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David Runciman

David Runciman teaches politics at Cambridge and hosts the podcast Talking Politics. His new book is Where Power Stops, a collection of his LRB essays about political leaders.

Thatcher Undone

David Runciman, 22 December 2019

Now, in the aftermath of December’s general election, the story has come full circle. Faced with Boris Johnson’s Brexit-driven leadership of the party, both Major and Heseltine found themselves unable to support the Conservatives, with Heseltine going so far as to suggest that people vote Liberal Democrat instead. Months earlier, Major had been involved in a lawsuit that accused the sitting Conservative prime minister of having abandoned the constitution. All this would have confirmed Thatcher in her belief that the two men were traitors to the cause. Seeing them routed by Johnson’s overwhelming victory, along with all the other faint-hearts, Europhiles, elitists, lawyers and other metropolitan types, would have given her great pleasure. Her vision of Britain as a Singapore off the coast of Europe no longer has to be hidden. Some, indeed, hope it will soon become official government policy. Yet anyone who wants to see the coming Johnson administration as continuity Thatcherism should bear in mind that what is being channelled today is not Thatcher’s own record in office, but her views after she stepped down.

BJ + Brexit or JC + 2 refs?

David Runciman, 25 November 2019

Leaving aside all the tactical manoeuvring and dishonest electioneering that this mismatch between options and outcomes is bound to produce, one thing looks clear: for most people, the ultimate choice is a pretty miserable one. As far as one can tell, the public is not enthused by the prospect of either BJ + Brexit or JC + 2 refs. Usually that is put down to the personal unpopularity of the two leaders, both of whom attract strongly negative reactions. The people who dislike them seem to dislike them more than the people who like them like them; and many, many people dislike the pair of them. But there is something else going on. What makes the binary options in this election so unpalatable is a political system that puts too much power in the hands of majority governments and too little in the hands of minority ones.

What Struck Cameron

David Runciman, 10 October 2019

Cameron says of his time in government: ‘We proved in an increasingly polarised age that politics wasn’t either/or – you could be pro-defence and pro-aid; pro-family and pro-equality; pro-public services and pro-fiscal prudence too. We demonstrated that you could take the difficult decisions and win elections – and that a government could achieve a lot in just six years.’ So why on earth did he turn British politics into just another either/or question?

Shane Warne

David Runciman, 15 August 2019

When​ the Australian cricketers Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were exposed tampering with the ball during last year’s test series in South Africa there was, along with all the faux outrage, some genuine incredulity. Why did they take such an insane risk? The subterfuge was so cack-handed – rubbing the ball with lurid yellow sandpaper, perfectly suited to be...

The Myth of the Strong Leader

David Runciman, 20 June 2019

Wanting to be Margaret Thatcher is tempting some prime ministerial hopefuls to flirt with being Donald Trump. Trying to be Trump is likely to mean that they end up as Theresa May: full of purpose, empty of product. Maybe there are some out there with a surer understanding of what made Thatcher’s successes possible in the first place. It was a mix of astonishing luck, political pragmatism and an eye for the path of least resistance, all dressed up as implacable resolve. Thatcher was also a stickler for the rules, sensing that they were her best protection against the devious men who were determined to thwart her if they got the chance.

How to Get Screwed

David Runciman, 6 June 2019

Perhaps the deepest irony of all is that in clearing Trump of conspiracy the Mueller report poses a direct challenge to his worldview. Trump gets a pass because conspiracies are hard – hard to co-ordinate, hard to prove. Yet Trump, like all conspiracy theorists, makes the mistake of assuming that they are easy, which is why he sees them everywhere. Really we should start calling people like Trump ‘collusion theorists’. What they imagine to be everywhere is something that, on any serious burden of proof, doesn’t actually exist.

Chris Mullin

David Runciman, 4 April 2019

Chris Mullin’s​ A Very British Coup was a nostalgic book that turned into a prophetic one. First published in 1982 and set towards the end of that decade, it nonetheless recalled the politics of the 1970s. The novel tells the story of Harry Perkins, a Bennite leader of the Labour Party, who wins power at a general election but has it prised away from him by a conspiracy of...

A Change Is Coming

David Runciman, 21 February 2019

It’s not​ 1940. Might it, though, be 1945? By that I don’t mean we are at the end of some epic contest of national survival, let alone of national liberation. It’s not been that sort of contest, and anyway, this doesn’t look much like the end. But for the last few years normal politics has effectively been on hold as the government has grappled with a grim and...

The Brexit Puzzle

David Runciman, 3 January 2019

Here in microcosm is the essence of the Brexit puzzle and the reason it is proving such a nightmare to resolve: are we stuck because we are so divided or are we so divided because we are stuck? The various political mechanisms we have for getting out of this impasse seem inadequate to the task of bridging so many fundamental differences of opinion, yet those differences are being exacerbated by the mechanisms at work. It should in theory be possible to secure parliamentary approval for the sort of compromise deal that May has been working to achieve, given that hardline Brexiteers ought to prefer it to the prospect of not leaving the EU at all, and Remainers should prefer it to the prospect of leaving with no deal. Yet both sides seem united only by their loathing of the sort of compromise May’s deal represents.

The Midterms

David Runciman, 22 November 2018

Many​ political scientists were utterly confounded when Trump won the presidency in 2016. A large number had staked their professional reputations on confident predictions that Hillary Clinton would brush him aside. But when the result came in those same political scientists were kicking themselves for not having seen it coming. What happened turned out to fit pretty well with the outcome...

In the White House

David Runciman, 11 October 2018

The template for this presidency is reality television. The lead character is playing a part that depends on his own words and actions and yet is entirely contrived. The drama is organised around a series of showdowns and confrontations when everything seems to be on the line and yet nothing is really at stake. Each episode ends with some people staying and others being sent home. This seems to matter enormously at the time and yet it is hard to remember from one week to the next why anyone cared. From one season to the next it is hard even to remember who the main players were, and sometimes the winners are the hardest of all to remember. Yet everyone knows whose show it is. And we can’t stop watching.

Obama

David Runciman, 2 August 2018

Was he sufficiently spooked? As the person at the eye of the storm, he does his level best not to let it get to him. From the outset he remains determined not to get dragged down by the craziness that surrounds his every move. This attitude plays to his strengths: his sangfroid is formidable and his refusal to be baited is admirable. But it is also frustrating – Rhodes feels it and by the end the reader feels it as well. It comes too close to that side of Obama’s personality that ends up with him shrugging his shoulders and walking away.

The Last World Cup

David Runciman, 21 June 2018

The evidence for the premise that international sport spreads peace and goodwill has always been fairly thin: every major tournament is dressed up that way but the legacy is more often mothballed stadiums and simmering resentment, as was the case after South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. Rarely, though, has a regime so brazenly signalled its indifference to the niceties of international sport, which require at least the pretence that bad behaviour gets put on hold. As the saying goes, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and this is the currency in which Fifa likes to trade. But Putin isn’t having any of it. He seems to have treated the award of the tournament as a licence to try his luck.

It Has to Happen

David Runciman, 10 May 2018

The likeliest way to overturn the referendum result is to wait until one party or other has taken clear ownership of its consequences. For that to happen, Brexit has to happen too. It is possible that at some point a second referendum will be appropriate, once a new status quo has been established, to see whether people would prefer an alternative. Until then, however, conventional electoral politics will have to decide our collective fate. It makes sense to regret that the referendum happened in the first place. But there is nothing to be gained by regretting the result. No one takes responsibility that way.

Diary: AI

David Runciman, 25 January 2018

It’s three weeks​ before Christmas and Los Angeles is in flames, though you wouldn’t know it from inside the bowels of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Centre, where all is cool and grey. I am here with eight thousand other attendees of the Neural Information Processing Systems (Nips) conference – the great annual get-together of people who work in machine...

Gordon Brown

David Runciman, 4 January 2018

Like many​ recent political memoirists, Gordon Brown begins his story in medias res. Given his rollercoaster time in Downing Street, punctuated by the gut-wrenching drama of the financial crisis, there should have been plenty of arresting moments to choose from. Some, though, are already taken. Alistair Darling, for instance, starts Back from the Brink, his 2011 account of what it was like...

