If nations won Olympic medals for the stupidity of their leaders, Team GB would be a prime contender. It’s difficult to conclude anything different following the comments of David Cameron – a Prime Minister whose attempts to hitch a ride on the bandwagon of British sporting success have been increasingly risible – and London’s part-time mayor Boris Johnson. But it’s the casual assumptions these comments reveal that make them interesting.
First, Cameron on school sport, and his much-quoted remarks about Indian dancing on ITV’s Daybreak programme:
“The trouble we have had with targets up to now, which was two hours a week, is that a lot of schools were meeting that by doing things like Indian dance or whatever, that you and I probably wouldn’t think of as sport, so there’s a danger of thinking all you need is money and a target.
Now I know precious little about dancing – Indian or otherwise – as my friends and acquaintances who have never seen me on a dance floor will testify; but it’s surely obvious that dance provides excellent exercise and, when undertaken by groups, involves disciplines of co-ordination and team work. What is fascinating is not just the casual racism of the India reference, but the claim that this is not sport; because, of course, it’s not inherently competitive (although we all know that it can be). That failure to distinguish between exercise and competition seems to me (like the casual racism) to be one of those moments when Cameron’s mask slips and the easy assumptions of his class background comes through.
Now to Boris Johnson, and his assertion that state schools should be required to undertake two hours of compulsory sport per day, like he did at Eton. It’s tempting to wonder whether this is one of those carefully-scripted casual asides that are apparently the hallmark of Brand Boris; but it’s an idea that is both inherently deeply stupid and, once again, reveals much about Johnson’s understanding of the world.
State schools aren’t Eton, obviously. For a start, the students go home at night. And how on earth do you fit two hours a day of sport into the school day? And where do you do it, given the long Tory history of selling off school playing fields? And who do you pay to lead it, since relying on big society volunteers to staff a mandatory activity is an act of lunacy? The playing field can be a cruel and traumatising place for sensitive children – are we now being told by Old Etonians that we must return to the ideology that bullying toughens you up and makes a man of you? Above all, are we being told that working-class children should have their energies focussed on sport rather than academic study, because that is (the subscript goes) what they are fit for?
Boris Johnson’s stupidities have long been given an easy ride by the media (witness the barking idea of moving Heathrow to the Thames Estuary); in almost any other politician this would have been career-finishing stuff. That it isn’t is a rather sobering commentary on the state of political discourse today.
In making these comments, Cameron and Johnson show their profound ignorance of how the vast majority of people live and are, whether they realise it or not, consciously returning to the nineteenth-century origins of organised sports in Britain, with Dr Arnold’s model of work among the slum poor to create sports clubs which kept those on the margins of society out of Godless and criminal activity. And Cameron’s reference to competitive sport fits closely with the social Darwinism that underpinned that ideal; the belief that life is a race in which the most able win, while conveniently ignoring the fact that a small minority of the populace are equipped by birth and wealth to run the race so much faster than their peers. It’s the old reactionary game of, to use Ivan Illich’s phrase, rationalising the head start as achievement. And of course we know that modern management jargon is laced with the language of competitive sport – the presiding ideology of a thousand management courses and team-building exercises.
Britain is a country with an exercise problem. We read almost daily of the childhood obesity problem; of coddled children parked in front of TV and games console, parents mesmerised by traffic and tabloid hysteria about paedophiles into keeping children indoors, while in term ferrying them across town to school by car in the name of school choice. The Government whose leaders mather about competitive sport is the same one that is busy selling off school playing fields and degrading the nutritional standard of state school food.
Behind Cameron’s and Johnson’s statements are the old, desperate ideology that sports are really about producing the right school of chap, and the assumption that the public schools should teach the rest of us how to do it. Britain’s Olympians deserve better than to have their achievements hijacked in the name of class politics.