Sunak’s cheap victim-blaming – vile, inhuman and unworkable

With weary predictability, Rishi Sunak’s government plucks out the race card.  It’s been the mark of desperate governments to do so throughout modern history. Beset by problems on all sides – not least the yobbish, entitled behaviour of his colleagues who hold the highest offices in the land – the cruel diversion of migrant-baiting might just convince some of his supporters that he’s doing something purposeful. Waiting in the wings, the rump of Britain’s far-right movements rubs its hands, appreciative of the permission they’ve been given to latch onto anger and lack of hope.

They’ve been conveniently provided with a champion, carefully hand-picked by the Conservative Party itself. Recently appointed as the party’s vice-chair, Lee Anderson has expressed sympathy with those who’ve assembled to terrify residents housed in hotels.  It’s easy to see how, from his point of view, this could make sense. At one such gathering, protestors were chanting ‘we’ve got nothing’, pointing to, as they saw it, the contrast between their difficult lives and the imagined luxury of those inside the hotel. Anderson, and those who spawned him, will be only too glad to see the fireworks and bricks outside a suburban hotel rather than their own well-appointed offices.

Beyond Anderson’s dangerous seal of approval sit the lies propping up the politics of hatred. Immigration – leaving aside questionable notions of legality – is not a huge problem. According to all reliable sources, net migration to the UK is gradually declining and this has been a steady trend for the last six years. By the most cautious of estimates, 75% of asylum claims are found to be valid, resulting in 14,000 people being granted leave to remain in 2022. The UK accepts fewer refugees that almost all of its European neighbours and, given that the Confederation of British Industry reckons that three-quarters of companies are hit by labour shortages, that also counts as significant waste of resources. Volunteers who work with those housed in hotels will tell of you of the hundreds of mechanics, dentists, engineers and entrepreneurs desperate to end the monotony of their days by getting out to work.

The country is far from ‘full’.  The fact that angry crowds reference their inability to see a doctor or get on the housing list or who don’t dare to look at their energy smart meter, isn’t down to terrified people enduring endless waits to have their asylum claims scrutinised. Lee Anderson knows that, of course, as does Suella Braverman, her predecessors and her boss. If there was political will to deal with asylum cases in a thorough, speedy and reliable way, it could be done. There is no such will: behind the posturing and tough promises, it remains better for hard-nosed, unscrupulous politicians to keep the scapegoat alive and perpetually nervous.

Of all the preposterous fictions perpetrated by their immigration policy, the idea that it’s the stalling of  people smugglers which is the government’s aim is the most risible. We pride ourselves on having come some way from frothing judges telling rape victims that they were asking for it, but the idiocy of suggesting that harsh treatment of the victims of this vile trade will influence unscrupulous, hardened criminals beggars belief. As dim and feckless as they regularly show themselves to be, government ministers must know this claim is nonsense. We are asked to believe that the identification and punishment of smuggling gangs is hopelessly beyond the capabilities of those charged with doing so. It’s hard not to believe that the optics of victim-blaming makes better copy for keeping a story on the boil.  

As ever, those on the ground – Border Force, accredited charities and NGOs – attempt to tell politicians desperate for some cheap approval that their plans are unworkable. As ever, their expertise is ignored. Legal opinion urges caution and temperance but this too, in an age where so-called democracies around the world are showing frightening impatience with independent judiciaries, is dismissed as whining obstructionism. At a time when we are being ‘treated’ to the WhatsApp contempt heaped on people who actually knew stuff, none of this comes as surprise. The idea that traumatised, terrified people will be put further through the wringer is seen as mere collateral damage.

Of all the things Sunak and his fractured rabble could do to qualitatively improve people’s lives, victim-blaming those who are fleeing fear and oppression doesn’t even sneak onto the bottom of the list. Paralysed into inaction by the collective action of workers from nurses to teachers to postal workers – the ‘heroes’ of the pandemic – and with no strategy to provide decent housing, affordable rents, a workable transport system or a reliable medical appointment……and let’s not even mention trying to save the planet, this feeble, half-baked, vindictive gimmick looks to be the best shot in Sunak’s locker. ‘Beyond contempt’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

Don’t want life to carry on imitating art? Then keep protest alive and kicking

Just under half a century ago I passed my driving test. On inspecting the precious, flimsy green document, I noted that it was due to expire in 2023 when I was 70 – a date as unfeasible as it was inconsequential. And now here we are. That unimaginable future is stark reality. It hardly needs pointing out that it’s not quite the leisure-filled, technologically serviced paradise that some of us had foolishly hoped for.

The picture above is by Andre Fougeron and it was painted in 1953, the year of my birth and seventy years before the expiry of my driving licence. Entitled Atlantic Civilisation, it bemoans what he saw as the Americanisation of Europe. Scattered beyond the domineering motif of the flashy, trashy car ploughing through the drudgery around it, the artist paints a miserable picture of oppression, deprivation, loneliness and neglect.

 While some wash in a bucket, others find finery in which to dress their pet dogs. Mothers cradle starving infants and widows wail over the coffins which stack up as the inevitable consequence of colonial wars. Refugees huddle, children play in the toxic air and the old sit out their lives in lonely bewilderment. The threat of state-sponsored retribution, in the form of an electric chair, hovers over this tableau of despair. Rather than rise up in any sort of rebellion, the young are diverted by pornographic glamour.

Fougeron died in 1998 at the age of 85. In the forty-five years that followed Atlantic Civilisation, not much would have occurred to convince him that his central thesis was mistaken. He probably maintained the belief that the principal source of global repression emanated from the United States and the established colonial powers. But the painting, as is obvious, speaks across the intervening decades. He wouldn’t have been shocked to know that, with the passing of time, competing imperialisms would flex their industrial, military and technological strength, all with the same outcome – armed aggression, misery, famine, displacement and the ruined lives of those least able to withstand such shock and disruption.

Fougeron’s exposé of the wretched, careless abuse of power wasn’t just of the moment: it defines the next seventy years, identifying all the ills of the capitalist society he reveals here and in many other works.  He was a committed socialist and so would have been aware of Marx’s maxim that it is the job of the philosopher to interpret the world, whereas the job of the activist is to change it. Rebellion and resistance may not have been central features of his work, but he’d have known that they were its logical corollary.

Now we know that we have war in Europe, public execution of protestors in Iran and a host of bewildering threats and missile launching in the East China Sea. We have copycat stormings of parliament, the standard set by blowhard egotists. We have ‘forgotten’ wars from Ethiopia to Yemen to Myanmar. Children starve, refugees squat in squalor, widows weep – and all the time, someone continues to drive a flashy car; someone can afford to dress a dog in a bodice. What to do? Paint a picture? Maybe we should start closer to home.

In the past few months, workers have taken strike action in numbers that were consigned by some to the dustbin of history. Such action may yet become more concerted and coordinated as a government committed to hiving off public assets to private interest continues to collude with employers more committed to shareholders than serving the public good.