The Choice Was Real

David Runciman, 28 June 2017

One of​ the better arguments for Britain’s leaving the EU was that it might reinvigorate and liberate national politics, stifled for too long by the absence of real choice at election time. The EU is a legalistic and treaty-based political institution designed to take some of the heat out of domestic politics. That left people complaining that the EU was generating all the heat....

Short Cuts: Tony and Jeremy

David Runciman, 19 April 2017

Inevitably,​ the first thing I did when I got my copy of the one-volume edition of The Benn Diaries (Hutchinson, £30) was to look up Jeremy Corbyn in the index. He appears about as often as you’d expect, 15 times in total, scattered at regular intervals across 24 years, from 1983 until 2007. (The diaries end in 2009, five years before Benn’s death.) Corbyn rarely shows up...

What’s Wrong with Theresa May

David Runciman, 16 March 2017

Getting through Brexit successfully will probably require a certain amount of insouciance. As so often in politics, the roles seem to have been handed out the wrong way round. May would have been a far better person than Cameron or Osborne to lead the Remain campaign, and had she done so Britain would almost certainly still be in the EU. But either Cameron or Osborne might do a far better job at negotiating Britain’s departure. What is the Brexit negotiation if not a game? If May is determined to treat it as something else, it could end badly for everyone involved.

A Failed State?

David Runciman, 1 December 2016

People voted for him because they didn’t believe him. They wanted change but they also had confidence in the basic durability and decency of America’s political institutions to protect them from the worst effects of that change. They wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a man like Trump. How else to explain that many people who reported themselves alarmed by the idea of a Trump presidency also voted for him?

The Tory State?

David Runciman, 7 September 2016

As we stumble​ towards the end of this summer of political discontent, talk of the country drifting towards being a one-party state is cheap. The new Conservative government appears impregnable, for the simple reason that the main party of opposition looks incapable of replacing it, yet no one else seems capable of replacing Labour as the main party of opposition. Theresa May commands the...

David Laws​’s memoir of his time in government ends with everything in tatters: he has lost his seemingly safe seat, his party has gone from being a full partner in government to having the same number of MPs as the Democratic Unionists, his leader is shell-shocked and barely able to appear in public without breaking down. Clegg is not the only one: there are lots of tear-stained...

Blair Hawks His Wares

David Runciman, 30 March 2016

Since he left office in 2007 Tony Blair has been hawking his wares around the world, from Nigeria to Kazakhstan. What has he been selling? Himself, of course, plus his reputation, and perhaps his party’s too, somewhere down the river. But he’s also been peddling an idea: deliverology. Tom Bower reports Blair telling Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, back in 2007: ‘I learned by bitter experience during ten years as prime minister the problems of getting the government machine to deliver what I wanted. I created a Delivery Unit, and that was a great success.’

Thatcher in Her Bubble

David Runciman, 3 December 2015

The modern Conservative Party is never happier than when Labour has a unilateral disarmer as its leader. In 1986 Margaret Thatcher arrived at her party’s annual conference in Bournemouth with a spring in her step, despite having endured months of bruising political infighting. She promptly fell over a manhole cover and sprained her ankle but even this did little to dampen her spirits. The reason for her good mood was that over the previous two weeks both the Liberal and Labour Party Conferences had voted in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Climate Change Impasse

David Runciman, 23 September 2015

It’s hard​ to come up with a good analogy for climate change but that doesn’t stop people from trying. We seem to want some way of framing the problem that makes a decent outcome look less unlikely than it often appears. So climate change is described as a ‘moonshot problem’, though of course it isn’t, because the moon presents a fixed target and climate change...

Short Cuts: The Corbyn Surge

David Runciman, 26 August 2015

The Labour Party, putting the decision entirely in the hands of its members for the first time, may elect Jeremy Corbyn. It’s tempting to see this as another IDS moment. But it’s something more than that. The election of IDS was wishful, whereas this looks much more wilful.

Notes on the Election

David Runciman, 20 May 2015

This election​ promised to produce constitutional confusion and uncertainty and instead it has delivered stark clarity. The British electoral system values clarity: few people dissent from the line that it is better to have a government that can pass legislation and take decisions when it needs to than to be stuck with one that stumbles on hand-to-mouth from vote to vote. We seem to prefer...

Notes on the Election

David Runciman, 6 May 2015

One reason​ this election is so hard to call is that history offers a very unreliable guide. For each preferred or predicted outcome there is a historical pattern from which to draw comfort. If you think the Tories should win you can point to the fact that almost no government in the modern era has been turfed out of office after only one term. The exception is Heath’s 1970-74...

Power v. Power

David Runciman, 8 April 2015

In the first half​ of the 19th century radical reformers argued that Britain needed three things if it was ever going to become a real democracy: secret ballots, universal suffrage and annual elections. We got the ballot; we eventually got the suffrage; but in an age of fixed-term five-year parliaments, annual elections are as remote as ever. Nineteenth-century democrats knew that having an...

Notes on the Election

David Runciman, 5 March 2015

One of the​ things Cameron and Obama have in common is that they both owe their rapid political ascent to a single, shortish speech. Obama gave his in 2004 at the Democratic Convention in Boston, where he deftly managed to combine his unusual personal history with a vision of a post-partisan America, and went in one evening from being a promising state senator to a man widely regarded as a...

Notes on the Election

David Runciman, 5 February 2015

Barely​ three months away from the election it is impossible to say who is likely to win: it could be either of the main parties, or it could be neither. Plenty of past elections have been too close to call but once the votes were in it was usually clear what had to happen next, even if in 1974 that meant cobbling together a government for a few months until it was time to have another go....

Short Cuts: Narcissistic Kevins

David Runciman, 6 November 2014

Some professions​ attract people suffering from extreme forms of narcissism (or as it’s sometimes called, narcissistic personality disorder). Politics is one; sport is another. A recent political example is Kevin Rudd, the two-time Australian prime minister, a man with a toxic personality and enormous political gifts. The Australian Labor Party saw that Rudd, who has always been...

A Pound Here, a Pound There

David Runciman, 20 August 2014

In 1989, between finishing my undergraduate degree and starting on a PhD, I worked in a betting shop in Tufnell Park. It was a branch of Coral, then one of the ‘Big Three’ bookmaking firms that dominated the market (the other two were Ladbrokes and William Hill). I was a cashier, which meant I took in the bets, made a record of them and paid out to the lucky winners.

Branson

David Runciman, 20 March 2014

Richard Branson is the mirror image of a Russian oligarch. This is not to say that where they are bad, he is good. If even half the things in Tom Bower’s new biography are true, Branson is far from being good. He is playing the same game as his Russian counterparts, but it’s the looking-glass version. Where they do their best to avoid the glare of publicity, he thrives on it. The oligarchs who got rich by seizing the spoils of the post-Soviet economy sometimes have to pretend to be poorer than they really are, so as not to rouse public fury at the scale of their heist.

Sir Alex Speaks (again)

David Runciman, 9 January 2014

Alex Ferguson is a conspiracist, which is not quite the same as being a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracists see patterns of collusion and deceit behind everyday events. Their default position is that someone somewhere is invariably plotting something. Conspiracy theorists go further: they want to join up the dots and discover the overarching pattern that makes sense of seemingly unrelated happenings. They are looking for the single explanation that underwrites everything. A conspiracist thinks that nothing is entirely innocent.

Short Cuts: The Dirtiest Player Around

David Runciman, 9 October 2013

Dominic Lawson, writing in the Mail, thinks the way to understand Damian McBride’s relationship to Gordon Brown is by analogy with the Third Reich. McBride didn’t need to take direct orders from his boss because he already understood the violence that Brown wished on his enemies. The underling was working towards the Führer. Alastair Campbell, speaking on Andrew Neil’s

1979

David Runciman, 26 September 2013

What was the most significant year of the 20th century? There are three plausible candidates. The first is 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and America’s entry into the First World War, which set in train a century of superpower conflict. The second is 1918, the year that saw Russia’s exit from the war and the defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, which set the stage for the triumph of democracy. The third is 1919, the year of the Weimar constitution and the Paris Peace Conference, which ensured that the triumph would be squandered.

