It is said that the military is always prepared to fight the last war and never the next. In the economic domain the same is true of politicians, who are generally at least a generation or two out of date. In Britain in 1913, there were 1.3 million miners, meaning that almost one in 10 men were working in the coal industry. By the early 1980s, there were less coal miners than people employed by Japanese inward investors in Britain, yet in terms of the political debate it would have been impossible to tell.
The same is true of the fishing industry, whose demise has been as comprehensive as that of mining, the two together making that wonderful Tory sound bite — not that it would have been called that then — “It takes some skill for the government of an island built on coal and surrounded by fish to organize a simultaneous shortage of both.”
Manufacturing today, at one and the same time, is either transferring its operations to the low-wage, high-skill parts of the globe or substituting capital for labor in high-technology investment that empties factories of life and people. Service industries are little better. When you phone to make your airline reservation, you are as likely to be dealing with someone in Bangalore as Birmingham.
Germany, unlike Britain, has woken up to the threat. While we suffer of wave of mass hysteria whipped up by the tabloid press to repel the floods of asylum seekers and economic refugees coming into Britain, the Germans are headhunting IT experts in India for fast-track entry into Germany to help man their own industry. But while the new electronic industries are rather vaguely seen as the wave of the future, with European Commission and national government green papers, white papers and draft directives, other emerging industries are ignored.
Politicians fail to take sport seriously. Yes, of course, no respectable new or old Labor MP fails to have a football team to call their own whose results they check when Saturday comes, and whose directors box they willingly grace as elections draw neigh. But generally this is a pandering to popular culture rather than any appreciation of the emerging industrial structure of late capitalism.
Sport is now a multinational, multibillion euro industry that employs directly and indirectly tens of thousands of people in any medium-size Western-style democracy. Yet it is generally left to the worst of amateur control and self-regulation, adept at enormous greed, great folly and inordinate special pleading. In my constituency, the economically devastated town of Brixham is attempting to put together a development package for its harbor area that will create in the short term hundreds of jobs and will in the longer term act as a catalyst for sustained economic development. This could all be achieved, removing the blight from thousands of lives, with a cash injection of 12 million British pounds. Yet this is less than two-thirds of what Manchester United are proposing to pay for a single player with a dodgy knee.
Alec Ferguson recently came to Strasbourg as part of a UEFA lobby to the European Parliament to plead that the Bosman ruling was threatening football’s future, asking that the industry be uniquely privileged to ignore the EU Treaties provisions that EU citizens can move to work freely around the European Union because it is adversely effecting the development of young players. A form of protectionism that was laughed out of court for the coal industry, but apparently can be justified for an industry that pays its employees up to 45,000 pounds per week and more, and is about to auction its TV rights in Britain for more than 1.2 billion pounds, equivalent to the GDP of many a Third World country.
Why sport has escaped from the rationale of industrial regulation is probably due to yesterday’s image held of tomorrow’s industry. Finally, however, the writing may be on the wall. The end of self-regulation is being written by sport itself. The recent series of match-fixing scandals involving a variety of sports all threaten, unless brought under control, to kill public fascination with sport and its commercial value.
Any statistician should already be able to tell that the playing fields of sport are by no means level and on many occasions may be distinctly bent. When this appreciation starts to leak into public perception, politicians will have to act or face the economic consequences. The only question is when.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.