 People standing on picket lines – possibly for the first time and possibly never having imagined themselves doing such a thing – aren’t out to overthrow capitalism. They want their fair share and they want a society that is run for the benefit of many, not the profit of the few. It may well be that when they hear themselves and their actions commented upon by politicians and a slanted media, they’ll draw the conclusion that it is, after all, the overthrow of capitalism that’s the answer, but nobody’s holding their breath about that. For the moment, like all dissidents everywhere, they’re coming face to face with a system that works for the privileged, not for them. The fact that we now have a government so spooked by this level of resistance that it wants to limit the right to strike, tells us just how scared our rulers are about this awakening of consciousness.

So, it’s a shame that Fougeron didn’t find a corner of this work to dedicate to those prepared to stand up for themselves and others, but unless some angry seventy-year-old is going to be pointing out the currency of his work as we approach the next century – always assuming our rulers haven’t allowed the planet to combust by then – we’d better make sure we keep picketing, marching and protesting. And maybe even making our own art about it too.


My latest book, Brutish Necessity, about the racism behind the execution of the last man hanged in Birmingham in 1962, was released last October and is on sale from all the usual outlets, some of whom pay tax. You can read more about it at (where you’ll also find a 50% voucher for the ebook version!)

Think that strikes are about workers’ greed? Turn that on its head

It’s need, not greed, that’s driving protest

You’ll have noticed by now. Nothing works.

In the third decade of the twenty-first century in the fifth largest economy in the world, it’s practically impossible to see a doctor face-to-face. A child dies because he lives in a mouldy house and another does so days after being sent away from a hospital. That’d be a hospital outside which ambulances queue while paramedics do their best to ease the discomfort of the patients on trolleys. Inside, underpaid nurses and auxiliary staff attempt to keep things rolling while waiting for the appearance of one of the few frazzled doctors available. The long-term sick cross their fingers as waiting lists lengthen.

Trains, especially anywhere north of the Home Counties, are unreliable, crowded and dirty, forcing more people to drive cars on roads already beyond capacity and, in many localities, in need of desperate repair that will never be provided by councils, starved of cash by a central government that shamelessly blames them for being skint. There is no discernible strategy for cutting the emissions that will increase the hell we are bequeathing to our children. Going to work no longer guarantees an income on which people can survive. Try to keep yourself out of a care home because, well, there’s nobody there to care for you.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this. To avoid the pitfalls of work that doesn’t pay, a health service that doesn’t serve, fuel bills that send meters whirring like a hamster wheel, just do one simple thing. Be richer. Being rich solves anything. There’s your clear and simple route out of the mire. As always, it’s been left to the dynamic intellect of the Tory party to point this out to us. ‘People know that when their bills arrive, they can either cut their consumption, get a higher salary or go out there and get that new job,’ explained its chairman Jake Berry (no relation). Doh. Thanks, Jake. Just for the record, Jake tops up his annual £84k as an MP and £67k as a Cabinet minister with a sly £42k as a consultant to a law firm, so he knows what he’s talking about.

The record doesn’t show whether Jake is mates with Tory life peer, Michelle Mone. He’s possibly not in the same league as someone who made her fortune from selling saucy underwear, fake tan products and dodgy weight-loss pills criticised by the British Dietetic Association. Like rising reality star, Matt Hancock, Michelle wasn’t going to let a good pandemic go to waste and so used her connections to ensure that the firm, PPE Medpro, got access to the ‘VIP lane’ for the supply of this vital equipment and there, hey presto, a few weeks later she pocketed a cheeky £29million bonus from them. Just get rich.

To be fair to Michelle, the bar on dodgy PPE contracts had already been set pretty low. Before he heeded Jake’s advice and got himself a better job on the telly, Matt was stumbling along on about £120k, plus significant expenses, charged with running the country’s health service. With this insight into financial deprivation, he decided to help out his mate who once ran his local boozer and awarded him a £40 million contract for the production of glass vials for Covid tests. No, of course he didn’t have medical experience but he had a better qualification than that – he knew someone who could make him rich.

And there’s the rub. Those at the very top of society are driven by the need to get rich and then richer; to make profits which they pocket, treating investment for a better future as a mugs’ game. Any sane society, facing the destruction of the very planet over which we have temporary stewardship, would harness our enormous technological expertise and intellectual ingenuity to serve basic need and plan for the future. Instead, in a country whose Prime Minister is cossetted and coddled by eye-watering personal wealth, our leaders don’t even have the nerve to tax those who are degrading our own fragile environment.

So, we have to take heart where we can and scream from the picket lines and demonstrations  that we can and must make things work again. The wave of strikes from posties to transport workers, to nurses, to teachers and lecturers, ambulance drivers and paramedics aren’t about the tired old Tory maxim of holding the public to ransom. Workers are the public. They’re striking because they realise that it is they, not the profiteers, who are the hostages here. They’re not even trying to get rich; they just want to do a decent job, provide some service and go home to a hot dinner and a warm house. And if that means forcing people from Jake Berry’s stable to think again about what’s important in life – not hugging more cash to their plump bosoms but meeting the needs of ordinary people – let’s keep those strikes coming until they get in into their greedy heads.

Before FIFA and the Qataris convince us that it’s going to be a World Cup of sparkly brilliance, here’s another view

Migrant worker accommodation. Doha 2012

Here’s an extract from my book about the Qatar World Cup. This section deals with the daft notion that you could play football in 50-degree heat. The book deals with everything from the grim history of sportswashing to labour abuses to the price of a pint. It doesn’t say who’ll win, but it probably won’t be England. You can read more about the book on my website where you’ll find another sample.

By March 2015, even FIFA’s obtuseness about playing in the oven had been punctured. The concerns of legends of the game and informed medical opinion had made their impression, because a FIFA task force met and discussed the probability of moving the competition to the winter months. The broadcasting gods had already decreed that January and February of 2022 would be out of the question because of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. US companies were wary of anything that might cut across major winter sports, particularly NFL – American football – in November and December. Yet it was in these months that FIFA, working in conjunction with the Qatar bid team, identified as the most likely solution. How to deal with these various conundrums?

Once Qatar had been awarded the World Cup, it hadn’t taken long for the initial contracts on rights to be drawn up. The main companies outside Europe – Fox, Telemundo and Futbol de Primera – were quick to seal a deal in the region of $1.2 billion, sharply and efficiently hoovering up access to the action. FIFA’s general secretary, Jerome Valcke, was a happy boy. ‘FIFA is delighted with the progress of our media rights sale to date which, coming amid austere economic times, more than confirm the strength and appeal of our competitions.’ But what about Fox and Telemundo, broadcasting mainly to the Americas? Would November or June really make any difference to them?

The time difference between the east coast of the USA and Qatar is seven hours: from Rio it is six. Should enthusiasts from the Americas wish to watch a game that kicks off in mid-afternoon or late-evening in the Middle East, it could prove a diverting accompaniment to a late breakfast, morning coffee or lunch. Would it make much difference if this happened in the depths of winter or in the middle of summer, particularly if your team was playing? It’s difficult to see why it might, although work and school schedules might just play a part. What it wouldn’t do was across the schedule of home-based sports. But Fox, having already shelled out early to broadcast the event, wasn’t quite so relaxed.