Short Cuts: The Syria Debate

David Runciman, 26 September 2013

Syria has for now turned into the war that never happened thanks to the gaffe that never was. Once John Kerry let slip that there was something Assad could do to head off a military strike – agree to international oversight of his chemical arsenal – the stalled march to war became a headlong retreat. Obama appears to have found a way out of the hole he had dug for himself, with a...

Thatcher’s Rise

David Runciman, 6 June 2013

It’s depressing to suppose that fortune favours the people who can keep going longest. But it does. That is one of the clear lessons from the first volume of Charles Moore’s exhaustive and exhausting authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher, which takes the story up to the Falklands War in 1982. The person on display here is not more intelligent than her rivals, or more principled. She chops and changes as much as they do. But she is a lot more relentless: if anything, she keeps chopping and changing long after they have gone home.

The New Deal

David Runciman, 25 April 2013

Casting around for kindred spirits in the blighted international landscape of the 1930s, Hitler looked fondly towards Dixie. What was not to like? The South was effectively a one-party state. In the 1936 presidential election, FDR’s Democratic ticket won 97 per cent of the vote in Mississippi, 99 per cent in South Carolina. In some counties no votes at all were recorded for Republican...

How can it work? American Democracy

David Runciman, 21 March 2013

American democracy is an amazing, fascinating, bewildering thing. There has never been anything else like it. Even now, as democracy becomes an ever more familiar feature of our world, there is still nothing like the American version. During the early years of the American republic, in the first half of the 19th century, what fascinated outsiders was its sheer implausibility. Could you...

The Profumo Affair

David Runciman, 21 February 2013

In 1963, the year of his disgrace, the sleek, balding, faintly exotic Jack Profumo was secretary of state for war. It sounds like an important job – what could matter more than war for the functioning of the state? Undoubtedly this helped to give impetus to the Profumo affair. Help! The war secretary is cavorting with call-girls and Russian spies! But Profumo’s job title was somewhat misleading. The war secretary was really a junior minister responsible for the army, ranking only fourth in the defence hierarchy. He was not in the cabinet.

Lance Armstrong’s Regime

David Runciman, 22 November 2012

I was one of those Olympics gloomsters who, as Boris Johnson gleefully pointed out when the Games had finished, were scattered and routed by the rip-roaring success of London 2012. I assumed something would go wrong; everything went right. I thought people would complain about the cost; no one seems to have begrudged a penny. It was a triumph: I accept that now. But in one respect I still refuse to buy it. Before the Olympics began there were fears that the event would be overshadowed by a drugs scandal or by the steady drip-drip of multiple failed drugs tests.

Occupy

David Runciman, 25 October 2012

There is some competition to be the person who inspired the slogan of Occupy Wall Street: ‘We are the 99 per cent.’ Joseph Stiglitz thinks it might be him, on the back of an article he wrote for Vanity Fair in 2011 entitled: ‘Of the 1 per cent, by the 1 per cent, for the 1 per cent.’ Others think it was the economist Emmanuel Saez, who helped popularise the idea that 99 per cent of American households have been watching their incomes stagnate or fall while the top 1 per cent pulled away. As Saez reported back in 2007, since the 1970s half of all income growth has been captured by just 1 per cent of the population.

LBJ

David Runciman, 5 July 2012

Lyndon Johnson always believed he would be president. As a boy in Texas, growing up in poor and sometimes desperate circumstances, he told anyone who would listen that he was headed for the White House. He mapped out a plan to get there from which, as Robert Caro writes, ‘he refused to be diverted.’ It meant first establishing himself in state politics, then winning a seat in the House of Representatives, then moving up to the Senate and finally to the highest office. He was undaunted by the fact that no Southerner had been president for the best part of a century.

Our Very Own Oligarchs

David Runciman, 7 June 2012

You can tell Russia is not a real democracy because there is no great mystery about its politics. Democracies are slightly baffling in how they work: just look at America; just look at Europe; just look at us. In Russia the basics are easy to understand: people use money to get power and power to get money. The country is ruled by a narrow, self-serving elite who go through the motions of...

Europe’s Crisis

David Runciman, 5 January 2012

The recent Brussels summit to save the euro was a strange affair, and not just because of the quixotic behaviour of the British delegation. It was presided over by two politicians who were giving out a very mixed message. Nicolas Sarkozy told the world in the run-up to the meeting that this was the moment of truth not just for the currency but for the future of democracy. Europe only had a few days to save itself: ‘Never has Europe been in so much danger,’ he announced. Get this wrong and ‘there will be no second chance.’ It was salvation or the abyss.

True Blue Labour

David Runciman, 28 July 2011

One of Ed Miliband’s first decisive acts on becoming Labour leader (one of his few decisive acts, sceptics would say) was to appoint as his press secretary a seasoned hack with no illusions about how the media work. He chose Tom Baldwin of the Times, by all accounts about as unillusioned as they get. I assume the point of hiring Baldwin was to have a News International insider who could mix it with the likes of Andy Coulson, although that’s an idea Miliband is doing his best to bury at the moment. At the same time, Miliband revealed his other side when he elevated his favourite maverick intellectual, the community organiser and social theorist Maurice Glasman, to the House of Lords. Glasman was under instructions to keep thinking outside the New Labour box. Baldwin and Glasman represent the yin and the yang of Project Edward Miliband: the bruiser and the dreamer. So far, though, there is little sign of harmony.

Mourinho’s Way

David Runciman, 30 June 2011

Until recently, one of the most remarkable unbeaten records in sport belonged to a football manager, the much reviled Portuguese provocateur and clotheshorse José Mourinho. Before Real Madrid lost 1-0 at home to Sporting Gijón on 2 April, no team managed by Mourinho had lost a home league game for more than nine years, a sequence spanning four different clubs in four different countries (Mourinho has also managed Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan) and lasting 150 matches. It is true that Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real are all rich and powerful clubs and you would not expect them to lose at home very often – but still, nine years is a mighty long time. Even if you calculate that on average away teams only ever had a 10 per cent chance of beating one of Mourinho’s sides (for some, like Gijón, it might be a lot less, but for others, like Sporting Lisbon, AC Milan, Manchester United or Barcelona, it would be a lot more), the odds against going unbeaten for 150 matches are more than seven million to one.

Offshore

David Runciman, 14 April 2011

How to sum up Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, that emblematic figure of our times, with his doctorate from the LSE, his charitable foundations, his extensive property portfolio, his playboy lifestyle, his motley collection of friends (Peter Mandelson, Nat Rothschild, Prince Andrew), his ready access to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund, and his recently professed willingness to eliminate the enemies of his father’s regime one bullet at a time? He’s a hypocrite, of course, but that hardly does him justice (who isn’t?). He is also, on some accounts, a victim: his unfortunate mentor at the LSE, David Held, has described the predicament the ostensibly reform-minded Saif found himself in after his father’s people had revolted as ‘the stuff of Shakespeare’, but that surely is letting everyone concerned off far too lightly. He may just be a smooth-talking thug, and many online observers have noted that he seems to model himself on the smooth-talking thug and would-be businessman Stringer Bell from The Wire. But the word that best captures Saif Gaddafi comes from Nicholas Shaxson’s blistering account of the role that tax havens play in international finance. Shaxson doesn’t discuss the Gaddafis themselves, but he does paint a picture of the world in which the young Gaddafi, until very recently, felt right at home. This is the world of ‘offshore’.

How the coalition was formed

David Runciman, 16 December 2010

In a hung parliament, should the MPs who hold the balance of power side with the party that came first in the election, or the party that came second? The reason for going with the winners is democratic propriety – they can claim more of a mandate – plus a desire to avoid the embarrassment of being seen to prop up a coalition of losers. The reason for going with the losers is that they need more propping up, so it should be possible to screw bigger concessions from them. The more tenuous the coalition, the greater the opportunities for extortion. Propriety and embarrassment v. power and blackmail – which is it to be? Well, this is politics, so which do you think.

