An ode to the spirit of fair play

The first in line for the scrapheap are those who put their trust in the fairness of others
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LIKE MANY other people, I have been trying to think of suitable subjects for Andrew Motion to write about. The new Poet Laureate apparently wants to go beyond the Ted Hughes approach to the job - a few lines on the evisceration of a leveret to mark the Queen Mother's birthday - and tackle "larger national questions".

Reluctantly passing over my original proposals, "The Ballad of Sophie's Right Breast" in mock-heroic rhyming couplets, or a more contemplative "Ode to the Euro", I have turned to a larger national question that has been bothering me of late, an enigma that perhaps can be satisfactorily resolved only by a poet's ability to express what Wordsworth called "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge".

It is the fair play problem - or rather, the problem of British fair play. From infancy, we have been taught that here was one of life's mysterious, unquestionable certainties, like the primacy of the British sausage, or the fact that every nation on earth envies us our marvellous Royal Family.

It persisted throughout childhood, where nothing was ever fair, and school, where unfairness was part of the unofficial curriculum, and into adult life where the first in line for the scrap heap were those who put their trust in the fairness of others. Yet still we cling with blind religious fervour to the belief that no one else is quite as decent and good-hearted as we are. "Still unrivalled around the world," The Sun trumpeted recently, putting our sense of fair play at a plucky No 18, only just below Morecambe and Wise, in their "100 Reasons Why It's Great to Be English".

Presumably, it was this essential article of national faith that inspired Jonathan Aitken to appeal, in his most famous speech, to "the trusty shield of British fair play". Even at the time, it seemed a dodgy ploy to appeal to the virtue that he himself so conspicuously lacked, and so it proved.

Yet the most telling insight into British fair play has come not from Aitken's story but from the response of those who have triumphed over him. If an essential aspect of fair play is a becoming sense of modesty, and a humanity towards the vanquished, then the evidence suggests that we are living in an age that is just as unfair as the Eighties, when unfairness was regarded as a positive civic virtue.

Even those of us who are dyed-in-the-wool liberals must surely have been discomfited and embarrassed by the prolonged crowing, the orgy of self- congratulation and moral superiority, that has dominated the pages of The Guardian as Aitken has skewered himself on his own simple sword of truth. The final humiliation of this minor politician was celebrated over no fewer than five pages last week - only marginally less space than that accorded to the liberation of Kosovo.

The professional jape merchants on Radio 4's News Quiz developed hilarious comic routines involving Aitken, his daughter and the treatment he would receive in jail, sounding less like satirists than leering playground bullies. Even the readers of this newspaper joined the game: "It would have been more fun if we had dragged him into the street and let him take his chances," chortled Dr Bruce W Perkins on the letters page.

Not much sign of the trusty shield of British fair play here. But then, a glance at contemporary headlines would suggest that there is, if anything, more spite and duplicitousness to be found in these islands than in most other countries. Where else, after all, would the friend of a successful rugby player have lured him into a tabloid trap that would destroy his career? Where else would the well-heeled pal of a suddenly famous woman earn herself pounds 100,000 by selling a topless photograph to a newspaper just before her wedding day? And where else would a journalist build a career on a merciless, intimate dissection of her failed marriage?

Tackling these questions, the new Poet Laureate might turn to sport for evidence. Here a player blamed for England's defeat in the World Cup was burnt in effigy outside his parents' house, and a referee who failed to award the world title to a British boxer was hounded by the press and public. In recent matches, English players resolved the problem of tricky opposition players by removing them from the field of play with a good old English one-two - a knee to the chest and studs in the thigh.

There has, admittedly, been one indisputable act of fair play in British sport over the past few months. After his team had won a cup game with an unfair goal, Arsenal's manager created history by insisting that the game should be replayed. What a pity that the manager in question was French.