Saturday, 17 August 2013

Tories at play: a field guide

Part I: team sports

Sport was a key part of the invention of public school education in the 19th century. It served to teach the life skills needed for any potential officer and gentlemen. Therefore, it is essential for understanding the Tory Imagination. The two main team games are rugby and cricket. Both are imperial sports, as seen in the countries that participate in them. Each sport teaches a set of values, and must be understood in turn.

Rugby Union
Rugby Union is designed as preparation for military service. Unlike football which is fairly obvious to pick up, rugby is highly didactic. The rules are complicated, giving referees a great deal of control. Education is chosen over pleasure. The chaos and physicality that puts off outsiders is, of course, the point. Rugby teaches its players to suck up punishment, take control, and hit back. Like an infantry platoon it requires small groups to specialize in particular tasks, and to produce their own leaders. The unpopularity of rugby with most of the British public is again part of the point. Just as the British Army has always been small with a regimental system that encourages elitism, so rugby union installs a feeling among its players that they are a caste a part.

This is why rugby hung on to its amateur status for so long. It allowed its elite players to retain a foothold in key sections of Tory society, so they could assume leadership positions in everyday life. So JPR Williams was a doctor at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, the Underwoods flew Tornadoes for the RAF.


Cricket is for peacetime. Unlike rugby, pleasure is allowed here (hence the importance of meal breaks). Crickets teaches its players that hierarchy is the natural order of society, and that We Are All In This Together. The MCC is the centre of the cricketing world. Below them are the counties each with their own headquarters (The Oval, Trent Bridge, Headingley etc). This structure clearly parallels the Anglican Church, with its diocese and cathedrals. Each county ground also installs hierarchy. As cricket grounds are circular, the pavilion can be seen from all the stands. It is clearly bigger and taller, and the only building of architectural merit. The members of the county (distinguished by their jackets and ties) sit in special sections of the pavilion, allowing normal punters to see them. 

However, a common contemporary misunderstanding is that cricket is a 'Posh' game (although this does reflect the sad decline of local clubs in many areas.) If football is working class, and rugby is middle class, then English cricket is cross-class, a legacy of its rural origins. Traditionally, batsmen were middle and upper class, as this was the elegant part of the game, but one which required less physical movement. Working class players were bowlers, the more aggressive and exhausting side of the game. This became the notorious 'gentlemen vs players' divide: middle class amateurs vs working class professionals. Many of the great England players - Harold Larwood, Fred Trueman, Geoffrey Boycott - have far more impressive proletarian credentials than most suburban Aston Villa fans. However, cricket works hard to create working class Tories, of whom Ian Botham is the outstanding archetype. Fred Trueman and Darren Gough were also both Tories. 

The Left could learn something here, but they refuse to take working class Toryism seriously, seeing it either as a form de-politicization or proto-fascism. Cricket is the real microcosm of class relations in England. Trueman, Boycott and Botham all fell out with cricket's establishment, but never found a way to defeat the blazers. They were left to seethe with resentment for years to come, or ended up fighting among themselves. Finally, they were rehabilitated as colorful characters in the commentary box, acting as foils for the whimsy of the professional cricket journos.

Boycott recalls the injustice of Harold Larwood's career:

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