Blair Drills Down

David Runciman, 7 October 2010

Tony Blair emerges from these memoirs as a man of extraordinary intellectual self-confidence. He likes to think for himself, and decide for himself, whatever the issue. He takes this to be one of the key attributes of leadership, and it is why he believes he was cut out for it while other people (you can guess who) were not. But he also puts it down to his training as a barrister at the hands of Derry Irvine, someone he describes as having ‘a brain the size of a melon’. From Irvine Blair learned the importance of what he calls ‘drilling down’ when faced with a seemingly intractable problem.

Hitchens’s Hitchens

David Runciman, 24 June 2010

For Carl Schmitt, political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things. They are ostensibly self-sufficient yet also have a desperate need for human comradeship. They loathe abuses of power, but invariably end up worshipping power itself, sometimes indiscriminately. Above all, in place of God they substitute themselves. All of this sounds a lot like Christopher Hitchens.

The End of the UK?

David Runciman, 27 May 2010

However you juggle the numbers, in Scottish terms this new Westminster government really is a coalition of losers. But in the end it was even harder to see how that other possible coalition of losers – a Labour/ Lib Dem alliance – could have forced through tax rises in England, where the Tories have a clear majority of seats and had a margin of victory over Labour in the popular vote of more than 11 per cent. Politics in the UK is now comprehensively out of sync. If the public finances were in better shape, this might not matter so much. But with horribly difficult choices to be made by whoever is in power, the pressures are bound to build.

John Edwards

David Runciman, 25 March 2010

Along with a good lawyer, an agent and a PR representative, celebrity miscreants now need an enabler: the person who indulged them in their vices and so can be blamed for failing to get them to stop. ‘Who enabled Tiger Woods?’ is one of those questions, like ‘Who lost China?’, that seems to demand an answer, when really it is just a way of avoiding the fact that Tiger...

Clinton

David Runciman, 17 December 2009

At moments Clinton rants and rages, at others he becomes tearful, occasionally he gets bored and sometimes he even falls asleep. One memorable exchange, just after he has been trounced in the 1994 midterm elections, begins with Clinton in the White House barber’s chair, exhausted and frequently nodding off mid-sentence, only to rouse himself for a renewed bout of defiance and self-pity before slumping back again. Branch leaves him still talking to himself, and wonders if the president is suffering from narcolepsy, or something worse.

Who benefits from equality?

David Runciman, 22 October 2009

You can’t simply say that inequality means we are all suffering together. Instead, it may mean that the poor are doing so badly that the rich aren’t interested in looking at the wider picture. They are focused on making sure they don’t wind up poor.

The Future of Wikipedia

David Runciman, 28 May 2009

It turns out that the people who believe in truth and objectivity are at least as numerous as all the crazies, pranksters and time-wasters, and they are often considerably more tenacious, ruthless and monomaniacal. On Wikipedia, it’s the good guys who will hunt you down.

Athenian Democracy and Google

David Runciman, 29 January 2009

The wisdom of crowds: why the many are smarter than the few. We-think: the power of mass creativity. Infotopia: how many minds produce knowledge. Wikinomics: how mass collaboration changes everything. These are the titles of just a few of the books published in recent years on one of the hot topics of the moment: knowledge aggregation, or how lots of different people knowing many small things...

Diary: The Problem with English Football

David Runciman, 23 October 2008

When I was younger I used to support a football team that no longer exists, called Wimbledon FC. They played at Plough Lane, a small, ramshackle ground in an ugly bit of South London (some way off from the Wimbledon where the tennis happens), and they played a rough, rumbustious style of football that didn't endear them to outsiders but warmed the hearts of their fans, especially when it enabled them to turn over fancier, more fastidious teams, who often seemed to perform at Plough Lane as though they had clothes-pegs on their noses.

Why Vote?

David Runciman, 9 October 2008

Why would anyone vote for Barack Obama? Not why would anyone want to see Obama elected president rather than John McCain (or Hillary Clinton for that matter), but why would anyone who desired that outcome think that his or her individual vote could make the slightest difference in helping to bring it about? General elections are never decided by a single vote, so no one’s vote is ever going to be missed. If you want Obama to win, and plan to vote for him, but you forget, or find yourself otherwise detained, don’t worry – the final result will be unaffected by your failure to show up, even if you happen to live in a swing state like Ohio or Florida. If Obama is winning the state, he will do perfectly well without you; if he is losing, there is nothing you can do to help him get over the line, because the winning line will always be further away than your paltry individual vote. Either way, you are not needed, so why bother to vote at all?

The Point of the Polls

David Runciman, 5 June 2008

The American philosopher John Dewey thought that democracy should be like a giant conversation: the nation talking to itself about its hopes and fears and listening to what other people have to say. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Dewey, he never got to hear what such a conversation might sound like, because the technology wasn’t available. Dewey was born in 1859, which means the first election of his lifetime was one of the most consequential in American history, the 1860 contest that brought Abraham Lincoln to the White House. It wasn’t much of a conversation though, more an exercise in mutual incomprehension and loathing, with entirely different campaigns being fought in the North and the South (where for the most part Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot). Dewey died in the summer of 1952, so the last election he was able to follow all the way through was the one four years earlier, when Harry Truman beat Thomas Dewey (no relation) in one of the great upsets in US presidential history. This was the election that is remembered for the photo of a triumphant Truman holding up an edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune announcing that Dewey had beaten him. If that election was a conversation, the American people had clearly been talking behind their hands.

The British Constitution

David Runciman, 7 February 2008

Does Britain need a written constitution? Of course it does, which is why, as Anthony King points out at the start of this readable and illuminating book, it has one already. Whatever its detractors might think, Britain is not some folkloric society governed according to immemorial custom on the nod and the wink of the people in the know. Most of the rules of modern British political life, from the 1701 Act of Settlement on, are set down in statutes, which in total run to many hundreds of pages and cover everything from the maximum duration of Parliaments to the relationship between British and EU law. Not everything is written down – there are no statutes determining the role of the prime minister or fixing the responsibilities of cabinet government – but then again, no constitution has everything written down. The American constitution, which is often held up as a model of all-seeing sufficiency, leaves a great deal out, including the rules governing the country’s electoral system: the principle of first past the post is an integral feature of the constitutional order, but nowhere is this actually specified. In fact, it is rare for modern constitutions to fix the details of the electoral system. This is perhaps because one of the few that tried – the Weimar constitution, Articles 17 and 22 of which established that all federal elections should be conducted according to the principle of proportional representation – was such a disaster.

Brown and Friends

David Runciman, 3 January 2008

Gordon Brown, like all prime ministers, like all politicians, like all of us really, is over-reliant on the advice of a small group of people he thinks he can trust. In Brown’s case, these tend to be men who once worked as juniors in his office, having been hand-picked at a very young age. Douglas Alexander became Brown’s researcher and speechwriter when he was in his early...

The NGO

David Runciman, 29 November 2007

On 24 July, in a speech to the Rwandan parliament, David Cameron said that the old ideological divisions concerning aid and trade – aid is ‘wasteful’, trade is ‘unfair’ – needed to be abandoned in favour of a commitment to what works. He talked about the importance of transparency and accountability at both governmental and non-governmental levels to ensure...

Diary: Dylan on the radio

David Runciman, 19 July 2007

Before he discovered literature in a friend’s apartment in New York, Bob Dylan’s connection to the world beyond the narrow one into which he was born came almost exclusively from the radio. The radio is usually on somewhere in the background of his memoirs, and it’s always broadening his horizons, letting him know what American music could sound like, in all its unexpected...