In an emailed memo to FIFA in September 2013, the company irritably pointed out that it had been brought to their attention that there may be moves afoot to move the 2022 event to the winter. ‘Fox Sports bought the World Cup rights with the understanding that (matches) would be in the summer as they have been since they have been since the 1930s.’ While it’s good to know that the Fox corporation guards the history and traditions of the game with such integrity, it’s difficult to know what their beef would have been. No matches would be scheduled at the same time as NFL or anything else being played on the entire continent. It turns out that it wasn’t the change that bothered them: what they really wanted to do was make a fuss and look like they’d been hard done by.

And it worked.  Two years after their grizzling email, Fox (and Telemundo) were granted the rights for the 2026 competition scheduled for the USA, Canada and Mexico. No tendering process was required. Whatever the Fox executives had cooked up behind the scenes had worked its magic.  Its principal competitors, ESPN and Univision, had been frozen out of a process which netted FIFA a sum just under $500,000 – an amount which they boasted they could have doubled had the rights been put out to open competition. Nonetheless, the gravy train of sponsorship and advertising hadn’t even begun to poke its head out of the sidings: there’d be plenty more noughts to add to these early figures. With the 2026 competition expanding to 48 teams in the finals, the money-makers were already gearing up for a feeding frenzy. Media consultant, Lee Berke, told Bloomberg News that Fox’s success meant that the World Cup coverage was ‘going to be as strong a ratings force as you can possibly have for a sports property.’ A sports property. I’ll just leave that there.

Did the Qataris or FIFA ever seriously think that matches would be played in July? It’s impossible to know. What we can be more sure about is that even if playing in such heat had ever been considered an obstacle, there must have been a confidence – which certainly wasn’t misplaced – that powerful money would find a solution. As we’ll see in later chapters, the potential knock-on effect on the world’s major leagues, in both 2022 and beyond, could turn out to be massively significant.

This is what it looks like when you’ve gone through the bottom of the barrel

Parliamentary questions? Is that really the best we have to offer as a model of democratic debate? The stage-managed, predictable questions; the rehearsed responses and loyal head wobbling from those preening on the front benches? All cringeworthy, but for the pinnacle of awfulness, nothing beats the crowing, hawing and braying of the representatives of the people as they childishly taunt their opposite numbers. What a despicable, noisome circus.

And yet this week, this juvenile cacophony from the green benches produced something more nerve-shredding than usual. That harsh screeching making our ears bleed wasn’t the scraping of the barrel – that particular low passed ages ago. This was the scratching of a blade that had gone through the wooden surface and was grinding away at bare stone below.

We now live in a country where millions ration their food and are frantic about the prospect of putting the heating on. Whether you rent or have a mortgage, your housing costs have just rocketed because an ardent sixth-former did work experience as Prime Minister for a few days. The trains don’t run, there’s no one around to fill thousands of job vacancies and the health service has been reduced to a poorly administered call centre. You can’t tell a cop from a robber and, in a horrible metaphor for it all, our rivers are full of shit.

How’s a desperate minister to buy some time to deflect public attention from the fact that the government has been asleep at the wheel for years? Find a culprit, of course. And make sure you find a weak one. Cue the attack on the most vulnerable, desperate and defenceless. Immigrants.

Let’s deal with numbers first and people second. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Border Force and the Home Office reveal the following –  none of what follow pertain to arrangements for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

  In the year ending June 2022, the UK approved the asylum cases of just over 15,000 people. Some 55,000 claims were undealt with during the year, suggesting that, with claims that had built up before that time, up to 99,000 people (as opposed to cases) await attention. In general, over 85% of claims are found to be valid. During that same year, some 40,000 people entered the UK via small boats. At present, there are 26,000 people housed in hotels – the destination for most of them once they’ve eventually been removed from hell holes like Napier (currently escaping scrutiny) and Manston.

We’re talking about tens of thousands. According to the ONS, there are some 1.25 million job vacancies in the UK at present. So, let’s match numbers with people – starting with some of the 26,000 languishing in hotels, day after day with nothing to do and desperate, genuinely desperate, to get out into the world and do something.

I know a bit about this because, for the last two years, I’ve been providing voluntary support for them. The IT technicians, architects, dentists, osteopaths, mechanics, carpenters, nurses, builders, students and, my quirky favourite, the tree surgeon – all of whom are desperate to get out and do some work. In a few cases, they told me of the shocking circumstances they have fled: it is the stuff of sweat-soaked nightmares. Still worse, the briefest communication with those left at home is fraught and dangerous as their actions are monitored by the stooges and spies of various tyrants. If their asylum application is seen within six months, they can count themselves lucky.

‘An invasion,’ wails the Home Secretary. Really? 15,000 people a year? Not enough to even register on the main list of hosting countries posted by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees?  More than three million fewer than Turkey? Two million fewer than Germany and half a million fewer than France? In what is still, just about, the fifth largest economy in the world,  where some of us still cling fancifully to the diminishing notion that such wealth might allow for some principled leadership and moral fortitude? (Yes. I know I’ll have completely baffled the current political class with that last sentence.)

We’ll go after the smuggling gangs to deter them, we’re told. No you won’t; not if what you’ve been doing for years is anything to go by. You’ll vilify and persecute their victims instead. Victims who are so scared and desperate that they will abandon homes and risk life and livelihood before parting with huge sums to jump into a cheap dinghy with a fake life vest.

Easy, of course, to blame – entirely properly – the current government for this age-old political trick. It’s been going on for decades and we expect it from them. Shortages in basic public services such as the provision of housing, education and medical facilities are not, of course, because of their abject failure to use our great wealth to provide them. It is because there are too many people – outsiders and others – taking these limited resources from their rightful owners.

We might well anticipate this wretchedness from the current collection of last-chance no-marks, but those who aim to replace them need to offer a braver, better, more humane alternative.  In a metaphor for Labour’s whole approach as it waits quietly – and possibly mistakenly – for their opponents to implode, merely promising to manage crises slightly more efficiently won’t cut it. Its own history is riven with timidity when skirting round immigration and, in the current circumstances, that’s an opportunity missed.

Here’s a chance to show compassion and humanity. There are jobs to do and future tax-payers who can do them. There are injustices in the world, often perpetrated by those to whom we cosy up, that have driven people to our shores and we will call these out these crimes. We’ll use our wealth to address need, not encourage greed. We’ll go for culprits, not victims.

Not holding your breath? Me neither. But to quote the Home Secretary, we can all dream.


Check out my books on the football World Cup as well as a forgotten episode of Black history at

Forgotten history. A Black life that didn’t matter

Thomas Bates’s shop on Lee Bank Road, Birmingham. 1962

Here is a taster for my new book, Brutish Necessity which is on sale from Friday 30 September. It’s available from all bookshops, online and is available as an ebook. If possible, I’d prefer you to buy it from a vendor who doesn’t avoid paying tax.



