Home » Sport » Blueprint for a (Real) Conservative Policy on Sport

Blueprint for a (Real) Conservative Policy on Sport

       Hugh Robertson, the Shadow Minister for Sport and the Olympics (note the title), along with his “team”, has spent three months researching British sport in order to make a statement about future Conservative sports policy. The result, published in March 2009, can be described as a “more of” approach in relation to the existing government. New Labour with knobs on and a powerful tribute to the former Soviet Union: more direct state money for sport, more sport within state education, more competition, more inclusiveness, more medals, more enthusiasm for the Olympics . . . . It is all very predictable and can be put in the context of what has become of Conservatism in this century so far. But here I am more concerned to develop the principles which should lie behind a genuinely conservative sports policy.

       Britain has had a sports policy for approximately half a century since the publication of the “other” Wolfenden Report, Sport in the Community, in 1960. That is unless you count not having a sports policy as a form of policy, though a gallant attempt to maintain the no-policy policy was made by Lord Hailsham in the late days of the Macmillan government when he added sport to his bulging ministerial portfolio with the express intention of doing nothing about it. It is generally agreed that policy towards sport in the period since has been shallow in conception, essentially reactive and mainly imitative. The issues of football hooliganism, for example, or of British failures in international sport have been typically forced onto the agendas of governing personnel who had little original interest in them or who had been content to leave well alone. There are exceptions: Labour’s rather extreme version of “Sport for All” in the 1970s and its preoccupations with the statistics about Muslim ladies and swimming pools was the only approach to sport which might be said to have followed from fundamental party principles. John Major is generally thought of as the only Prime Minister with a personal interest in sport and a personal impact on it. The introduction of a National Lottery in 1994 and the policies for spending the money on sport in Raising the Game (1996) have proved to be a success and we owe our elevated 4th place in the 2008 Olympic medals table to them. But they are in many respects more Soviet than Tory, the applied ideas of a professional politician who can see some percentage, personal and partisan, in sporting success rather than the particular approaches of a genuine Conservative. To be fair, John Major didn’t have a lot in common with Joseph Stalin, but both sought to make an impact on the Olympic medals table and both succeeded in doing so.

The no-policy policy belonged in the era I have called the “amateur hegemony” which was collapsing in the early 1960s when Hailsham made his gesture. It is no longer an option. After decades of sports policy and administration there must now be a policy, even if it is only to undo previous policies. There are, I believe, some pretty obvious steps which follow from the nature of conservatism, but also some more difficult issues which create dilemmas. It is easiest to start with the clear implications:

  1. Preserve what is good.

       That is what we Conservatives do, isn’t it? Please bear in mind the image of a young Indian cricketer, forty years my junior, with his arm round my shoulder. The grass is green, the houses are stone-built and thatched, the church clock has just struck three and he says, “My God, I love England”. And a good part of the reason he says it is because we can live out a full sporting aspiration here (call it fantasy if you like) dressed in whites, on a spacious grass surface, with proper changing facilities etc. And “we” here is a pensioner and an overseas student neither of whom are elite sportsmen. This is unique to our country; elsewhere such organised sport is the prerogative of the young and the talented or the socially privileged. The astonishing range of clubs and grounds is what we have that nobody else does: 7,000 cricket clubs, 3000 rugby clubs, 45,000 football clubs (the FA’s figure, which I don’t quite believe) of which over 100 are fully professional.

But they are in trouble. They have depended on the voluntary principle so that they are undermined by professionalism, materialism, commuting, etc. – all the kind of socio-economic change which Robert Putnam analysed in the American case in his Bowling Alone. British sports clubs have lived their lives in a part of civil society ring-fenced from the state and the market, as oases from the real world until the last fifteen years when they have been increasingly exposed to the need to pay professionals, to compete for lottery money, to implement stringent health and safety and child protection regulations and so on. The trouble is that this whole structure of English sport, though loved by its participants, is misunderstood not only by governments but by the national associations which run it. They always talk the language of instrumentality, of sport being good for crime rates, health, education, national prestige etc. But to us it is part of the meaning of life, an end-in-itself, precisely the philosophical category that governments cannot acknowledge. I know from dealing with people at Lord’s that it is impossible for someone who has spent his life involved in professional cricket to see 7,000 cricket clubs as anything other than a “pyramid” which exists to provide an England team at its apex. And at least equally impossible to understand how much fun it is to play the game unintentionally badly.