Blair v. Brown

David Runciman, 2 November 2006

During Liars’ Week at the Labour Party Conference last month – when Gordon pretended that he still had a lot of time for Tony, on hearing which Cherie said that’s a lie, but being overheard herself had to deny she’d said any such thing, though the next day Tony more or less admitted that her denial wasn’t to be trusted either, before going on to pretend that he still admired Gordon too, and then pledging himself to the cause of peace in the Middle East – it was no surprise that the boldest liar of all came out on top. Fortune favours the brave. In politics, it is tempting to think that a lie is a lie is a lie, and since everyone is at it, all that matters is what you can get away with. But that is to do Tony Blair a disservice. He is not simply the boldest liar, he is also the best, in that he understands better than anyone the new rules of political fabrication. He comprehensively outmanoeuvred Gordon Brown in Manchester by being truer both to himself and to the spirit of contemporary politics in the way he stretched the truth. Blair was sincere in the lies he told. Brown, by contrast, came across as a straightforward hypocrite.

Winners Do Drugs

David Runciman, 3 August 2006

Inside a shopping mall in Fargo, North Dakota there is a museum dedicated to the memory of Roger Maris, one-time star of the New York Yankees and home run champion of baseball. When I visited in the mid-1990s I thought it was the saddest museum I had ever seen. The reason it lurks in the entrance to a mall – just a few glass-fronted displays of old shirts, balls and assorted memorabilia for people to glance at on their way to spend money on something else – is that Maris made it clear before his death from lymphoma at the age of 51 that he didn’t want anyone to make a fuss. They had made a fuss of him once before, and he hadn’t liked it at all.

José Mourinho

David Runciman, 5 January 2006

In the United States, there has been a lot of serious academic research – and some not so serious – into the curious phenomenon of the Hot Hand. In all sports, there are moments when an individual player or whole team suddenly gets hot, and starts performing way beyond expectations. When this happens, the player or team seems to acquire an aura of self-assurance that transmits itself to supporters, fuelling a strong conviction that things are going to turn out for the best. This sense of conviction then reinforces the confidence of the players in their own abilities, appearing to create for a while a virtuous circle of infallibility in which nothing can, and therefore nothing does, go wrong. The quintessential instance of the Hot Hand (which gives the phenomenon its name) occurs in basketball, where certain players suddenly and inexplicably acquire the ability to nail three-point baskets one after another (in basketball you get three points for any basket scored from a distance of over 23'9", a formidably difficult feat which means even the best players miss more often than they score). When a player gets the Hot Hand, his or her team-mates know to give them the ball and let fate take its course. Anyone who has watched a game in which a player acquires this gift will recognise the feeling of predestination that descends on all concerned: players, spectators, commentators (above all, commentators) just know what is going to happen each time the Hot One lines up a basket from some improbable position on the court. He shoots! He scores!

Beyond the Ashes

David Runciman, 22 September 2005

It would be nice, particularly after this summer of summers, to think that the Ashes remains the pre-eminent contest in world cricket, and that Anglo-Australian rivalry is still one of the most significant in all sport. But it is not true, and it hasn’t been true for some time. The rivalry in international cricket that counts at present is the one between Australia and India. If this were geopolitics, then Australia would be the United States, the one unquestioned superpower for over a decade, used to getting their own way ever since they saw off their rival superpower, the West Indies, in the early 1990s (the West Indian cricket team, like the Russian state, now seems to be in a condition of permanent and rather squalid decline). India, meanwhile, would be China, the superpower of the future, with all the resources needed to beat the Australians at their own game – the manpower, the talent, the raw nationalist passion – so long as a way can be found by their often corrupt and incompetent administrators of harnessing these obvious advantages. And England? England would be the EU: once the centre of the world, but currently engaged in an urgent and not always pretty attempt to modernise in order not to get left behind.

Bush and the ‘Death Tax’

David Runciman, 2 June 2005

The mystery is this: how did the repeal of a tax that applies only to the richest 2 per cent of American families become a cause so popular and so powerful that it steamrollered all the opposition placed in its way? . . . Because it was a tax that so obviously took from the relatively few to relieve the burden on the very many, there seemed no possibility that a sufficiently large or durable coalition of interests could ever be formed to get rid of it. Yet during the 1990s just such a coalition came into being, and not only did it hold together, it grew to the point where the clamour for estate tax repeal seemed irresistible. What Graetz and Shapiro want to know is how the architects of repeal got so many different people on board. How they stopped them falling out among themselves, once it became clear that they could not possibly have the same interests in common. And why the hell the Democratic Party didn’t do more to stop them.

Selling the NHS

David Runciman, 21 April 2005

Hypocrisy is such a ubiquitous feature of democratic politics that it can be hard to take it seriously. Indeed, taking it seriously is sometimes held to be a sign of political immaturity, or worse still, just more hypocrisy. We know that politicians can’t possibly sustain all the absurd contortions we demand of them as the price for securing our votes. In such circumstances, to insist...

Blair’s conference speech

David Runciman, 21 October 2004

Nothing is certain in politics, but three things seem pretty certain about the next general election, whenever it comes. First, Labour’s share of the vote will go down (from just under 41 per cent in 2001). Second, voter turnout will also go down (from 59.4 per cent). Third, Labour will still win with a sizeable majority. Understandably, no one is particularly happy about this, least of...

Most of us, most of the time, are deeply prejudiced in favour of individual over collective judgments. This is hardly surprising, since we are all biased. First, we are biased in favour of our own opinions, which we tend to prefer to those of anyone else. Second, we are biased in favour of individuals generally, because we are all individuals ourselves, and so are broadly sympathetic to the...

Blair’s Gambles

David Runciman, 20 May 2004

Is Iraq Tony Blair’s Suez? The parallels are certainly hard to avoid, and Blair’s critics have not been slow to point them out. First, there is a strong suspicion that, like Suez, the whole Iraq escapade was the result of a private deal cooked up between the belligerents. The decision to send British and French troops to Egypt in 1956 was sealed during a secret meeting at...

Taking a Chance on War

David Runciman, 1 April 2004

“’This is not a time to err on the side of caution,’ Blair said, ‘not a time to weigh the risks to an infinite balance; not a time for the cynicism of the worldly wise who favour playing it long.’ And yet he also argues exactly the opposite – that what matters is taking precautions against future disaster, seeing the big picture, weighing the overall balance of risks. In the very next paragraph, he remarks: ‘It is monstrously premature to think that the threat has passed. The risk remains in the balance here and abroad.’ This, then, is not a time to err on the side of caution and not a time to err on the side of incaution. Such an argument can be used to justify anything.”

A home run

David Runciman, 19 February 2004

“Two professional baseball franchises are known to be cursed. One is the Chicago Cubs, playing out of beautiful, haunted Wrigley Field. In 1945 a local tavern owner called William Sianis was refused entry to a World Series game at Wrigley because he wanted to bring his goat with him (according to legend, the goat ‘smelt’, though this door policy has not always been consistently applied at baseball stadiums). Sianis chose to slaughter the animal instead, in order to curse the Cubs, whom he decreed would never play in another World Series. They never have.”

The Abbé Sieyès

David Runciman, 23 October 2003

Most of the 18th-century political theorists with the biggest reputations come from rather out-of-the-way places, at least in geopolitical terms: Vico from Naples; Hume and Adam Smith from Edinburgh; Rousseau from Geneva; Kant from Königsberg. But because the 18th century was also, in the end, an Age of Revolution, its two most important political thinkers do not really belong in this...

The uses of referendums

David Runciman, 10 July 2003

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing begins his generally sensible if utterly hideous preamble to the new draft European Constitution with a line from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. ‘Our Constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.’ It is hard to know what to make of this. In any other context one...

Blair’s Masochism

David Runciman, 8 May 2003

On 1 April, the Guardian admonished the Prime Minister to remember the importance of living up to his good intentions:

Putting Iraq to rights, in Mr Blair’s view, should be the whole world’s business. The more that all nations make common cause to do this, the better. The less this happens, the more vital it is to balance any absence of common cause with a sense of equitable and...

The Widening Atlantic

David Runciman, 3 April 2003

“If states such as Iraq are what is important, then the threat is manageable again; but if the threat is manageable again, then there is no need for the world’s most powerful state to feel threatened. It is this paradox – the post-Hobbesian paradox – that explains the rift between Europe and America, not the clash between Hobbesians and Kantians.”