This is a book with a terrible event at its centre. The sort of event that no longer happens. It’s not a book reliant on lurid, graphic description, but much of what follows will often make the modern reader wince. And occasionally smile. And think – I hope.

It’s a book about race, immigration and prejudice. It’s about how some attitudes have changed while others remain stubbornly the same. The central, terrible event has a downtrodden victim, but the book is not about victimhood. There’s no argument here about the inevitability of discrimination. There are tales of agency, determination and joy. But it’s most definitely about swimming against a tide.

It’s a book about class, values and attitudes.  It’s about how the great bodies of the state – parliament, the law, police, press and broadcast media – reflect ideas that look to the past and which rarely threaten to challenge the status quo.

There is mystery and there are shocking tales. Shocking whether they take place in down-at-heel bedsits or shocking when they’re in judges’ chambers. Some of the central characters have disappeared untraceably; others died well-fed and contented in their beds.

Every fact has been checked, every quotation is real and attributable. All statistics and figures are a matter of public record. This is a book about finding some truth: its own credentials are impeccable.  There may be opinion here, but there is no fabrication.

It’s a book about the city in which I grew up, blissfully unaware of the physical roughness of my surroundings. The blunt dismissiveness from adults, whose stoic post-war refusal to be easily impressed – or shocked – was just normal behaviour. Like the city I come from, nothing that follows is sentimental.

It’s an attempt to save a name from total obscurity.

And so, to the terrible event………

The evening paper and the return of the blood-stained man.

It begins with a childhood memory which turns out to have been false.

This is what I thought I remembered from a gloomy afternoon in November 1962.

Some context to begin with.  I was nine years old and lived in Institute Road, King’s Heath in Birmingham. I was the youngest of three children. I lived with my two teenage sisters and my widowed mother. My sisters went to grammar school and college and I, of course, was still at primary school. My mother worked full-time, usually in a minor bookkeeping or accountancy capacity. Like many people of her generation, she had left school at 13 with few official qualifications, but her quickness and certainty with figures ensured she was always employed.

I was always the first one home. I had a key and, once in, I was entrusted to light the coal fire in the living room and to get on with any homework I might have been given. More often than not though, once the fire had taken, I’d go into the back yard and thump a ball against the wall, enjoying an hour or so before any nagging neighbour returned to cluck and moan.

On this particular evening, my mother returned as usual at about 5.30 and, just as usual, carrying the local paper. And now the memory goes wrong. This is what I thought I remembered.

‘Anything good in the paper, mom?’ reaching out to grab a look.

And at that point, my mother snatches it away from me.

‘Don’t go looking in there today. Nothing in there for you.’ And then she says, seemingly out of nowhere, ‘A crowd of them waiting outside. What did they think they were going to do?’ I’m used to her returning from work frayed and impatient, but this time her irritation has a different quality.

And, of course, I’m totally foxed.

‘Who, mom? Where was there a crowd?’ And at this point, my younger sister, in her mid-teens, comes into the kitchen – the natural meeting place, notwithstanding the fire now blazing in the living room.

‘Do you mean the hanging?’ she asks. ‘At Winson Green?’

 I know there’s a prison in Birmingham and I know it’s at Winson Green and the reason I know is that when we’re in the playground and someone’s been particularly bad, somebody else will pipe up that you’ll have to go to Winson Green. But to be honest, it might as well be on the moon. It’s actually less than six miles away, so, as I say, to a nine-year old in Birmingham in 1962 – the moon. But a hanging? What? Outside? Like some of those dreadful history-type things I’ve read? It might just have been that distorted image, cooked up in a childish imagination – a public execution on the streets where I lived – that accounts for this whole thing lodging so firmly in my consciousness.

‘Was it a murderer?’ I want to know.


‘Was it the blood-stained man?’

‘Oh, you and your blood-stained man.’ And now, with some relief, my mother has reverted to the much more familiar and comfortable role (for me) of exasperated, impatient parent.

Some time before this incident – which did take place, notwithstanding my imperfect recollection – I had seen a TV news item about a crime committed in Birmingham from which the alleged perpetrator, a blood-stained man, had escaped on a number 8 bus. Now I knew about the number 8 bus because it was one that I sometimes caught. What’s more, the picture accompanying the news item showed a bus seat – and I’d sat on one of those too. So, the blood-stained man had caught the number 8, like I did, and had sat on a seat, like I did. That was as close to real-life horror as I wanted to get. I was an avid reader with an over-active imagination: for a few weeks, I became worried and obsessed by the blood-stained man. I looked with lingering trepidation for any sign of his departed presence on every bus I got on – and I got on plenty.  From the reflective distance of almost sixty years, I can empathise completely with my mother’s frustration when, thinking he’d evaporated, he made his reappearance on that dank evening. We’ll learn a little more about him in Chapter 3.

‘But was it him?’

‘It doesn’t matter who it was. He’s dead now and he won’t go killing anyone else, will he?’

‘That’d be students outside,’ offers my sister, for whom, no doubt, the very thought of students with their freedom and bohemianism represented the glamour that her teenage self craved so enthusiastically. ‘Protesting against the death-penalty’.

This draws some harrumphing from my mother who, in common with most people of her background and life-experience, has little time for such fine feeling.

‘Is that what’s in the paper, then? Can I have a look?’ Lunge.

‘No. Keep your hands to yourself.’ Her shortness sharpened, no doubt, by the prospect of more nightmares and fretful anxiety on my part now that the spectre of the blood-stained man has made an unwanted reappearance.

And so it was that my mother kept the evening paper from me, safeguarding me from the stark headline about an execution in my city, taking place against a background of righteous picketers.

Except that some of it can’t be entirely verified.

That I had such a conversation about a man being hanged at Winson Green prison is something I simply couldn’t have made up, not least because the memory of it, however hazy, has haunted me since. That it must be the one that took place in November 1962 has to be the case because prior to this execution, the last one in Birmingham was in 1958 when I was just five years old. What’s more, a murder did take place in Birmingham some five month earlier in June 1962 and the suspect was initially reported to have make his getaway on a number 8 bus – a detail which was to resurface at the trial of the man hanged in November 1962.  But there is one crucial part of the story which I am unable to verify.

Memory has convinced me that my mother must have been sheltering me from a distressing headline. No such headline exists – at least in the extensive digital archives now available to us.  On 20 November, the day of the execution of Oswald Augustus Grey at Winson Green prison, four local newspapers in the UK reported it briefly in the evening editions, only one of which, The Coventry Evening Telegraph, could be deemed to be remotely local. Its brief coverage, like that of The Belfast Telegraph, The Aberdeen Evening News and The Liverpool Echo, was tucked away in the middle sections of inside pages. In Belfast the story merited smaller headlines and fewer words than the revelation that the Senate had insisted on controls ensuring that water content in butter remain at no more than 15%. In Liverpool, train delays due to wire theft merited more attention, while in Aberdeen the new look for post offices was deemed more exciting. Maybe my mother was carrying the paper from the day after the hanging – 21 November?

