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The Lesson Of Rio

31/08/2016 10:46 | Updated 31 August 2016


The lesson of Rio

The resurgence of British sport gives us an example.

When, in the early 1930s, a director of Cunard was asked by King George V what name the company proposed to give to its new liner, instead of replying "The Queen Victoria", he said "We propose to name it after Britain's greatest Queen."

"Oh how nice, she will be pleased" replied the King.

I do not know whether the story is true or not but either way the "Queen Mary" it was, and I have no doubt at all that she (the most acquisitive of Queens) was very pleased indeed at the honour so fortuitously conferred on her.

It is always nice to get a bonus which you have done nothing to earn and Mrs May is entitled to feel pleased at the boost to national confidence given by Britain's astonishing haul of medals in the Olympics. It is true that, even when buttressed by 23 silver and 17 bronze, 27 gold medals is not going to re-establish the country's reserves of precious metals, but they represent an extraordinary achievement. After all, go back twenty years to the 1996 games at Atlanta, the nadir of British achievement, and there was only a single gold out of a total of 15. Lots of things have improved since then. The lottery has put funding on a surer footing; there are incomparably better facilities; and a much more professional approach, but there is a bigger picture than that. British sport was in a disreputable state, something had to be done and by the combined efforts and initiative of many people it duly was done, not just in Olympic sport but in rugby and cricket as well. British sport was brought from its culture of amateurism to something altogether more up to date.

Reform of an out of date culture is needed in lots of areas at the moment. Much of our thinking goes back to the resurgence of market approaches in the early 80s, a model which has delivered much but in some places has begun to look very tired and narrow. A better system for motivating those who are not driven by money is long overdue and it cannot be right that, in a world where labour is becoming in increasing oversupply, it is so difficult to fund things which do not produce a profit. Nor is it in the national interest that those who would benefit from tertiary education are put off by cost.

There are other shibboleths which need to be confronted too: the failure to recognise difference and talent for fear of offending the principle of inclusiveness, with all the lies and excuses which clatter along in its wake; the "principle" that the health service must be free at the point of delivery, which seems to have taken on a mystique going far beyond its origin as a means by which good health can be made accessible to all; then there is opposition to private sector involvement in health, obvious nonsense unless all doctors are going to give their salaries to charity. Like the Mikado we have our little lists and readers will be able to think of many more examples.

There are many idiocies espoused by groups on all sides of the political spectrum, and, taken together, they give a picture of political systems which are over-rooted in the past and have simply not kept up with the changes which technology has forced on the world in which we live. There is no disgrace in that. Political systems trail progress rather than lead it and that is necessary to limit the effect of the wrong turns which society must inevitably make.

Still, as Mrs May and her cohorts look at what needs to be done to create a Britain equipped to face the challenges of the future they could do worse than look at the root and branch reforms adopted by British sport over the last 20 years and the single-mindedness with which improvement was pursued. The rest of us can draw a lesson too. Old ways must give way to new; thinking must change; we will all see the end of things we have valued.

When parliament returns there will be a Queen's speech and the government will set out the course that it proposes to follow. It has a great opportunity. The Brexit vote has given it a mandate for change. Leaving the EU gives us much more space to try things out. The world into which we are moving will be exciting, frightening, interesting and challenging by turns. Where to find confidence in such storms? The true significance of the increase in the Olympic medal haul over the last 20 years is that it shows what the British people can achieve if only they all push forward together in broadly the same direction.

First published in the Shaw Sheet

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