After the Nation State

David Runciman, 6 June 2002

Imagine that in the near future another terrible famine strikes sub-Saharan Africa, at a time when most Western governments are preoccupied with fighting and funding the never-ending war on terrorism. The ghastly images are duly laid out for public consumption on the nightly news, but the public is jaded by too many images of a suffering world. Then some bright spark in one of the...

Post-nationalism

David Runciman, 19 July 2001

What is wrong with the idea of a world state? John Rawls, the world’s most celebrated living political philosopher, believes that the answer is relatively straightforward. ‘I follow Kant’s lead in Perpetual Peace,’ he writes, ‘in thinking that a world government – by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central...

From The Blog
18 December 2017

‘Just wait till next year’ is the perennial cry of the disappointed sports fan, particularly in the US, where all the big sporting events – bar the Olympics – are annual ones. In the major American sports there’s no relegation or promotion, so year on year the same contests recur, and next time really could be different. It’s the glory – and the horror – of international sport that it doesn’t operate to that comforting rhythm. If you blow a World Cup, it will be at least four years till you get another chance. If you lose an Ashes series before we even get to Christmas, it won’t be next year’s Christmas present to have them returned.

From The Blog
11 July 2016

In the end Portugal did to France at Euro 2016 what Greece had done to Portugal at Euro 2004: they scraped a 1-0 win against the home favourites in the final. France played like a team who believed the hard work had already been done in getting there. That’s what made them vulnerable to an upset, especially against a side like Portugal, who had a recent folk memory of getting stung in their own backyard. It means that no host nation has won the European championships since France in 1984, just as no host nation has won the World Cup since France in 1998. Home advantage isn’t what it used to be.

From The Blog
2 July 2016

Most people have a favourite team or, failing that, a favourite player. I’ve never been sure about those but I have always had a favourite goal, at least since 1998. Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute winner for Holland against Argentina in that year’s World Cup quarter-final contained everything you could want: a momentous occasion, heart-stopping drama and aesthetic perfection. Bergkamp took Frank de Boer’s fifty-yard pass out of the air, controlled it with one touch, left the Argentina no. 2 for dead with his second and nonchalantly flicked it home. Then he lay on his back while the world went mad. I can still remember the sense of wonder seeing it in real time. It never grows old. Now that goal has a rival.

From The Blog
28 June 2016

It took about as long for Roy Hodgson’s whole world to fall apart as it did for David Cameron’s. The evening began full of false promise and hubristic talk of the tougher challenges ahead. The early Rooney penalty seemed to confirm that there was nothing to worry about, just like those fake exit polls showing Remain comfortably ahead. The betting markets tightened. Then, in rapid succession, came the double blow: it was 12 minutes from Sigurdsson’s equaliser to Sigthorsson’s second; 16 minutes from the result in Newcastle showing the two sides neck and neck to the result from Sunderland showing Leave alarmingly ahead.

From The Blog
24 June 2016

Why did he do it? Why take such a needlessly cavalier risk with the country’s future and his own? Maybe he thought his luck would hold. Well, it didn’t. It’s hard to see a path back to the European summit from here. Yes, facing Iceland rather than Portugal turns out to be a slice of good fortune. But then it’s likely to be France in the quarters, and if it comes to that Germany or Spain in the semis. The final seems a very long way off. And all because Hodgson took a gamble against Slovakia, in the mistaken belief that he was in control of his own destiny. I never had Hodgson down as a Cameron-style chancer.

From The Blog
20 June 2016

I haven’t watched every game, and I may not have been paying attention, but I don’t think I’ve seen a single cutaway to a non-white face in the crowd at this tournament. I was particularly struck by this during the match between Croatia and the Czech Republic, when all the players were white too, along with the coaches and the officials. (There are no non-white referees. Does UEFA ever think about things like this? I doubt it.) That game was one of an increasing number at which violence has erupted in the stands. Croatia’s fans are notoriously racist but there were no ethnic minorities around for them to target; they beat each other up instead. Euro 2016 has been characterised by its white-on-white violence.

From The Blog
15 June 2016

Those of us stuck at home and unable to enjoy the pleasures of fraternising on the streets of Marseille or Lens have to make do with what we can glean from the TV coverage. Even then it’s possible to get a strong feel for what divides Europe as well as what unites us. France, it turns out, is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Specifically, the French seem to have a different idea of what action replays are for.

From The Blog
12 June 2016

England played against Russia like a team that could win this tournament, but also like a team that almost certainly won’t. It’s the usual story: you worry about them getting tired. In the first half they looked at times like world-beaters – Euro-beaters anyway – but the second half wasn’t so good (it very rarely is for England at big tournaments) and in the end they couldn’t hang on. So far, so familiar. However, it’s more specific than that. This time you worry about them getting Tottenham tired.

From The Blog
9 June 2016

The Euros have always had a couple of advantages over the more grandiose spectacle of the World Cup. First, genuine outsiders do sometimes win the whole thing. It’s happened twice in the last six tournaments. In 1992 the Danish team, who hadn’t qualified for the finals, were summoned off the beach after Yugoslavia had to pull out (shortly before ceasing to exist); they ended up beating the Germans in the final. In 2004 Greece came from more or less nowhere to lift the trophy, defeating home favourites Portugal in both the first match of the tournament and the last. No outsider has ever won a World Cup, unless you count West Germany in 1954 (the so-called ‘Miracle of Bern’). Almost by definition, any sporting contest that has to look to German success to provide evidence of its unpredictability is a fairly closed shop.

From The Blog
27 May 2016

As someone who struggles to remember basic facts about my family (middle names, dates of birth), I’m grateful when online security questionnaires give the option of naming the sports team you most want to lose. I know the answer to that one: Manchester United. I have sometimes wondered how much use it is as a security filter. Isn’t almost everyone’s answer to that question Manchester United? Now I face a dilemma. If the question asked me to name my favourite manager I’d also have no trouble supplying an answer: Jose Mourinho. That, I realise, is a more unusual response.

From The Blog
18 December 2015

Why did Mourinho get the push? The word is that he lost the dressing-room – too many Chelsea players had clearly grown sick of the sight of him – but there’s something else he’s recently lost as well: his astonishing good looks. Photos in this morning’s papers of Mourinho on the training ground just before his dismissal show a balding, puffy, slightly dishevelled figure. Once agelessly glamorous, he now looks older than his 52 years. When he arrived in English football in 2004 he came trailing not just a reputation for arrogance and achievement but unquestioned sex appeal. He was frankly a lot better looking than any of his players. In such a deeply homoerotic sport, this counts for a lot. The extraordinary hold he had over homely superstars like Frank Lampard and John Terry stemmed in large part from their desire to please their handsome boss: they used to look at him with adoring eyes, just waiting for a hug. Their fondest hope was that some of his stardust would rub off on them. Not any more. Now he looks more like Terry’s grumpy uncle.

From The Blog
14 July 2014

In the end, the 2014 World Cup final turned out like the 2010 final. A scoreless match that seemed to be heading for penalties was only settled at the death when a composed, compact player managed to hold his nerve in front of goal, after everyone else had lost theirs. Last time it was Iniesta. Yesterday it was Götze. But really it was a different sort of match, as befits a different sort of tournament. The 2010 final was overshadowed by the performance of the referee, Howard Webb, who failed to control the spoiling tactics of the Dutch. This time, each side gave as good as it got and the contest had a proper shape to it. Had Higuaín’s first-half goal, which was correctly ruled out for offside, been allowed to stand, it would have been a very different occasion. But the officials got the important decisions right. Argentina fluffed each of their legitimate chances and have no one to blame but themselves. The game spoke for itself.

From The Blog
12 July 2014

The arrival of the World Cup final is always a melancholy moment. It means no more lounging around the house in the knowledge that another game will be on in a minute. More than a month of wall-to-wall football gives way to a little bit of cricket and some desultory transfer speculation in the papers. It feels like the end of summer. Really it should feel like the start of summer – after all, it’s early July and the schools haven’t broken up yet. But when I was younger I used to resent the thought that there was now no excuse to stay indoors with the curtains drawn. I still feel like that. To make things worse, the final itself is usually a letdown. There hasn’t been a really exciting one for almost thirty years.