But by then, Grey’s execution must, indeed, have been yesterday’s news because the only newspaper to report it was local – The Birmingham Daily Post. Here is the entire article which was, once again, on an inside page:

   Hanged in Birmingham

Oswald Augustus Grey, a Jamaican baker of Cannon Hill Road, Edgbaston, was hanged at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham yesterday for the murder of Mr Thomas Arthur Bates, an Edgbaston newsagent. He was found guilty and sentenced to die at Birmingham Assizes for shooting Mr Bates, aged 47, in his shop in Lee Bank Road, Edgbaston on June 2. Uniformed and plain-clothed police stood on duty outside the prison gates as four students from Birmingham University paraded with anti capital punishment placards. Grey was the first to be hanged at Winson Green since August, 1958 and the youngest since 1949 when a 19 year-old soldier was executed for strangling a 14-year-old girl in Sutton Park.

117 words.

This book will attempt to unpick the detail embedded in this piece of blandness. It is possible that my mother was carrying an evening paper for which records don’t exist in the British Newspaper Archives and that she was, indeed, offering me some protection. There may have been a screaming headline that can no longer be located and which, indeed, did become the next day’s fish wrapping. Quite how four students with some placards becomes a crowd is something we’ll never get to the bottom of – nor, indeed, why this detail so irked her. She’s not here to ask, so I’ll never know.

What is beyond dispute, however, is that the 117 words in a newspaper from the city where a young Black man was executed in 1962 is entirely typical of the scant, dismissive coverage of his alleged crime and eventual punishment. What follows attempts to illuminate an event that has lodged, however imperfectly, in the imagination of that nine-year-old and which still has plenty to tell us about race, justice and social attitudes sixty years on. 


For more about my writing, including another new – and completely different – book, An Armchair Fan’s Guide to the Qatar World Cup, visit my website at

Grimy deals, slave wages and the beautiful game. How football found a home in the desert

My new book, An Armchair Fan’s Guide to the Qatar World Cup, comes out next week and is now on sale at all major booksellers. The preface is below. You can find another sample on the website of Pitch Publishing with links to all vendors, some of whom pay their taxes.


February, 2022: final proof that sport couldn’t  be separated from politics

This book was never going to be a glossy guide to the awe and wonder of the World Cup. The intention was always to put football, with its strange ways, daft quirks and its capacity to thrill beyond words, at the centre of everything. But it was never going to shy away from the grimy world of backroom dealing, hard economics and sly corruption that have been companions to everything that happens to the beautiful game at the highest level. It was always going to be a book that refused to subscribe to the notion that sport and politics don’t mix.

The choice of Qatar as the venue for the competition made it inevitable, even for the most insular football fan, that issues such as labour abuses and civil liberties couldn’t be separated in any preview of the World Cup in the desert. It would be absurd not to deal with them. But this is still a football book. At those times during the writing when I thought the subject matter was getting lost in the political weeds, some pure footballing content was quickly hauled in to bring writer and reader back to the main matter in hand.

Most of the book had been written as we approached the end of February 2022. With final qualifying games around the world scheduled to be complete by the end of March, it was just going to be a matter of some final adjustments to comments about who would be present when the competition started in November.

And then, on the morning of 24 February, Russian troops invaded Ukraine. If scribbling about football had seemed frivolous beforehand, it now seemed positively imbecilic.

The football world reacted quickly. In doing so, it reflected the shock and outrage at Putin’s actions, even before his troops began their devastating bombardments and sieges while Europe prepared for another refugee crisis. UEFA moved the Champions’ League final from St Petersburg; Manchester United severed its ties with Aeroflot; those teams due to play Russia in World Cup qualifiers categorically refused to do so; Dynamo Moscow’s Fedor Smolov, with 45 caps and 16 goals for Russia, immediately condemned the invasion. In the coming weeks, as the UK government directed its theatre of condemnation of those rich Russians whose largesse they had once been happy to enjoy, Roman Abramovich was forced to relinquish his control of Chelsea. An early contender for the club’s ownership was the Saudi Media Group, headed by ‘Chelsea fan’ Mohamed Alkhereiji, so football was clearly learning lessons about the probity of those allowed to oversee the game.

Football, like everyone in both politics and the wider sporting world, had been asleep at the wheel as far as Russia was concerned. Sure, Putin had already made incursions into bordering independent states. Yes, he was making belligerent noises as troops amassed on borders. But this was nothing more than the usual posturing from another of the globe’s gang of hard-eyed, self-regarding – but dangerous – blowhards. Wasn’t it? It had only been a few short years since the footballing world had turned the blindest of eyes and legitimised his regime by allowing its prime contest to be played out in his home territory.  FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, who will feature later, was literally prepared to cuddle up to Putin (see photos) and whisper in his ear that ‘the world has created bonds of friendship with Russia that will last forever.’

There is some dispute as to who first coined the term ‘sportswashing’ but if there was ever uncertainty as to its meaning, too much has happened since the 2018 World Cup to leave any doubt as to its existence. Rockets were launched at Kyiv just days after China had staged its low-key winter Olympics, having escaped any meaningful scrutiny or protest over its human rights’ record. The organisers in Qatar may have felt a tremor of misgiving that the real world could spoil their party, but only needed to look west to their neighbours in Saudi Arabia and south to Yemen. As Europe shuddered at Putin’s actions, Yemenis on the end of British armaments still failed to feature on any news bulletin. The great and the good in Doha could relax. War and devastation weren’t going to get in the way of football.

On Sunday 13 March, Chelsea played Newcastle at Stamford Bridge. A section of the Chelsea fans thought it appropriate to chant their loyalty to Abramovich while, among the Newcastle supporters, some waved Saudi flags and sang ‘we’re richer than you.’ To give that small minority the benefit of the doubt, news of the 81 executions by the Saudi government on 12 March may not yet have reached them. What’s more, the loyalists and the flag-wavers may well have been a minority. Nevertheless, it was an uncomfortable episode redolent of sport’s enduring belief that it can slide through life in its isolated bubble.

So, to use the time-honoured disclaimer, all footballing facts are correct at the time of going to press. As for the future of civilised society, we’re all holding our breath.

April 2022.

Roll up, roll up. It’s the annual judge-a-child jamboree

Image by Akshay Chauhan

With tiresome predictability, it’s exam season again. Not the sweat and tears of revising for them, sitting them and waiting nervously for the outcome. There’s no click-bait or squealing headline to be scratched from that sort of honest endeavour. Depending on who spins the line, the results will be solid proof that this year’s exams have been too soft and too easy. Or too hard. Or unfair and incomparable with those of previous years. Or something.

Stuck in the middle of this squealing mess are teenagers. I don’t know whether or not you’ve noticed, but they tend to find the world frustrating and confusing. That’s why they like to be angry and sulky, you know. Most are convinced that adults aren’t fit to be out on their own. But even though they won’t admit it to you – because that’s not the sort of thing they do – what they crave above all else is some certainty and consistency from the grown-ups. Every August, we provide proof positive that we’re not fit for this basic purpose.