The question of what you do to help clubs in the way of tax privileges, waived regulations and so on is too complex for this essay – though you might start with an “existing use” protection for sports facilities in the planning system. It is more clear what you should undo – the structure which draws clubs into a web of aims and objectives concerned with national success. For a Conservative, surely, the fact that I have paid over £400 to join the tennis club should make it mine? So I should not be bundled off the court for the coaching of a foul-mouthed non-paying wannabe who is part of a Soviet-style project to produce a Wimbledon winner. But having said that I should also point out that as a member of a tennis ladder which puts you against players of similar standard with no regard for age or gender I often play teenagers, who are at least as gentlemanly and good-humoured as anyone in my generation. This is about English club autonomy versus government interference, not about O Tempora, O Mores.

  1. Scotch the Big Lie.

       The Big Lie in this case is that a healthy sporting structure is represented by Olympic success. It is pretty obviously a Big Lie. Consider the positions of two countries in the 2008 Olympic medal table:


‘                                     Gold            Silver            Bronze             Position

China                             51                 21                     28                     1st

Argentina                      2                   0                       4                      34th


Yet Argentina is one of the world’s great sporting nations, up there at the top in football, golf, tennis, rugby, motor racing and polo, the home of such legends as Di Stéfano, Maradona, Fangio and De Vicenzo. China is not a sporting nation at all (I have travelled in both) with no tradition or grass roots in sport and a Confucian culture which has encouraged contempt for physical prowess. A young man of ordinary talents in China cannot even find himself an organised game of football or a place to play. All they have is a Soviet-style policy to recruit specialist athletes from childhood and to “target” Olympic medals, largely in sports hardly anybody normally watches, let alone plays.

One aspect of the Big Lie concerns the relationship between the grass roots and the elite in sport: it says that national elite success encourages participation. Sports ministers, who, with the honourable exceptions of Kate Hoey and Dennis Howell, have normally known less about sport than the average club barman, are wont to recall that when they were young the tennis racket came out of the cupboard during Wimbledon and that we all rushed out to play football in the May sunshine once the Cup Final was over. Well, yes, but bear in mind that in the decade surrounding England’s victory in the Rugby World Cup in 2003 participation in the game by adults plummeted by over 50%, that the 2005 Ashes victory had no perceptible impact on participation in cricket and that there are lots of sports which thrive either without any elite role models or in complete ignorance of them. For example, most equestrian and winter sports, fishing, skittles, fell-running – the list is a long one. At best chauvinist inspiration is a marginal and double-edged factor in sporting participation, but to listen to those in authority you would think it was the crucial determinant. This is the usual effect of low-level statecraft: Olympic and similar successes give governments objectives they can achieve and boast about (which genuine professional sport doesn’t) and, naturally, they tend to exaggerate the significance of those achievements.

  1. Accept Mixed Government.

       The logical minds of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice have rather struggled with the concept of sport: from 1995 to 1997 they were determined to implement the theory that it was an “economic” activity, to be regulated in the same way as other economic activity. This is parallel to the simple-minded libertarian view that sport is “entertainment”. Both are nonsense, at least in their one-dimensional forms. All sorts of people trot out the cliché that “Sport is big business now” and the European Union does classify it as the sixth biggest “industry” on the continent. But in an important sense it is obviously false. Sports clubs and associations may be run by businessmen and women, they may turn over large sums of money, but they are nothing like firms. Like universities and aristocratic estates they have a priori missions: they cannot merge or diversify and they very rarely make profits. If they could do these things most football clubs would become retail parks. As Sir Alan Sugar said in amazement at the expectations people had of him at Tottenham Hotspur: “I’m a one-trick pony – I make money; I don’t give it away.”

