Archive: Sport

Bobby Fischer Against the World cover

This year everyone has been talking about the Senna documentary, including me. But while praise for Senna has come from F1 fans and non-fans alike, I have been more impressed by another sport documentary from this year — Bobby Fischer Against the World.

Chess may seem like an unlikely game to take to the big screen. But chess comes alive in this riveting documentary about one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

The term ‘flawed genius’ may be an overused cliche, but if it applies to anyone surely it is Bobby Fischer. The film tells the story of how a variety of factors contributed to a great man’s decline.

The centrepiece of the film is the famous 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The individual American took on the might of the Soviet chess system, which had dominated world chess for a quarter of century. This Cold War face-off had as much political significance as chess significance, as is cleverly illustrated through the use of archive news footage.

But the chess itself is never forgotten. The significant moments of the match are explained in a very vivid and accessible manner. I would guess that little or no chess knowledge is required in order to enjoy this film. The world’s most popular board game doesn’t have a sexy image, but after watching this film you wonder why.

But what stays with you is the tale of Fischer’s decline. This is where this film excels over Senna. It is a painfully honest assessment of the downsides of Bobby Fischer’s character. In the Senna hagiography, the driver’s flaws are only ever briefly brought up, and even then it is only to sweep them straight under the carpet.

In contrast, Bobby Fischer Against the World in unafraid to shine the torchlight on the enigma of the world’s greatest chess player who managed to alienate everyone he knew. At times it is painful and embarrassing to watch as a successful man becomes a delusional, anti-American, antisemitic and all-round offensive man.

In doing so, the film paints a genuinely complete picture of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures in sport. Senna, in contrast, only skims the surface.

Today it was announced that the Asian rounds of Superleague Formula have been cancelled. This is on top of the earlier cancellation of the South American rounds. The original 2011 calendar also contained races in Russia, the middle east, Australia and New Zealand. None of these took place.

In the end, the only two races that took place were at Assen in the Netherlands and Zolder in Belgium. This means that the championship was decided way back in July — but we only learned that today!

It was already quite an effort for those two races to take place anyway. Superleague had seemed worryingly dormant over the winter, and many suspected that it was dead.

Following in the footsteps of A1GP

The parallels between Superleague and A1GP (another failed attempt at an ‘F1 alternative’) have always been striking. Both have core concepts that are slightly alien to motorsport.

A1GP described itself as the “World Cup of Motorsport”. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t even win races. Nations did.

Meanwhile, Superleague was designed as a cross between football and motor racing. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t win races. Football clubs did. Any football fans I ever spoke to about Superleague were not very interested in the series. For this reason, the format was always going to be a loser.

But on the plus side for both A1GP and Superleague, they both provided some quite entertaining racing. And it is on this basis that they both attracted a cult following — a small but loyal fanbase. But this clearly isn’t enough of a fanbase to sustain a series for more than a few years.

A1GP lasted for four years. Cunningly, the series was run over the winter. Not very traditional for a motorsport series, but this meant that they could draw in motorsport fans suffering from withdrawal symptoms. It was moderately successful, and it led to GP2 (the closest thing there is to an official feeder series to F1) creating a spin-off GP2 Asia series that was run in winter. (GP2 Asia has since also been wound up, having had a troubled 2010–2011 season of its own when it was affected by the unrest in Bahrain.)

Not a super formula

When A1GP closed down, Superleague opened up and has so far continued for three seasons. Superleague runs with the same type of car, with the same type of drivers on the same types of circuits. For want of a better phrase, these are a B-class car, with B-class drivers on largely B-class circuits.

I have nothing against this personally, and I personally enjoyed watching A1GP and Superleague whenever I got the chance. But you have to question whether it is a formula for success in terms of bringing in an audience.

Sad but true: the standard isn’t high enough

There are lots of brilliant series below Formula 1 that provide real appeal. It is a sad fact that the motor racing world revolves around Formula 1, and the most successful sub-F1 open-wheel series are all about finding the F1 stars of the future. GP2, World Series by Renault, GP3 and the many Formula 3 series all stake their claim as being a testing ground for the stars of the future.

But series like A1GP and Superleague Formula cannot make this claim. As a result, their appeal is sadly limited. A series like Superleague is populated by drivers who aren’t good enough to progress further up the ladder. Some drivers almost made it to F1, but didn’t quite have the last bit that was required. If you’re lucky, there might be the odd ex-F1 driver like Jos Verstappen. But the world isn’t exactly set alight by the prospect of a battle between Neel Jani and Craig Dolby.