We’ve judged, measured and tabulated them even before they were capable of holding a pencil.  We’ve told them that some things in school are VERY important and others are, well, you know, lovely and all that if you like that sort of thing, but not what we really need just now. Teachers and parents try to conceal anxiety about performing well in exams and tests, but usually make the grave, grave mistake of underestimating young people’s ability to easily see through that very fretfulness.

The upshot of all of this is that in their late teens, our young people find themselves in an unwanted spotlight. The culmination of their time in schools is to be captured in the outcomes from brief tests on a narrow range of subjects that haven’t changed much for the last century. Accordingly labelled and classified, they now have these numbers and grades with them through life to do with as they wish. If that’s really the best way of assessing young people’s capabilities and potential in the third decade of the twenty-first century, we need to set ourselves something of a stern examination.

I’ll stop the squealing before it starts. There is no suggestion here that children shouldn’t be taught to read, write and be numerate. Neither is this advocacy for free-spirited and anarchic classrooms – a rough estimate suggests that more than 6,000 former pupils would not recognise this as part of my teaching approach. What’s more, it is perfectly proper that schools and teachers should carefully monitor the progress and capabilities of young people. The crunch comes when we decide what we do with that information.

Let’s take as a starting point that the purpose of assessment is to find out what people know, understand and can do. No arguments there. Now let’s move on to say that once analysed, this assessment is used to decide what the next best steps are in this person’s development. So far, so good. Except that’s not what happens.

Current models of assessment are firmly hitched to achieving test results. If a child falls short of an externally devised standard, the outcome of which will undergo scrutiny in the public domain, then the exercise becomes one of training that child in ways to achieve that ‘standard’, even if it is at the expense of what is needed for his/her development and progress. As a consequence, a diet of rehearsal, coaching and prepping prevail over meeting individual need. And that’s before we even start thinking about the quirky or eccentric child, never mind the one who goes at a different pace.

Education in our schools, colleges and universities has, like everything else in public life, become a marketized, privatized and commodified product. Once we allowed that to happen, and a special badge of dishonour goes here to the Labour Party for its enthusiastic commitment to the introduction of academies, notions of ‘productivity’ and ‘value for money’ dominated our places of learning. The easiest, simplest way of demonstrating how these demands are met is through the ‘production’ of exam results. At the end of this particular sausage machine are our teenagers – who this year will have done better/worse (delete as political circumstances deem applicable) than somebody, somewhere, sometime.  

In the days before school reports were generated by statement-banks, ‘could do better’ just about covered the bases. So how could we go about doing so?

It’s tricky. For over a decade now, Tory politicians have created their very own bogey man. If Trump can lay claim to the notion of fake news, successive Conservative politicians have manufactured their very own scapegoat – The Blob – as its fancied source of all evil. It’s as amorphous as it sounds, variously covering a range of experts, academics, economists and even Remainers and those who ‘plotted’ to remove a mendacious, idle Prime Minister.

Educationalists in The Blob have consistently called for the review of an increasingly narrow curriculum, a more nuanced approach to high-stakes testing using varying methods of assessment and for entrusting teachers with the professional autonomy to tailor what is taught to the needs of young people.  All of this should be underpinned by a collegiate and rigorous system of professional scrutiny, as opposed to the sledgehammer of Ofsted inspections renowned for their tin-eared brevity and tick-list approach to the complex business of teaching and learning.

‘We’ve had enough of experts,’ gushed the permanent bridesmaid, Michael Gove, during the Brexit ‘debate’. Recent events on the global and political stage might suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.  While young people wait anxiously to hear how they’ve been treated, valued and assessed, a dose of well informed, knowledgeable expertise is exactly what they and their successors are due.


Dr Jon Berry is Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Hertfordshire.

Find out more about his books on education, politics and football at

Want a picture of hell? Try watching squabbling Tories while the world burns.

The curtains are drawn while wind with the heat of a hairdryer rattles the open doors and windows. The TV news helicopter floats over a darkened, smoking London; reporters stand in cracked and parched reservoirs and southern Europe tries to stem raging forest fires. We interrupt this programme to bring you the latest instalment in the sixth-form popularity pageant that is the Tory leadership contest.

As I write, it looks like Sunak will face off against Liz Truss. The latter, apparently, is more likely to ring the chimes of the only electorate that now counts in this grotesque farce – Tory party members. It is this select, microscopic constituency who will be charged with electing the next Prime Minister.

The most optimistic estimates suggest that there are some 200,000 such members: more realistic assessments put it at around 160,000. So, at best, around 0.02% of the UK’s adult population will decide which of this crew of fidgety wannabees will be charged putting out the fires. One third of this membership lives in the south-east, more than two thirds of them are male and a generous estimate puts the average age at around 60. Unlike the diverse nature of the candidates, they are overwhelmingly white.

There is a lazy and dangerous trope among those millions of people justifiably disillusioned with mainstream politics:  they’re all the same anyway and none of it makes any difference. Whether it’s Truss, Sunak, Morduant or Dylan the dog, they’ll just look after the interests of their own while paying lip-service to half-baked notions of levelling up. Or down. Or levelling something somewhere. Such dismissiveness opens the door to the Johnsons, Trumps, Modis and Bolsonaros: yeah, they’ve got faults, but they get it done and they can even be a bit of a laugh. But while the ice caps melt and the crops fail, we’ve never been in greater need of serious, well informed and selfless leadership.

First, an admission. I’ve only tolerated clips from the ‘debates’. A lifetime of preparing nervous teenagers has left me with no further appetite for watching wooden parroting of pre-prepared, carefully coached podium stumblings. This is acutely so when, apparently, the only game in town seems to be how to convince the 160k that whatever tax they still pay won’t be too burdensome. I won’t insult you by pretending that I’m surprised by the complete absence of any imagination or inspiration in anything else they have to say.

Underpinning the thin nonsense from the shaking candidates is an unchallenged truth: we must have economic growth. Without such growth, the public services on which we all rely will wither even more alarmingly than they do at present. The ‘thinking’ behind this is that we can cut taxes and still have flourishing public services because with a strong economy we can use private investment to make those services work. And work even better than they do under the stewardship of those lazy, flabby public bodies.  

The catalogue of mismanagement from privatised prison security to the flagrant pollution of rivers by profiteering water companies to the child-unfriendly exam factories of multi-academy trusts – and a thousand points in between – is as long as it is dispiriting. The idea that private does it sooo much better – a notion espoused just as enthusiastically by Labour – has now held sway for decades. Propped up by the dogma of delivery – a particular Truss favourite – we are asked to disbelieve our own experience and accept that this is the only workable way of organising the services one might expect from a highly developed economy in the third decade of the twenty-first century.  

As news outlets entered the arms’ race of where the highest temperature had been recorded, only occasional bulletins slipped in any brief discussion of global warming – the phrase now airbrushed from political discourse in favour of the tamer, less aggressive ‘climate change.’  Like I say, I can’t claim to have watched every gruelling syllable, but reports suggest that all candidates expressed commitment to Cop 26 and recycling their own cardboard while, in the case of Truss, looking the scientific evidence square in the face and deciding that fracking was just fine. We need fuel resources. For economic growth.