From The Blog
9 July 2014

The last time Argentina met Holland at the World Cup, in 2006, the match ended in a forgettable goalless draw. The time before that, in 1998, a meeting between the two countries produced a moment that never grows old: the exquisite winner scored in the 90th minute by Dennis Bergkamp, a seventy-yard pass that he controlled with one touch, redirected with another and flicked home with a third, a sequence that’s about as close as football ever gets to ballet. But the time before that, in 1978, Argentina v. Holland has some of the worst associations of any World Cup match. They don’t relate to what happened on the field, but to what was happening off it, in the prisons and torture chambers of Buenos Aires.

From The Blog
9 July 2014

Well, it won’t be the Bite for which this World Cup is remembered after all. Something more shocking did happen. The form book turned out to be a useless guide (Brazil were undefeated in twelve games before last night). Home advantage counted for nothing in the end. Goldman Sachs got it wrong. Stephen Hawking got it wrong. I got it wrong. Everyone got it wrong. Sure, there will be people saying that this Brazilian team was there for the taking, that someone was bound to expose its manifold weaknesses. But no one predicted that result. It simply doesn’t happen that big teams concede seven goals at home against major rivals. It doesn’t happen in the Premier League or in La Liga or in Serie A. It’s inconceivable that Chelsea or Barcelona or Juventus would ship seven at home to anyone, no matter how weakened their team or how unlucky the performance. It doesn’t happen in the Champions League or in the European Championships. It’s certainly never happened at the World Cup. Before last night’s match some bookmakers had Germany as the slight favourites to win, but the margin of their victory is perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the sport.

From The Blog
7 July 2014

This World Cup has had most things but one thing it has lacked is a genuine upset. In the round of 16 each match was won by the team that had previously won its qualifying group. In the quarter-finals the likeliest winners in each case turned out to be the actual winners. Now we are left with four teams of impeccable World Cup pedigree whom the bookies cannot separate: any of them would be an entirely plausible lifter of the trophy (the Dutch have never won it before but with three defeats in the final and a history of heroic endeavour they are long overdue). Yes, there have been some mild shocks along the way: few people anticipated that Spain would be trounced by Holland in their opening match and Costa Rica’s victory over Italy was somewhat unexpected, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been given how the Italians were playing. On the whole, though, the form book has been an unerringly reliable guide.

From The Blog
4 July 2014

Any World Cup match-up between Germany and France is an opportunity to exorcise the demons of 1982, when the two countries (if you treat Germany and West Germany as the same country) met in a semi-final that remains one of the most traumatic matches in World Cup history. Certainly, it traumatised me. Most people remember it for the horrific foul committed by the German keeper, Harald Schumacher, who jumped knees-first into the onrushing French forward Patrick Battiston, knocking out his teeth, breaking his ribs and leaving him unconscious. What made it worse was that no foul was actually given. After the match, Schumacher’s lack of contrition stoked anti-German feeling in France to the point that Schmidt and Mitterrand had to issue a joint statement to calm tensions. But at the time – that is, as the game was unfolding – it didn’t seem so bad. Football was still a contact sport back then, and these things happened. The horror was what came later.

From The Blog
2 July 2014

The star of this World Cup is called Brazuca. Who’s he? It’s the ball. It got its name in a poll of Brazilians in 2012: according to FIFA they chose it because the word ‘captures national pride in the Brazilian way of life’ (the second choice was the Bossa Nova, which would have been overegging it a little). The ball was designed by Adidas with the aim of avoiding the flaws of its predecessor, the Jabulani, whose erratic performance marred the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Football designers often have a not-so-secret agenda to build something that will lead to more goals. The Jabulani was smooth and light, in the expectation that it would fly into the net. Unfortunately its aerodynamic features, combined with the high altitude at many South African grounds, meant it was more likely to fly away. The players didn’t trust their ability to control it over long distances, which contributed to the general ugliness of a tetchy, finickety tournament. Too many games ended up being played at close quarters.

From The Blog
27 June 2014

People with a passing interest in football often ask two questions about the World Cup. When will an African team win it? When will the United States win it? Both good questions. It’s long been clear that some of the world’s most talented footballers come from Africa and they often emerge in clusters from particular places (Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast). But as yet this hasn’t translated into any world-beating teams. In the US the appeal of soccer has been on the rise for a while now, leading to the suspicion that when the Americans put their mind to it they could translate their enormous global clout into on-field dominance. But again, it hasn’t happened yet.

From The Blog
25 June 2014

This is the day after the incident that will no doubt be the one for which this World Cup is best remembered (it will take something pretty tasty in the remaining games to dislodge it). The tournament now divides into pre-bite and post-bite. The world is already awash with virtual newsprint expressing various shades of bemusement, amusement or (most often) outrage at Luis Suárez and his ravenous teeth. I hesitate to add to the surfeit of noise. But really, why is one footballer biting another so uniquely shocking?

From The Blog
23 June 2014

At every World Cup there are ghosts at the feast: teams who ought to be there but aren’t. Some of these sides do actually show up but turn out to be shadows of their former selves, like poor old Spain, dead men walking after just a couple of games (there will be a certain ghoulish fascination to seeing how they perform in their final zombie match-up with the Australians). But there are also the teams that you would expect to be watching who have somehow failed to qualify. During the 1970s the ghosts were England, who went from being one of the best teams in the world to no-shows at both the 1974 and 1978 finals. In this tournament part of an entire continent is missing. Europe remains notably over-represented in what is supposed to be a global competition. But it’s not the whole of Europe that is in Brazil. It’s the south and the east. The far north and the east are more or less absent. You could walk (or swim) from Turkey to Norway through an arc of countries with a proud World Cup heritage that have failed to make the cut this time: Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland all missed out. This is the first World Cup since 1982 with no Scandinavian representation, and in that tournament there were plenty of sides from the old Soviet bloc to make up the numbers (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were there).

From The Blog
21 June 2014

Like many people, I imagine, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing each time England have been knocked out of the World Cup. In 2010 I was in Australia and had to get up in the middle of the night to watch England get thumped by Germany, which was a sterile and deadening experience. In 2006 I also happened to be in Australia, though that was my first time and I had only been in the country 24 hours, so seeing England lose on penalties to Portugal was more spacey and surreal. In 2002 I was in a meeting to grade student exams, which was interrupted briefly to tell us what we already knew, that England had lost to Brazil. In 1998 I saw England lose on penalties to Argentina in the front room of a house in Cambridge. In 1990 I saw England lose on penalties to Germany in the front room of a different house in Cambridge. In 1986 I was at Glastonbury, where there were only a couple of small screens and far too many people to get a view of England’s match with Argentina; at one point a moan went through the crowd, which I discovered afterwards wasn’t for either of Maradona’s goals, but a cry of despair when Lineker narrowly failed to reach a cross from John Barnes at the death. In 1982 I was at boarding school and a teacher told us that England had failed to get the required result against Spain, which caused me inadvertently to swear in front of his wife. That’s it. In 1970 I was only three. In 1966 I hadn’t been born. It adds up to a conventional, privileged life, during which England are never going to win the World Cup.

From The Blog
16 June 2014

Football is a team game but it can also be a lonely business. Some positions come with massively outsized risks of getting fingered when things go wrong. Goalkeepers are notoriously vulnerable on this front. Lots of things contributed to Spain’s thumping defeat by the Dutch in their opening match but the most conspicuous mistake was the one made by Iker Casillas, so he was the one who ended up copping (and accepting) the blame. Referees too are highly prone to being scapegoated for their mishaps. A referee who has a good game will barely get noticed. But have a bad one and suddenly the whole world is on your case. Managers can find themselves in the same boat. An experimental team selection that comes off tends to redound to the credit of the player who got picked (hence the praise that is currently being heaped on Raheem Sterling). An unsuccessful one is the fault of the manager.