The official European doctrine now is that sport is a “primarily cultural” activity. This is probably a marginally better assumption than its predecessor, but modern sport can only really be understood as a contested concept. From its inception it was potential commercial entertainment to some, moral and educational crusade to others and mere pastime to some more. It is eternally laced with competing dualities: participant/spectator, commercial/cultural, club/country. FIFA, running a multi-billion pound empire from the semi-secrecy of Switzerland still employs an important concept from the lips of Dr. Thomas Arnold: gentlemanly conduct.

The principle which must be applied here is that of mixed government. The Baron De Montesquieu noted in eighteenth century England that the country was prospering despite – and possibly because of – its simultaneous and contradictory employment of all the Aristotelian principles of government. It was monarchy, republic and aristocracy all at once and had successfully abandoned the disastrous seventeenth century demand for ideological consistency. Historically, conservatism has been good at seeing what works and living with contradictions and this may be a place to apply that kind of pragmatism. One example may be the issue of events “listed” for free-to-air television. Whereas a liberal-commercial perspective suggests that this is nonsense, an excessive interference with a market in private tastes, the Arnoldian educational suggestion must be that we should maximise the awareness of cultural activities which are both traditional and virtuous, at least to some degree. Cricket is at the moment suffering from its lack of popular exposure. I don’t believe that it is a sufficient condition of people choosing to participate that they can see the activity on television, but it may be a necessary one.

  1. Abandon Social Engineering

       It is interesting to note that opposition to organised games virtually disappeared in the twentieth century. A hundred years ago the English sports project was opposed in general by Marxists, Indian, Chinese and German nationalists, the Boy Scout movement, many American educationalists and a variety of religious organisations among others. American and Irish nationalists opposed the content if not the principle. What converted almost all of these movements – and almost all governments – was a series of instrumental arguments about the benefits of sport for national identity, national prestige, juvenile delinquency and physical and mental fitness. The statement of mine which has been most quoted (it is from my edited book, The Politics of Sport, published in 1986) is the banal observation that “Sport creates usable political resources”. But it does, partly to its benefit, but also to its cost. Governments support sport, but see it in terms of social engineering and political prestige. We used to complain that sport was too little studied, but now there are conferences full of young researchers talking about how sports clubs can and must be used to further programmes of social inclusion. All of which undermines the voluntary principle because if it is hard work being the secretary of a sports club it becomes intolerably hard when you have to spend most of your time filling in forms about anti-racism, lottery funding and child protection. You may say that no club has to apply for funding and this is clearly true of wealthy real tennis and golf clubs. But try taking that view when your members are rapidly defecting to the club down the road which has been awarded lottery funding for new facilities.

In short, sport should be treated like “the Arts”. It would not be acceptable for Arts Council funding to be dependent on the ideological projects of the government of the day because we would consider their existence had a value as an end-in-itself or, at least, that they had a broad, if ill-defined, instrumental value which had to do with spiritual freedom and the quality of life. So it should be with sport.

More Difficult Issues

       So far I have been outlining approaches to policy which follow fairly directly from conservative political principles and methods. But there are some important issues which pose much more subtle dilemmas for conservatives. Perhaps the most obvious is the power of the SINGO (to give it its jargon acronym) – the Sporting International Non-Governmental Organisation, of which the most powerful are the International Olympic Committee and the Federation de International Football Association (sic). The construction of global power by these SINGOs has been impressive: strong will in the context of favourable circumstances has transformed the balance of global power. In the 1970s Lord Killanin as President of the IOC spent his time supplicating to governments, trying to persuade them not to boycott the games and to interest them in hosting. For a time it seemed that there wasn’t a city on the planet prepared to put a plausible proposal to host the 1984 Olympics – it eventually went to Los Angeles, but at the cost of the IOC abandoning its long held principles against commercialism, including sponsorship. But by the twenty first century it was a case of governments supplicating to the IOC, as Tony Blair did when he successfully flew to the IOC meeting in Singapore in 2005 to put the case for London 2012. The competitors were Paris, Madrid, Moscow and New York!

