Mess up, and own up — The lesson from leading sportsmen that politicians would do well to heed

Our leaders should show more dignity in defeat

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Dignity in defeat is not a quality one would necessarily associate with professional sport. Yet between them, the Wimbledon tennis tournament, the Tour de France and this week’s devastating defeat of Brazil in the World Cup have provided examples. I’m thinking of Andy Murray, Mark Cavendish and Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Murray, for instance, reflected on the loss of his Wimbledon crown with a lengthy, unsparing analysis of what had gone wrong – after having first sincerely congratulated his opponent.

This is what Murray said: “The frustrating thing was the amount of mistakes I made today because even when I wanted to get into longer rallies I was missing shots.

I was unable to make [my opponent] work as hard as I needed to, if I was going to get back into the match.” And he added: “The best way to prepare for majors is by winning a lot of matches and I have not done that… I need to go away for a few days, think about a few things, talk to my team about what I am going to do to improve my game and how I am going to get better.”

You would suppose that Murray, Cavendish and Scolari must have drunk fully of the cup of adulation that they have been offered over the years. No doubt Murray and Scolari cannot take a walk down a street in their home countries without being mobbed. Or, and this is the point, perhaps in fact they didn’t drink their fill.

Maybe they wisely said to themselves when surrounded by fans and celebrity-seekers that fame can send you mad – as seems, for instance, to have been the case with the television entertainers who have passed through the criminal courts recently.

Is that why Murray conspicuously humbles himself in public, says frankly what his faults were and promises to work even harder to win Grand Slam championships in the future? In effect he seems to have entered into a pact with his vast army of fans: as you have supported me and cheered me on, so I owe you a full account when things go wrong.

To turn to the second example, when Mark Cavendish literally crashed out of the Tour de France, this rider, whom the French newspaper L’Equipe named best sprinter of all time, simply said: “It was my fault.” An observer described what happened. “He was so sure to win that he probably made a mistake. The rider Simon Gerrans came next to him, slowed down, he wanted to get out, and he pushed with the shoulder and Gerrans pushed back and they crashed.”

Cavendish added: “I’ll personally apologise to Gerrans as soon as I get the chance. In reality, I tried to find a gap that wasn’t really there… I wanted to win today, I felt really strong and was in a great position to contest the sprint thanks to the unbelievable efforts of my team. Sorry to all the fans that came out to support – it was truly incredible.”

Thus Cavendish plans to say sorry to his rival, he apologises to fans and thanks his team. You cannot ask for more than that.

In the very worst of circumstances, even more dreadful than that which Murray and Cavendish endured, Luiz Felipe Scolari, the manager of Brazil, blamed only himself. His words are perhaps still fresh in our minds: “Who is responsible? Who is responsible for picking the team? I am. It’s me … who decided the tactics? I did… I’ll be remembered probably because I lost 7-1, the worst defeat Brazil have ever had, but that was a risk I knew I was taking when I accepted this position.” No self-pity here, no whining, no shifting the blame.

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Even in defeat, therefore, the three sportsmen have earned respect, which is pure gold compared to the dross of adulation. It is how you deal with failure that matters, not how you handle success.

Apply this to the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman MP, who this week complained that she hadn’t been made Gordon Brown’s Deputy Prime Minister in 2007 after she had won the election for the post.

“If one of the men had won the deputy leadership would that have happened?” she asked. And for good measure, she later told the BBC that she expected to become Deputy Prime Minister if Labour won power after the next general election. Were Ms Harman’s remarks dignified? Did they command respect? Not in the slightest I would say.

Who could blame Lady Butler-Sloss for refusing sex abuse inquiry?

The furore over Elizabeth Butler-Sloss’s appointment as head of an investigation into child abuse is following lines so straight and predictable that they could indeed be part of a railway system.

A cabinet minister makes an appointment to a controversial position. The prime minister of the day gives his or her full support. But an argument breaks out over the wisdom of the choice. At first the criticisms are muted.

In this case, it was said that the former judge had clearly been a lifelong member of the establishment and as such was an unsuitable person to deal with the question of whether there had in fact been an establishment cover-up.

On cue, Prime Minister David Cameron reiterates his support. Lady Butler-Sloss vows to get on with the job.

Then the objections become more pointed. It turns out that Lady Butler-Sloss’s brother was Sir Michael Havers, who was Attorney General in the 1980s when a cover-up, if there was one, was supposed to have been happening.

Then we get the damaging allegation that Sir Michael, who died in 1992, refused to prosecute Sir Peter Hayman, a diplomat and member of the Paedophile Information Exchange, a lobbying organisation for child abusers. Whether this is true now has little to do with the predicament in which Lady Butler-Sloss is beginning to find herself.

So the question becomes not whether the Government will withdraw its support. For it will stand by her. Rather the question is whether Lady Butler-Sloss will suddenly see that it is not worth going on. For what awaits her? Conducting an inquiry that has lost authority because of her conflicts of interest, and the likelihood that she will be subject to continuing criticism whether deserved or not.

Yesterday’s newspapers, for instance, carried reports that she had been in charge of a “flawed” investigation into how the Church of England handled the cases of two ministers in Sussex who had sexually abused boys. So gradually her task is being made impossible.

The Government will stay silent. But I guess she will soon withdraw. At the age of 80, shortly to be 81, nobody would blame her. The story will have run its usual course when such difficulties arise.

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