Ken Dodd’s nostalgic comedy, Brexit’s upside and why we should boycott the World Cup

Was the late comedian’s continuing appeal an early sign of the nostalgia that led to the Brexit vote?

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The best thing about Brexit is that ministers and civil servants have no time or energy for anything else. According to the Times, the current parliament is the most inactive for two decades, with little government legislation to pore over. This is particularly good news for teachers, who have suffered 30 years of government hyperactivity for little discernible benefit. Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, assured head teachers the other day that there will be no significant change in exams, tests or curriculum for four years. Tory manifesto plans to bring back grammar schools and scrap free meals for infants have been quietly dropped.

Some things – the NHS, social care and housing, for example – require urgent attention. But it is hard to imagine that anything a Tory government did would improve them. We are a lucky country. Despite governing with the supposedly more moderate Lib Dems for five years, the Tories managed to reduce schools and the NHS to bewildering chaos, more or less wipe out local government services, redesign benefits so that millions of poor people are even poorer, and turbocharge the already booming housing market so that, in many areas, ownership is now beyond just about anybody under 40.

Imagine how much more damage they could have done with no Brexit worries and majorities as large as those enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. We should be thankful that all they can do now is talk about a tax on chewing gum.

Sporting heroism

As I write, the world waits (though probably not with bated breath) for details of how Theresa May proposes to hurt Vladimir Putin after the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. It seems unlikely that the England football team will withdraw from the World Cup tournament in Russia this summer. Sport should be kept separate from politics, we are told; it should be about dialogue and understanding.

I reject that argument now, just as I rejected it during the heyday of South Africa’s apartheid state. If sport is non-political, why do politicians wish to be seen at international sporting events and why do they join campaigns to attract sporting jamborees to their capital cities, as Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone did to secure the 2012 Olympics for London? Governments use sport to project their preferred national image to the world and to shore up national pride among their own peoples. Refusing to play any part in their plans hurts far more than expelling a few diplomats.

Border force

In all the talk about the importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Ireland from the consequences of Brexit, nobody mentions that, in working-class areas of Belfast and Londonderry, the paramilitaries, loyalist and republican, still rule. According to the Guardian, police figures show a 60 per cent rise in punishment attacks in the past four years. The gangs act as private police forces, punishing drug dealing and car theft. Sometimes, after a grisly sort of plea bargaining process, parents agree to take their teenage children to the paramilitary thugs.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which keeps the Conservatives in office, says that, after Brexit, it will not tolerate a border between Ulster and the rest of the UK. Someone should point out that there is already a border around certain areas of Ulster where the rule of law stops.

Town and gown

Sir Peter Scott, Scotland’s commissioner for fair access to higher education and former Kingston University vice chancellor (an old friend, as it happens), has been widely denounced for describing the red gown worn by undergraduates at St Andrews University as “a bit of a put-off for certain applicants”. Another example of how the liberal elite patronises the masses, his critics say. St Andrews claims that the gown, a 600-year-old tradition, is “particularly popular” with disadvantaged students.

That misses the point. St Andrews, long renowned as a fallback for English public-school pupils who couldn’t get into Oxbridge, recruits only 14 per cent of its students from working-class backgrounds, the lowest proportion in Scotland, and 56.7 per cent from state schools, a figure bettered even by Cambridge. Nobody is suggesting that applicants from inner-city Glasgow avoid St Andrews because they don’t want to wear a gown, which is in any case voluntary. But the university rarely features in the media without pictures of students parading in gowns. Like advertising images, they convey messages about what sort of person studies at St Andrews – or “buys the product”, to borrow the terms in which universities now talk about themselves. Scott’s critics either don’t understand this or don’t care.

Dodd’s dead

Ken Dodd, who has died aged 90, was the last comedian to tell mother-in-law jokes, of which the most famous was that he hadn’t spoken to his for 18 months because he didn’t like to interrupt her. He also told jokes about seaside boarding houses, coal sacks and rent books. His was unchallenging, ostensibly unpolitical comedy in a world where it was still safe to quip that, if you told a blonde a joke on Wednesday, she’d get it by Sunday. He seemed most at home, I thought, on The Good Old Days, a TV show that featured traditional music-hall routines. For many of us, 1960s satire came as a blessed relief from Dodd’s sort of comedy.

He was a Tory who fervently supported Thatcher and was once improbably tipped to fight the Cannock seat in the West Midlands for the party. Though I never understood his continuing public appeal – even this year, he was due to perform in towns such as Warrington, Bolton, Stockport and Macclesfield – I should have paid more attention. It was probably an early sign of the nostalgia that led to the Brexit vote.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

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