He brings to the fierce struggles of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match.
I don't know who Nye Bevan was referring to back then, but it can safely be said that the sentiment cannot be applied to Ed Balls today. To put it lightly, Labour's shadow chancellor brings a touch too much enthusiasm to the fierce struggles of politics.
Yet a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match (curtailed by the English weather) is precisely what Ed Balls spent yesterday. Guido Fawkes seemed to think there was something wrong about this in light of Balls' comments that George Osborne wasn't doing enough to help out with the eurozone crisis. Aside from the obvious observation that as an opposition politician Ed Balls can do next to nothing to influence the goings-on in Brussels, Guido's sanctimony is risible and a sad reminder that politicians are increasingly prohibited by a vindictive commentariat from having any sort of fun.
It was the first day of Parliament's summer recess and the first day of an eagerly awaited 2,000th Test match (if you believe the ICC, but only 1,999th if you believe TMS). If Ed Balls wants to take the afternoon off and watch some cricket (wouldn't we all?), fair play to him. In fact, were I to be Prime Minister, I would insist that all of my ministers - bugger that, all my MPs - attended at least one day of Test cricket each summer.
Why? Cricket in this country is an institution. Those long shadows on the village green, to paraphrase a former Prime Minister, are as English as warm beer and invincible green suburbs. As a sport it is classless: G.M. Trevelyan once said that if the French nobility had played cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.
Few sports are as genuinely multicultural either (play some league cricket in south London, or just look at the England team itself). Crucially for the stressful life of today's politicians, it is hugely relaxing. It doesn't begin until late morning, so you can even get in a couple of hours at the office. And as much as Alastair Campbell likes to portray in his diaries him single-handedly running the country from the terraces of Burnley FC, he could've got it all done so much more peacefully at the cricket.
Moreover, Balls' appearance at Lord's is a healthy sign that this is a man who does know how to switch off and enjoy a quiet afternoon away from Westminster. If you snapped Ed Miliband at Lord's it would look daft - as contrived as Tony Blair in a Newcastle United jersey, or Gordon Brown at an Arctic Monkeys gig. But Balls is a Kennington Tandoori kind of politician. He has interests away from the bubble, sport being a big one. He even occasionally keeps wicket for the Lords & Commons cricket team, albeit not very well as the photo shows (though I should declare an interest in also being an occasional Commons keeper!). A love of cricket has also informed his work as a politician: when Schools Secretary, Ed Balls suggested that children should play more cricket to improve their maths. It was one of the more brilliantly creative policies of recent years, sadly largely forgotten.
Cricket and politics have a rich history. Harold Macmillan regularly attended cricket matches when Prime Minister, famously frequenting Eton-Harrow fixtures at Lord's in a morning suit. Sir Alec Douglas-Home was a good enough fast bowler to play ten first-class matches for Oxford University, Middlesex and the MCC, amongst others. When Sir John Major left Downing Street in 1997, he repaired to the Oval over the river to spend the day watching some low-key county cricket. He became president of his beloved Surrey CCC and wrote a very fine book on cricket history. When Prime Minister, he would often be seen at Test matches with his Chancellor, Ken Clarke, another cricket fanatic who has served as president of his county club, Nottinghamshire. Our current Prime Minister used to be a competent all-rounder, broad skills he has translated to politics. The fact that he spent a reasonable proportion of his youth playing team sports instead of poring over Fabian tracts is to his immense credit.
So if politicians, whoever they might be, want to take some time off to go to the cricket we shouldn't point fingers at them, we should applaud them and be thankful that the smug killjoys haven't killed off every last pleasure afforded to those who give up private lives for public service.
This article first appeared on the Egremont blog on 22nd July 2011.
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