’s been successful, but it’s also why she hasn’t been credited.” Jess Phillips agrees. “Unlike many high-flyers in the Blair government, Harriet has won at politics. With Blair or Brown, their legacies – regardless of the good that they did – are terrible. Look in the Commons and you can physically see the difference made by Harriet.”

Harriet Harman will be in conversation with Jackie Ashley at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 22 April 2017.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

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Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper with and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

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Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

A few goes in, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again