7 September 2023


Let’s have more.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

You don’t have to immerse yourself in Clausewitz to understand the point. When the enemy is on the run you need to pursue them until they are utterly defeated; if instead you let up, they will reform, come back at a later date, and bite you in the arse.

That is why soldiers give so much attention to the pursuit. It is why Blucher and his Prussians spent the night after Waterloo destroying what was left of Napoleon’s army. It is why the Romans sowed the fields of Carthage with salt. It is why we should follow up the decline of political correctness by denouncing its apologists whether in academia, in the public service or even in that bastion of Englishness, the MCC.

Yet again this year, attempts to remove the Varsity match and the Eton Harrow game from the Lords calendar were narrowly defeated by the MCC membership despite the best efforts of the powers that be to get rid of them. Well, so what? you might say. Those running a cricket ground have to keep an eye on the bottom line and if a fixture cannot be fitted in or is less profitable than an alternative then so be it. Decisions have to be made. Life must move on.

If the attempt to remove these fixtures had really been commercially driven or designed to make room for something else, that would have been entirely understandable. Unfortunately, however, the rationale seems to be rather different, with the chairman of the MCC, Stephen Fry (no relation to CB Fry as far as I am aware, and certainly far less eminent as a sporting figure) reported as saying that the change would challenge a “turgid image of snobbery and elitism”. So there we have the real reason. These fixtures are elitist and elitism a bad word in the trendier corridors of modern Britain.

That seems clear enough but should it be a bad word? True, elitism can veer into an unattractive pomposity if unjustified or pretended, but so far as it celebrates genuinely excellent institutions, surely the truth is that we can never have enough of it and that the excellence of those institutions should be a cause for general celebration?

Take universities as an example. There are many in the UK which can justly be called elite in one respect or another. Indeed the Russell Group was formed to acknowledge that, although many universities outside it can justly claim elitism too. Take the rowing record of Oxford Brookes or the cadre of great actors turned out by RADA if you want obvious examples. Then take the hospitals. Are Moorfields and UCLH elite? Of course they are. Are there elite troops in the British army? I certainly hope so. What about the orchestras, the football clubs, the investment banks? Lots of other things too. There are elite institutions and groups in every walk of life and everywhere they contribute a great deal to our national good. And one of the common features is that people are proud to be part of them, or indeed associated with them, and from time to time need to give expression to that pride. That is why the best institutions have their ceremonies, their traditions, their sporting fixtures and their processions, sending a message to the outer world. “We are elite. We are among the best. We are an institution worth belonging to. You are lucky to have us.”

Is all that wrong? Is it all “turgid images”? Should institutions be discouraged from describing themselves as elite because it will make others feel inferior? Would it be better if they all crawled away into the corners and accepted that really it is better to accept being second rate?

Anyone would have thought that a country like Britain, depending as it does on international trade and commerce, needs as many first class institutions as it can get. If then, as must surely be the case, it is a feature of such institutions that those working there take great pride in the organisation to which they belong, their elitism is surely something which should be encouraged. Would Britain be a better place if the only elite universities were in the US, if all the prestigious banks in London were foreign ones, and if, when Westerners had to be evacuated from some foreign country, the Americans, the French, the Germans and the Italians were rescued by their elite troops but the British had to be hauled out by those of its allies?

There can be no doubt that the celebration of elites strengthens top-class institutions but of course there is another side to it. “Aha”, the modernisers of the MCC would say “but what about the outsiders who could not get into an elite institution? Won’t they feel excluded and, in the case of the MCC, draw the conclusion that cricket is not for them?”

That argument is an offensive one, not because it underestimates the need for elites, but because it undervalues the quality of the British public as a whole. We do not, as a nation, embrace the tall poppy syndrome under which anyone who stands out, whether as a result of being cleverer, richer or a greater achiever than others has to be sneered at and cutdown. There are countries where these things are a source of shame; places where visiting emigrants leave their smart car at the border and hire something cheaper for fear of being regarded as having been unfashionably successful. Well, if they wish to live like that, they may, but it is not the British way. Here people are not particularly envious and generally take a much healthier view. “I want to be part of an elite. I want to work with the best, study with the best or play footfall with the best (or in the case of Eton and Harrow, I want to be able to send my children there). What is more I want to be able to celebrate my achievements.”

That is surely the right approach for a successful and optimistic country, so let’s have more elites and the ceremonies, rituals and cricket matches that go with them. Let’s create a better and stronger Britain and leave the management of the MCC isolated in the dank corridors of political correctness which it inhabits.

Cover page image: Acabashi / wikimedia / Creative Commons

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