David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
One of the extraordinary attributes of the short-lived European Super League was that for almost everyone, there was something to hate. If you worry that the system is rigged in favour of the rich, driven by greed and the interests of the common man are ignored, this was a proposal to drive you to the barricades. If you are a believer in the importance of competition, openness and the need for creative destruction, this looked like a protectionist cartel. Socialists saw it as the unacceptable face of capitalism, capitalists saw it as feudal. Brexiteers argued that demonstrated an unaccountable elite conspiring against the national leagues; Remainers saw it as an attempt to “take back control” without thinking through all the consequences.
Like everyone else, I strongly disliked the plan and was relieved when it failed. Business might like certainty and predictability but sport thrives on the opposite. An attempt to insulate sporting teams from the consequences of failure undermines the excitement necessary to engage fans. Imagine life as an Arsenal or Tottenham supporter – there would never be much to play for.
And for those of us who support clubs outside the Big 6, the plan would have taken away all hope of ever making it to the top. I was very fortunate to grow up living the dream as an Ipswich supporter in the Bobby Robson years as a small town club regularly competed for the League Championship and won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup (I can happily recite the teams for both triumphs and, at a push, Alf Ramsey’s Championship winning team from ten years before my birth). That was an era when there was greater mobility in football but Leicester City’s triumph of 2015/6 shows that even recently dreams can come true.
The motivation behind the ESL seemed to be to replicate the models used for US sports with a secure franchise that provides financial security to the owners. It is also the case that within the US model there is an egalitarian draft system, as well as salary caps and redistribution of profits among the teams. To some extent, it looks more like a medieval guild – once in, you are heavily protected but you have to be on the inside.
I cannot say it appeals as a system much to me but – to the extent that it works – I suspect it only works because it applies to sports that are not played at a serious level outside of the US, so there is no international competition. Try setting up a system that so favours the owners with football by establishing a salary cap and the star players will end up going elsewhere. For all these reasons, I think the proposals were ill-considered.
The Government, of course, weighed in, made a number of threats and announced a review by the well-regarded Tracey Crouch. Establishing a review into the governance of the game seems entirely reasonable in the circumstances, although striking a balance between giving the fans a greater say and still ensuring that the Premier League clubs have deep enough pockets to attract the best players and build or maintain the best stadia may not be straightforward. We shouldn’t allow nostalgia to convince us that the past was better than the present (other than for Ipswich Town fans, obviously).
This was all good politics in demonstrating that the Government was on the side of the people. (I also think Boris Johnson making it clear that he is not a football fan was rather astute; football fans would rather politicians were honest about not being a fan rather than insincerely professing a love for a team).
Even so, I am uneasy about threats to impose a windfall tax or refuse to grant visas to the breakaway clubs. “You might not be breaking any laws, but do as we say or we will confiscate your assets” may have been a bluff, but even unpopular businesses are entitled to expect their property rights should not be threatened by the use of the tax system in a draconian or arbitrary way.
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I wrote here four weeks’ ago about how the criticisms of the UK Government’s approach as being “vaccine nationalism” was unmerited, threats to block EU vaccine exports were indefensible and that it wasn’t the UK’s fault that the EU had got its procurement wrong.
Some pro-EU commentators argue that neither the UK nor the US have exported much by way of vaccines, therefore both are guilty of vaccine nationalism, whereas the EU has exported lots. This is true but I still think it is missing the point.
What is the system that is most likely to produce the greatest number of vaccines? I would argue it is a system whereby if countries invest in developing vaccines, they are likely to see the benefits of that investment and that complex and cross-border supply chains can operate in confidence that such activity will not be impeded. In other words, a system that respects property rights will produce more vaccines.
I stand by my criticisms of the EU, but there are a couple of points to add. First, in recent weeks the EU is now making much better progress in getting jabs into arms – the largest EU countries have vaccination rates similar to ours during February and March. We are ahead of them but only by a few weeks.
Second, when it comes to getting in the way of free trade on vaccines, the European Commission may have made threats, but it is the US that has actually blocked exports and is sitting on millions of doses of AZ that it looks unlikely to use.
Had President Trump been re-elected, we would be hearing much more about it. President Biden should allow AZ to export the US produced doses to those who bought them. As for those doses bought by the US Government, if the US is not going to use them, send them to India.
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So the Government has abandoned plans to implement Johnny Mercer’s proposals to prevent enquiries into war crimes in Northern Ireland allegedly committed by army veterans.
The incident reminded me of my time in Government when the issue was causing a great deal of disquiet. At PMQs, Theresa May regularly faced a torrid time from Conservative backbenchers. Iain Duncan Smith implied that she was “abandoning veterans” and an irate Mark Francois quoted a Chelsea Pensioner who said that the Government was “pandering to Sinn Féin/IRA, while throwing veterans like me to the wolves”.
No one in Government wanted to see army veterans hauled through the courts but the subject was, to put it mildly, complex and the then Prime Minister didn’t want to promise something undeliverable. After all, there are issues with putting anyone above the law for committing torture as well as potentially risking the whole Northern Ireland settlement.
Two years later, the Government ends up in a similar position to that of May and accepts that a comprehensive carve-out for Northern Ireland veterans as sought by Mercer is undeliverable. He resigns but as yet there seems to be little outrage from others who demanded comprehensive protections for veterans from one Prime Minister and who then believed they were promised such protections.