For once I am unconned. Yesterday, listening to a Foreign Office minister, Mike O'Brien, being interviewed about the forthcoming England cricket match in Zimbabwe, the veins began to stand out in various bonier parts of my physiognomy. Summarised, his position was that the Government couldn't instruct English cricketers not to go to Zimbabwe (it being a free country and all), but that he and other ministerial folk had made plain their personal positions on the subject. And if cricketers (he implied) had an ounce of human decency in their veins, then they'd take the hint and call it off.
Just about everything he said was sly, weaselly and dishonest, and here's the first reason why. It is true that, in the Commons on 17 December, in a debate initiated by a Conservative MP, Mr O'Brien stated that it was the Government's position to ask the international and national cricket authorities "to look at the matter". He went on: "We will not issue orders to them; however, speaking personally, I hope that they will listen to the strong views expressed in the debate. My view is that it would be better if the team did not go."
It is also true that a week earlier another minister, Denis MacShane, had appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and, taxed with the same question, MacShane had expressed the hope that the team would "take cognisance of the fact that if it goes to Zimbabwe it will do so in very odd, peculiar circumstances that may not redound to its credit." He added, "but I am not yet ready, as an old-fashioned libertarian, to call for a specific ban."
But, on examination, this freedom of ministerial expression and advice turns out to have a very recent pedigree. In the Lords on 1 November, Lord St John asked another minister, Baroness Amos, about the match. No personal views or moral steers here, however. "This," said the Baroness with commendable economy, "is a matter for the ECB and for the cricketing authorities. The United Kingdom Government do not send our cricket team to Zimbabwe." And that was it.
It gets worse. Back at Foreign Office questions in the Commons on 23 July, the Tory MP Henry Bellingham asked Jack Straw an unwisely Hydra-headed question about Zimbabwe, which included a query about sports boycotts and the World Cup cricket tournament. This was the only section of Mr Bellingham's question to which the Foreign Secretary made no reference in his reply; he just ignored it. In fact – as far as I can see – from the moment the World Cup draw was made, right up until a couple of weeks ago, there was no public guidance from ministers that might assist cricketers in making a decision.
This much is clear to me. In the absence of such unequivocal government advice on the political advantages of abandoning the match, it is pathetic and dishonest to demand that a few sportsmen should fill the void with principle. How could they?
There is no useful analogy to be made (as some have suggested) to the sports boycott of South Africa. Although I was young, I remember well the arguments that the anti-apartheid movement deployed when calling for the isolation of the regime. They were based on how people of mixed or black race were excluded from South African teams. I also recall the immense opposition to any boycott mounted by most Conservative Party MPs (what a contrast with today!) and the grand panjandrums of cricket such as Sir Colin Cowdrey, Peter May and – sadly – the beloved commentator Brian "Johnners" Johnston. Some individual sportspeople did heed the campaign. David Sheppard refused to tour South Africa as early as 1960, and the Welsh flanker John Taylor wouldn't play against the segregated Springboks in the 1969 tour. But they were exceptions.
South Africa was, to me, a clear-cut case. The Olympic movement threw the apartheid state out in 1964, and the Gleneagles agreement of Commonwealth states in 1977 presaged the country's complete sporting isolation. Most other sporting boycotts have been anything but straightforward, as the Government and the Opposition both know.
Also on 17 December, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, stated his reasons for wanting the match called off. "To give Mugabe a stage is to ignore his fascist brutality," thundered the usually mild Mr Ancram, "to turn a blind eye to his genocidal behaviour and to spit in the faces of the millions of Zimbabweans who are enduring poverty, oppression and death at the hands of this vile dictator." All right. If dictatorship is our target, why was there no call for British teams to boycott the 1978 football World Cup, held in the Argentina of the butcher General Rafael Videla? This week, I have signed a petition calling for a Cameroonian, Françoise Matoum-Kamg – who was raped, tortured and beaten by the authorities in her home country, not to be deported. England played Cameroon in this year's World Cup. Should the footballers have made up their own minds to play in neither tournament?
Should sports people have pre-empted President Jimmy Carter's call in 1980, and decided by themselves not to attend the 1980 Moscow Olympics, because of the invasion of Afghanistan? Or were Seb Coe and Steve Ovett right to ignore Mrs Thatcher's preference for boycott, and thus to end up competing against each other in the 800 and 1500 metres races? Or, to bring it up to date, should sports people play against China, or refuse because of Tibet? Should we compete against Iraqi teams? How do we decide if playing sport will help liberalisation in Dictoria, while it will encourage fascism in Thugland?
Contrary to the way this is being reported and perceived, a decision on whether or not to boycott is itself not a matter of principle. It is instead a complex question of tactics, of fine calculation about actions and effects. I can quite conceive of an argument which says that boycotting a particular activity in a certain country will have the effect of weakening a tyrannical government and giving strength to the opposition, particularly if that is what the opposition demands. But I can also imagine a contrary strategy in which we recognise that we are best served by making as many contacts as we can. After all, it seems to be the Government's personal position (see how silly this gets?) that it is bad to compete against Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe, but not anywhere else. I can see that timing too plays an important part.
But what I cannot imagine is that such a judgement should be left to David Beckham, Terry Venables, or the England and Wales Cricket Board. And I am sure that Mr O'Brien (and, for that matter, Clare Short) can see the impossibility of this as well. By shoving responsibility off to the cricketers and putting the onus on the ECB and the International Cricket Council, Mr O'Brien and the Government have behaved disgracefully. They could easily have issued public statements back in the summer that they were opposed to the match going ahead, and that they were calling – along with other governments – for the ICC to rearrange Zimbabwe matches either in South Africa or Kenya. They didn't. As a result, they have turned every sporting body into a quivering bunch of second-guessers, trying to work out whether they will, at some point, also get it in the neck from their opportunistic Government.