The question is how should democratic states relate to corrupt, unaccountable global organisations which have considerable influence within their borders. SINGOs encourage a kind of globally oriented egomania which is reminiscent of the papacy at the worst periods of its history. Note the longevity of leadership of, for example, the two most important SINGO leaders of modern times: Jaou Havelange was at FIFA from 1974 to 1998 while Juan Samaranch was President of the IOC from 1980 to 2002. At the same time, both organisations are models of successful global governance, with well developed systems of finance and regulation. The People’s Republic of China has met conditions laid down by the IOC in a deferential manner which it would never have accorded to the IMF let alone (say) the World Wildlife Fund. SINGO leaders are right to argue that global sport has been able to develop because of this delegation; it would not work if states radically varied the policies and laws affecting sporting competition. Even Stalin kow-towed to the IOC: his original demand that the USSR and its satellites would only join the Olympic movement if “Fascist” Spain were excluded was met with a firm refusal and he simply backed down.

Yet I do think that all of these organisations, including FIFA, UEFA, the International Rugby Board and the International Cricket Council are likely to act against the interests of British sports fans. Also that there is a case for total non-cooperation with the Olympic movement. A brief summary of what is wrong with the Olympics from a genuine sportsman’s and liberal’s point of view would include the following arguments:

– the Games have proved to be corrupt in every aspect.

– they have consistently legitimised unacceptable regimes, including Nazis and Communists within the “global village” and allowed those regimes to boost their legitimacy internally

– they are dominated by forms of sport which are bio-mechanical in nature and thus “vulnerable” to all kinds of bio-technology including chemical doping and genetic modification.

– moreover, contrary to the image which they try to maintain, often with great success, they do not represent any kind of pinnacle of sporting achievement. Most of the important sports in the world, defined in terms of finance and cultural significance, are either not represented at all or represented at only a relatively low level.

In short, I think there’s an overwhelming case for pulling the plug on the 2012 Olympics, though I don’t imagine for a moment that anyone will have the courage to do so. Governments seem convinced that hosting the Games is good for them, good for the economies they run and so on. There is not a shred of evidence for this, at least in democracies. There is a seven year gap between the allocation and holding of the games and nearly always someone else in power by the time they occur. And economists have failed to turn up any evidence of economic benefits even in what are considered to be the successful cases, such as Sydney 2000 which have to be offset against disasters like Montreal 1976.

A question of internal policy is connected with this: what is to be done about the relatively vast sporting bureaucracy which has developed in the form of the sports councils and other agencies? The connection is that much of what they so is to implement policies which are made not by elected governments but by SINGOs – such as the increasingly desperate and authoritarian campaign against doping. There is a case for simply closing much of this down. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to point career administrators in a different direction. Just as they shifted from luring Muslim ladies into swimming pools to the fostering of “excellence”, perhaps they could now be pointed in the direction of boosting club autonomy and traditional sporting values.

Finally, there is one of the few important issues which seems to distinguish the parties (though it is only seems): school sport. The Robertson statement wants to get “back” to an imagined world of competitive school sport and even wants to fund inter-school “Olympics”. It invokes the old myth of left-wing anti-competitive values as being responsible for the decline of school sport in order to justify the kind of pro-competitive values which Labour has actually espoused at least since it got back into office in 1997. The equal and opposite myth is that Mrs. Thatcher was entirely responsible for the decline through her government’s encouragement of the sale of school playing fields and its introduction of the National Curriculum. Both myths have an element of truth in them, but the more important truth is that the kind of teacher prepared to spend their leisure time coaching sport, though common enough in my day, was bound to be in terminal decline for all sorts of inexorable reasons – and most of the playing fields were already little used. Note that state school skiing trips thrived in the Thatcher period!

In any case I am in two minds about school sport. My own teenage years passed in a triumphant and comradely sporting blur – which seems a good way to pass them. But this was at a voluntary aided grammar school which modelled itself on Rugby. And I’m doubtful about whether this is remotely possible in most state schools and also doubtful in retrospect about what the less sporting boys got out of it. My own sons learned most of their sport in clubs, a more diverse experience in many ways and one which made them much more part of the community. It would be wrong, I think, to have a dogmatic or general policy on this issue.

Lincoln Allison