This week I’ve found myself comparing Rush, the superb new film based on the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, with Power Trip, Damian McBride’s depressing memoir about his life as a Downing Street hitman. The common theme in otherwise contrasting stories is an ancient question: how much are you prepared to sacrifice to achieve victory and at what point on that spectrum does victory become meaningless? Hunt was as handsome and charismatic as he was ill-disciplined and hedonistic. While Lauda would rush off the podium to calculate how to improve his car’s aerodynamics,
Hunt would celebrate with throngs of seminaked, champagne-swilling models. “Don’t bring the percentages into this, don’t be a pro,” he complains to his rival. “The minute you do that, you kill the sport.” But the future, we know now, belonged to the Laudas, not the Hunts. Rush describes the last moment in elite sport, the 1970s, when pure talent could take you to the top.
I’ve often argued that professionalism has a mixed record in sport. At its strongest, my case against ultra-professionalism holds that it detaches athletes from the instinctiveness and joy they need to express their talents fully. At its weakest, the theory can hollow into little more than a lament for lost charm.
Sport’s growing cult of spartan self-denial certainly makes it harder for athletes to live broad, balanced lives. A recent New Yorker profile described a typical day for the tennis champion Novak Djokovic: “7.30. Wake up. Tepid glass of water. Stretching. A bowl of muesli with a handful of mixed nuts, some sunflower seeds, sliced fruit, and a small scoop of coconut oil. Chew very slowly . . . 12.00. Lunch. Gluten-free pasta with vegetables.” Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much in between – only stretching, massage, hitting balls, drinking electrolytes and checking the colour of his urine for signs of dehydration.
I want to believe C L R James was right when he argued: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” But I also acknowledge that Djokovic and his generation have taken sport to new heights of thrilling athletic achievement. The Barcelona of today would thrash the Nottingham Forest of 1980, no matter how much Brian Clough geed them up over red wine at one of his team “lock-ins” the night before the game.
So, even I have to concede that the win-atall- costs culture of professional sport has triumphed. Taken all together, professionalism has elevated the spectacle of elite sport.
Could the same thing be said about the win-at-all-costs culture of modern professional politics? That brings us to Damian McBride’s memoirs, which describe what happens when politics is taken to its most relentless, narrow, tribal and unbalanced. It is hard to imagine a sadder exposé – of a political culture, of a party, of an era, of an author. McBride’s starting point – that Gordon Brown was “the greatest man I’ve ever met” – allowed him to justify routinely vile behaviour. Sometimes McBride simply made things up to damage his enemies. On other occasions he merely recycled smears he had accumulated in his little black book.
An irony here is that McBride is supposed to be a master of manipulating the media. Really? Have a glance at his own press this week to judge his expertise. In his own defence, he claims that only full and complete confession can lead to absolution from his sins. It is an intriguing approach to redemption. To adapt the words the playwright Robert Bolt made Thomas More say in A Man for All Seasons, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for a hundred grand from the Daily Mail?”
The parallels between sport and politics have always fascinated me but I now understand that in one crucial respect the analogy is inexact. Winning is not quite the whole of sport but it must always be the heart of the matter. Entertainment, beauty, charm and inspiration have their place, too, but they must emerge organically out of the pursuit of victory, as accidental by-products or, at a push, subsidiary ambitions.
Some sporting victories, it is true, can be tainted by grim or underhand methods, yet they remain victories. The simplistic structure of sport – the scoreboard resets to zero for the next match – works against the notion of a Pyrrhic victory. It is hard to think of instances in sport where victories explicitly caused longer-term defeat.
Winning in politics is very different. Surely proper victory means governing well and hence enhancing your political ideas. Winning elections and retaining power are prerequisites – like getting on to the pitch in sport – but surely not the ultimate goal. Whereas winning the match is the end of the sporting journey, winning power can only be the beginning of a proper political journey. That difference explains why winning in politics can be literally counterproductive. Some methods end up leaving the political ideas they were supposed to serve in a diminished and depleted state. That is the lesson of McBride. Perhaps his spinning may have helped Brown replace Tony Blair. It may even have helped extend Brown’s brief tenure as prime minister. But it has further undermined Labour’s claim to moral superiority, once central to its appeal.
The McBride era was the logical conclusion of professionalism’s faith in the separation of ends and means. Brown thought he had outsourced the nasty stuff while he got on with saving the economy. It doesn’t work like that, as Labour is now finding out.
Readers with longer memories will recall Glenys Kinnock, during television coverage of Labour’s election victory in 1997, giving a little homily about the superiority of “Labour values”. We are all nicer people in the Labour Party: that was the thrust of what she said. It will be a long while, post-McBride, before that argument fails to elicit a laugh.
Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)