From The Blog
13 June 2014

What’s it like to play in the World Cup? I suppose most of us watching give it a passing thought but little more than that, since it’s so beyond our frame of reference (it’s not so different from Thomas Nagel’s question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’). But for some people it’s a real question. There is a first-year politics student at my Cambridge college who grew up playing football alongside Raheem Sterling. They went to different schools in the same London borough (Brent) and were each the stand-outs in their respective teams. One year when the two schools met, Sterling’s side won 8-7: Sterling scored four of the eight; my guy scored seven of the seven. They were talent-spotted at around the same time and joined the QPR academy together. Sterling was quicker; my guy was technically more adept. Then, aged 14, he broke his hand and had to sit out a season. That was the year that Sterling progressed in leaps and bounds to establish himself as a potential star. When my guy came back he was already playing catch up. As he started to make progress he suffered a bad muscle tear in his leg, which took time to heal. QPR let him go. As he recovered he got picked up by Leicester City, acquired an agent and began to plan for a football career. They started talking image rights and international affiliations. Then the leg went again. And again. It was over. He was 16.

From The Blog
12 June 2014

Many eyes tonight will be on Eduardo da Silva, the Brazilian who plays for Croatia (and the man Arsenal fans will remember as one of their most promising strikers until he suffered a terrible leg break that almost ended his career). By all accounts, if he starts, Eduardo will sing both national anthems before the opening match: one for the place he grew up in (he was born and raised in Rio) and one for the place he adopted as home in his late teens (he moved to Zagreb when he was 16). He took up Croatian citizenship at 19 and made his debut for the national team two years later. He is Croatia’s second highest international goal scorer, with 29 goals in 63 appearances. What’s interesting about Eduardo is that, as Cameron said to Blair, he was the future once.

From The Blog
9 June 2014

Here comes the World Cup – and how nice it is to be able to contemplate a tournament where the focus will be on what happens on the pitch rather than in the dugout. During the club season just past, the cult of the football manager got out of hand. The dominant narrative was the will-they-won’t-they-sack-him saga of David Moyes, routinely painted as a Greek tragedy but really nothing more than a tale of modest executive incompetence. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho made more headlines than any of his players; indeed, than all of his players combined. The question of who would be crowned manager of the season (Rodgers at Liverpool? Poyet at Sunderland? Pulis at Palace?) got as much attention as the destination of the title itself, especially once it was clear that the team to finish top would predictably be the team that had had the most money spent on it.

From The Blog
21 July 2011

It’s slightly less than a week since my piece on Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour went to the printers, but slightly less than a week is a long time in the crazy circus that currently passes for British politics. Ed Miliband has won a victory of sorts by getting David Cameron to admit that he should never have hired Andy Coulson, but now he has the problem of knowing what to do about Tom Baldwin: if he gets rid of him, he rather diminishes the victory; if he keeps him, he allows the Tories to taunt Labour with being the party that hangs on to its News International insiders. Miliband’s riposte to questions about Baldwin in parliament today – that Baldwin’s line manager when he worked at the Times was Cameron’s education secretary, Michael Gove – is ingenious, but only adds to the sense that the story is descending into farce.

Money and the Arts

David Runciman, 4 June 1998

Wilt ‘the Stilt’ Chamberlain, the former American basketball player, has three distinct claims to fame. First, there is the basketball, of which modest art he was, as his nickname suggests, a preternaturally gifted exponent. Then there is his much repeated claim to have slept with over ten thousand women during the course of his playing career, a boast which has generated fascination, disapproval and scepticism in equal measure, and transformed him, if such a thing is possible, into the Georges Simenon of the American locker-room, the object of a whole new kind of attention. And third, there is his improbable place at the heart of modern American political philosophy. It was, peculiarly, Wilt Chamberlain on whom the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick chose to hang his full-blown critique of the interventionist state. The argument runs as follows. Imagine a society of perfect distributive justice according to any model you happen to prefer, in which everyone possesses precisely what they ought to possess for justice to prevail. Now imagine what happens when someone like Chamberlain comes along, the most exciting basketball player in the world (this was 1974, when Chamberlain was the most exciting player in the world, and his extra-curricular activities were a secret between him and a few thousand others). Large numbers of people want to watch him play, and are quite happy to pay $1 for the chance to do so, knowing that for every dollar they hand over he gets to keep 25c. No one in this just world minds the loss of a dollar, and no one thinks it unjust that some of it should go to the man who induced them to part with the money in the first place. During the course of a season, one million people pay to see Chamberlain play. He ends up with $250,000. He is now considerably better off than he would have been under the original model for the perfectly just society. Injustice has been born out of a series of perfectly just transactions. So, Nozick wants to know, what do you plan to do about it?

No Exit

David Runciman, 23 May 1996

A Thatcherite history of the state in 20th-century Britain is simple: up until 1979 the state got bigger, clumsier, greedier; after 1979 it started to get smaller, nimbler, leaner. It is the story of a steady, seemingly inexorable advance, followed by a sudden and rapid retreat, as the state was determinedly ‘rolled back’. It is a heroic story, with an obvious heroine, and that alone ensures that it has not gone unchallenged. Many people doubted at the time, and continue to doubt, the purity of Margaret Thatcher’s motives, and of her crusade, strewn as it has been with incidental casualties. Many others have questioned whether history is ever this simple, whether the state really did grow as steadily, and contract as rapidly, as the Thatcherites would have us believe. Little attention, however, has been paid to the language in which Mrs Thatcher’s ambitions were expressed. We accept as given the terminology of advance and retreat, of boundaries and frontiers. But we shouldn’t. It didn’t mean anything then, and it doesn’t mean anything now. Thatcher’s ambitions with regard to the state were neither wicked nor unfulfilled; they were simply meaningless.

The Plot to Make Us Stupid

David Runciman, 22 February 1996

‘Why is it,’ asks the mathematician John Allen Paulos in his book about the pitfalls of innumeracy, ‘that a lottery ticket with the numbers 2 13 17 20 29 36 is for most people far preferable to one with the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6?’ It is not an easy question to answer. All lotteries, after all, rely on a recognition by those who participate in them that the winning numbers are chosen at random, if only so that the participants can feel that their numbers have as good a chance of coming up as any others. People need to know it is random, because random translates as ‘fair’. However, all lotteries also rely on their participants having a sense that some sequences of numbers are more likely to come up than others. Once it is seen that all sequences have precisely the same chance of coming up as 1 2 3 4 5 6, the whole business of participation starts to look a lot less attractive. So participants fall back on, and are encouraged to fall back on, a belief that random-looking sequences are more likely to be chosen at random than sequences that look familiar. This belief is a delusion, but it is a peculiarly powerful one – even a probability theorist would have to be feeling fairly tough-minded to select, as an example of six numbers chosen at random, the second of Paulos’s sequences in preference to the first.

From The Blog
9 June 2009

Now it looks likely that a vote will take place next year which will decide whether the Labour Party has a future. But this is not the general election, which however bad for Labour is unlikely to kill it off altogether. The vote that has the potential to change the entire dynamics of British politics is the referendum on Scottish independence, promised for the second half of 2010. In all the torrents of speculation about Brown and his future, no one south of the border seems to be giving the possibility of the SNP actually winning this referendum a second thought. The Labour hierarchy, traumatised by their drubbing in England in the European and local elections and their embarrassing loss to the Tories in Wales, seem remarkably complacent about their equally catastrophic showing in Scotland, where the SNP beat them by 9 per cent and increased their share of the vote by 10 per cent. It has been widely noted that parties of government across Europe only escaped the wrath of the voters if they were on the centre-right (as in France, Germany, Italy); governing parties of the centre-left (Spain, England) got hammered. But there is one striking exception: Scotland, where a governing party of the centre-left (certainly to the left of Labour) won handsomely. The Labour government in Westminster should be terrified.

Letter

Beyond the Ashes

22 September 2005

Alasdair Mackenzie asks why I think non-white players are being frozen out of the England test team (Letters, 6 October). England are taking an all-white party of 17 players to Pakistan for the test series this winter. Doubtless these players were selected ‘on merit’, but merit is not a straightforward quality when picking a cricket team. The squad does not include Owais Shah, who had the...

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