And there’s the rub. While any half-sensible parent’s or grandparent’s nightmares are haunted by the irreversible mess we’re leaving behind, the best the political class can come up with is more of the same but with another coloured bin. Growth that is dependent on fossil fuels will burn us all; energy supplies buffeted by profiteering corporations will leave us all in the dark; planning and building permission granted through the same old networks will build over every last park and playing field.

Nobody in their right mind would expect a high Tory looking for the approval of middle Englanders to even whisper the heresy of a challenge to the current model of economic growth. The last person on the big political stage to do so was some bumbling old allotment owner and even his own party doesn’t want him and his crazy ideas any more.

Whoever the next comfortable, smug inhabitant of No. 10 turns out to be, s/he probably won’t be there for long. Their period of tenure will be marked by the same old lurch from disaster to catastrophe, punctuated by systemic incompetence. In the meantime, activists and those proposing that we need system change as a necessary prerequisite of climate change are the voices we should be heeding – while adding our own to their chorus. If we’re waiting for Sunak, Truss or Starmer for the big ideas, hell will have become fresher than East Anglia.

Two new books in September (both very different from each other!)

Brutish Necessity tells the story of the last man hanged in Birmingham in 1962 – a 20-year-old Windrush immigrant

An Armchair Fan’s Guide to the Qatar World Cup deals with everything from corruption, to labour abuses, to the price of a pint and who’s going to win. (I made that last bit up)

To the 211 Tory Cowards – what do you think you stand for?

Imagine, if you can, being the Tory MP for Cosytown in Midshire. Or even one of the new breed from Roughness in Norderland. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt too. It’s possible that you are not seeking self-aggrandisement, and neither are you sucking up the daily comforts of subsidised dining rooms and first-class travel. Let’s just concede that you’ve come into public life to improve the lot of other people. It’s not such an outlandish proposition: I’ve met such dedicated public servants from the Conservative Party at local and, yes, parliamentary level. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re one of the good guys.

The embarrassment must be all consuming. You have made a conscious decision as an independent adult to identify yourself with a political party that proudly stands for individual responsibility and the upholding of traditional values. Chief among these is respect for the law and for the great institutions of the State: parliament, the judiciary and the monarchy.

These must have been a difficult few years for you. One of the first acts of the newly installed Prime Minister was to advise Her Majesty that it was lawful for him to suspend (prorogue) parliament so that he could get Brexit done without the bother of scrutiny or justification. The be-spidered figure of Baroness Hale condemned such illegality, but impatient disregard for the rules is a hallmark of the Prime Minister. As one of his teachers observed of him some 40 years ago, ‘he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.’ I think we’re all aware of that now, aren’t we?

It can’t have been easy for you to have watched as both sovereign and her parliament were traduced in this way. As for the courts, perhaps you were on the side of the Home Secretary who was keen to upbraid ‘lefty lawyers’ who would, peskily, insist on protecting people’s human rights. Maybe you cheered as the Daily Mail branded three high court judges as ‘enemies of the people’ for upholding the law. It’s possible that you applauded the leader of the Commons – famous for his languid lounging on the parliamentary benches – when he proposed to reduce the power and scope of such judges.

Frankly, I think that’s unlikely. The Law Society estimates that more than one in ten MPs has professional legal experience, so there must be some residual respect among you for the integrity of legal processes. Besides, one can only imagine that your local association is propped up by any number of sage magistrates and worthy Justices of the Peace. All the same, I think we’re all aware that some of your number want to ‘move on’ from what you consider to be excusable misdemeanours for which fulsome and sincere apologies have been issued. I’m not of your number, of course, but for the pursuance of the argument, we’ll leave the fixed penalty notice to one side for the moment.

I’ll be brutally honest with you – and possibly unfairly so. I’m going to guess that the good burghers of Cosytown and Roughness don’t have Northern Ireland at the top of their agendas and, to be candid, might be slightly bored and baffled by it all. What’s that you say? You feel much the same? No need to be embarrassed: addressing such confusion is the precise purpose of the unflinching law. The Prime Minister unequivocally assured you that there would be no border in the Irish sea. That turned out to be an untruth. But never mind. The trade protocols were only advisory, weren’t they? Some European law or other. You can just break that and make up a law of your own. Can’t you? And, what’s more, blame the other chap for insisting on sticking to the terms of the agreement that you’ve already willingly signed. What a wheeze, eh?

Not comfortable with that? I’m afraid there’s even more bothersome small-print stuff. I’m not sure if the name of Sir Alex Allan means anything to you, but he resigned from his position in November 2020. He was your government’s adviser on ethics – I’ll leave aside any jibes about thankless tasks. His was replaced by Lord Geidt who now, like Allan, believes his position to be increasingly untenable. Both men have expressed concern about the non-application of the ministerial code which requires the resignation of those who breach it. This now includes the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. Neither has, of course, resigned and both have been happy to endorse changes to the code. These mean that only intentional misdemeanours need to be punished. Unintentional gaffes like lying to colleagues or bullying them or having a party or protecting your hooky mates, can be written off as careless and unfortunate casualties of conduct in high office.

I’m probably not telling you much that you don’t know. I have a visceral dislike of your party and what it stands for but do have a grudging respect for some its members who have shown fortitude, integrity and occasional compassion. Such individuals present a telling contrast to the fawning, mendacious placeholders who belittle themselves by defending the utterly indefensible. ‘There is no alternative,’ your departed goddess once suggested. If that really is the best argument you can come up with, it’s time for 211 of you to take stock of what you stand for and have a very stern word with yourselves.

Patel’s Rwanda scheme -a cheap, nasty, inhumane stunt. No surprise there, then.

Wearing tourist advice on its sleeve. One of Arsenal’s many saleable kits.

There’s always football.

Saturday at the drop-in for refugees in our area. There are people from all round the world here, drinking tea and grabbing what solace they can from some basic social contact. Their collective memory will be more hellish than anything Bosch or Goya could have conjured.

There is now a grotesque hierarchy, framed by the actions of our politicians, whereby we have good refugees, just-about-OK refugees and downright bad refugees. I find myself chatting to one of the latter. He is typical of many at the drop-in.

He’s in the ‘bad’ category for a number of reasons. He hasn’t escaped the terrors of Ukraine, which is where the good refugees have come from. Neither has he managed to beat the pampered pets to a place on a plane from Kabul to be one of the OK ones who will, eventually, be granted leave to remain. Nope. He’s a bad ‘un. Young, Black, male and single.

We stumble along in a hotch-potch of languages until I chance my conversational trump card. Yes, he loves football and Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema is his favourite player. I nod approvingly and am happy to tell him that today he can watch live football, for free, at his accommodation. The FA Cup Final. He has two questions. Am I sure it’s for free? No subscription channel? I reassure him. And who’s playing? Chelsea and Liverpool. He reels off the names of players on both sides. Elite football is truly an international language.

I’m glad Arsenal aren’t involved. For once, this isn’t about the juvenile footballing prejudices that dog my life and which I should have outgrown decades ago. I’d just spent time with this young man giving him information and resources that I hope he never has to use. As a recent arrival in the UK, he is at risk of being identified as someone vulnerable to the Patel Rwanda pantomime. I didn’t want to encourage him to watch a game with players proudly displaying an encouragement to ‘Visit Rwanda’ on their shirts and to see that message, literally, up in lights around the stadium.

Arsenal’s sponsorship deal with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), initiated in 2018, is said to be worth £10 million a year, which, in footballing terms, is Aldi-level purchasing power. Patel’s initial deal with Rwanda is set at around £120 million for an undisclosed number of refugees, which might, at least, buy a superstar and a half. The RDB also has a similar sponsorship deal with French champions, Paris St Germain. Since Patel’s announcement on 14 April, neither club has made any comment about its connection to the RDB. Football really doesn’t give a monkey’s about where the money comes from.

For further proof, go to Newcastle United, recently acquired by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Not the Saudi government, you understand – the Investment Fund. The Fund Chaired by the Saudi Crown Prince. So it’s not owned by the execution-happy Saudi government at all. And the Fund has promised, promised, honestly promised the Premier League that the Saudi state won’t control the club. All of which seems slightly at odds with its recent decision to adopt the Saudi national team’s colours on its new kit.  

Not, of course, that any of this is directly going to worry my young man for the foreseeable future. Viewing pay-wall football, much less going to see his heroes in the flesh, is way beyond his ambit. What awaits him are weeks, probably months, of boredom, inactivity and occasional brushes with opaque and harassed bureaucracy. He’s young and fit and wants to work and study. If he chooses to walk around the local area, he’ll see sign after sign in local businesses looking for staff. In the drop-in around him there are engineers, IT technicians, musicians, mechanics and even, if you please, a tree-surgeon. And the best that one of the nation’s most senior officers of state can do is to come up with some cheapskate, tawdry – and probably illegal – headline-grabber to pack people off to Rwanda.

I chance a question with my companion. Will people still come on boats? Trains and lorries? Of course, he tells me. In the UK there will be opportunities and they can have hope. Why wouldn’t they try to get to such a wonderful place? You’ve got to love his faith in this idealised vision.

This is a government that will do deals to offload refugees to one of the world’s poorest countries, whose human-rights’ record it has already condemned. It will sell arms to one of the one of the globe’s chief executioners for use on another of the world’s poorest nations. Under the monstrous pretext of attacking people-smugglers, it will prosecute their victims. It will look for cheap stunts at the expense of real people with talent, ability and dreams.

I’m not sure he’ll be there next week to discuss the game. A blunt system often shifts people around at very short notice. If he’s there, we’ll try to find something to chat about and keep hoping he won’t turn out to be a poster-boy for Patel’s wretched, vile scheme.

Football really doesn’t give a monkey’s about where the money comes from………

My new book, An Armchair Fan’s Guide to the Qatar World Cup, available for pre-order, will be out in September.

If your tastes are more overtly political, you may prefer Brutish Necessity, out at the same time. You can look inside on Amazon here.

Want to send a message to the world? Defend democracy at home.

The map’s a birthday present. It now has pride of place in the hallway and I’m still enjoying the novelty of pausing as I pass to test my knowledge – and to experience the unwelcome reminder of my ignorance and growing lack of recall.

Scale and size are always a surprise, even given the vagaries of cartographic convention. One of these dictates that maps such as mine, produced in Europe, always put that continent at the centre of the world, meaning that our gaze is initially drawn to that territory. It’s small when looked at globally.

Without being picky, it’s fair to say that most countries in the corner that is Europe are functioning democracies – but only just. Gerrymandering, state control of media and, alarmingly, a growing tendency for populations to shun electoral processes that neither speak to them nor provide the sort of political choices they want, have combined to make such democracy a shaky business. From Hungary to Italy, from France to Poland and beyond, elections only just scrape above the line when it comes to providing free, unfettered, genuine choice.

Casting about the rest of the map looking for secure democracies is a challenge. When you find them, crowding in on those enclaves are the dominions of the tough guys; the Xi Jinpings, Putins, Modis, Bolsonaros and now, waiting in the wings, horror of horrors, the Trumps. Jowly, right-wing populism isn’t short of global ambassadors.

All of which brings us, inevitably, to partygate.

From the risible Rees-Mogg to whichever drivelling time-server is sent to face today’s cameras, we hear the same mantra: time to move on, bigger fish to fry, now’s not the time. We have a war-hero in our midst, don’t you know? This is no time to distract him from fulfilling the great office of state. Putin wants nothing more than having us squabble over our own entrails.

Of all these frail arguments, the notion that the exercising of democratic processes, even at times of great strife, is something that should be abandoned because it diminishes our ability to oppose a monstrous dictator, is the most absurd. Here, from a whole raft of arguments, are just three to challenge such claptrap.

First, the replacement of key figures during times of war and conflict is a regular occurrence. The Prime Minister, who clumsily attempts to impress with his scattered learning, purports to look to Churchill as a role model. So he should know that his hero replaced Chamberlain in 1940 when this country was under real and direct threat. When Thatcher tearfully left office in 1990, British troops were in action in Kuwait.

Second, much as he’d like to be, Boris Johnson is not a president. When he offers aid and succour to Ukraine, its leaders and its people, he is doing so as the representative of the government. He may be that government’s mouthpiece and envoy, but he is its servant, not its master. The very idea that such support is reliant on his diktat or force of personality is a preposterous myth – albeit one that he is happy to perpetuate.

Finally, when it comes to what Putin may be thinking – something that has been exercising the pop psychologists (to no good effect) for some time – how on earth can that be a sensible consideration? As far as we can tell, he considers the west and its ways decadent and feeble. If a strong leader can’t play fast and loose with his own laws, if he can’t pull the wool over the eyes of his own parliament, police and judiciary, if he can’t discredit a limp-wristed free media then, really, what sort of leader is he anyway? If we’re talking about sending messages, then one which explains that a mature democracy is untiring in its pursuit of malfeasance, whatever the consequences, seems to be one that we need to get behind now more than ever.

Naively or not, many of us have lived our entire lives unthinkingly accepting that democracy, particularly in our little corner of the globe, was the unchallenged and unchallengeable way of conducting affairs. We awake today to the news that the world’s richest man will now be in control of the world’s largest social media platform. Preening himself behind homilies about free speech, what Musk has really bought is his own freedom to exercise enormous power, devoid of responsibility to anything other than his personal advancement. Somewhere on a Florida golf course, one plump old boy will be looking on with greedy interest. As might be another in a bizarrely decorated flat in SW1A.

However long the cake was in the box, whoever poured the drinks and for whom, whoever couldn’t distinguish between a party and a meeting, it looks like the lawbreakers broke their own rules. In doing so they took the public for fools and that same public now looks to the institutions of a democratic state to address wrongdoing and punish the culprits. Doing so may not send a shiver down Putin’s spine, but it keeps the democratic lights on in one small part on my wall map.  


An Armchair Fan’s Guide to the Qatar World Cup – out in August

Brutish Necessity – the social history behind the execution of a Windrush immigrant – out in September