It is true that A1GP has been a stomping ground for a few future F1 drivers like Nico Hülkenberg. But these drivers had to make their way through GP2 aftewards to get to F1.

Because let’s be fair here. It is generous to describe the drivers in Superleague as ‘B-class’. B-class open-wheel racers can be found in IndyCar. IndyCar struggles enough to survive as it is. But at least some of its drivers are household names like Dario Franchitti or Takuma Sato. Jobbing open-wheelers whose sights haven’t extended to IndyCar end up in a series like Superleague.

While I have always found the concept of Superleague Formula to be shaky, I do hope that it is able to survive this embarrassing season and come back stronger in 2012. But I sadly doubt it will be the case.

Is this the greatest theme tune ever? And have you ever heard the full version of it?

I bet many don’t know about the guitar break in the middle!

I reckon you could probably tell how old someone is by what pictures they associate the boing with. For me, it is a snooker ball going down a pocket — or that goalkeeper’s handstand save. Sadly I haven’t been able to find either of these on YouTube.

Here are a few of the title sequences from over the years.

Grandstand really ought to still be on TV for the theme tune alone. If you ever wondered why it is no longer on TV, here is the answer. It was killed forever by a weedy remix. They even removed the boing!

The terrible music is bad enough. But what is incredible is that almost everyone in the video is doing anything apart from watching Grandstand. They are in the gym, drinking coffee, playing pool, and even doing the shopping. But they are not on the couch watching five hours of sport (apart from the young family at the end, but that is totally implausible).

Needless to say, the remix didn’t last.

It was a rocky path to recovery. This one from 2004 is bad in the opposite way. There is too much happening, but the classic montage style is gone. Worst of all, the theme tune is being spoken over!

Here is the beginning of the final episode of Grandstand, from 2007.

There was some alarming news for F1 fans yesterday. According to The Guardian, the BBC is considering ditching F1 coverage as a result of budget cuts.

Easy target

I used to think the chances of the BBC dropping its F1 coverage at the end of the current contract were fairly high. For critics of the BBC, F1 is an easy target.

For one thing, the image of F1 as a glamorous, expensive sport for rich men doesn’t help. Nor, indeed, does the perception that it is environmentally unfriendly.

There is also a myth that Formula 1 can be adequately covered by commercial broadcasters. Anyone who actually tried to sit down and watch a race on ITV will know that this is simply not true. But the fact that it has only been back on the BBC for two years so far means that it is not seen as a BBC jewel.

Hugely popular

But since it regained the rights in 2009, the BBC have done such an exemplary job of covering the sport that it has become a matter of even greater importance to many F1 fans. It’s not just about the lack of advert interruptions, which was a huge barrier to ITV gaining acceptance from fans. It is the sheer breadth and depth of the BBC’s coverage.

The quality of the programme itself is top-notch, despite apparently having a much lower budget than ITV. All practice sessions are broadcast on the red button or online. And post-race analysis often goes on for as long as the race itself. There is plenty of archive footage on offer too.

As a result, ratings for Formula 1 are generally much higher than they were by the time ITV was finished with it. A recent BBC Trust report revaled that Formula 1 coverage was exceeding all of its targets and enabled it to reach a young male audience that the BBC otherwise finds difficult to reach.

The other sporting event that was regarded as a ‘hit’ by all measures was Wimbledon. This is the other sport apparently being considered for the chop.

So are the BBC planning to do a 6 Music, and demonstrate that BBC coverage of these events needs to be saved as a result of strong viewer opinion? Or is F1 genuinely being lined up for the axe?

Budget cuts

It’s pretty clear that the BBC’s F1 coverage has faced a budget cut for the year. The BBC took the odd decision of removing the well-respected commentator Jonathan Legard, and failing to properly replace him. Instead, the rest of the existing team has been reshuffled and each member of the on-screen team will be spread more thinly.

David Coulthard and Martin Brundle

For instance, it is expected that Martin Brundle will continue to do his pre-race gridwalk, do a full race commentary, and participate in the post-race analysis. David Coulthard will continue in his punditry role both before and after the race, in addition to being the co-commentator during the race. This would normally amount to four or more hours of continuous live broadcasting (more if the race is delayed for some reason), without much in the way of a break.

As former grand prix drivers, there is no doubt that Martin Brundle and David Coulthard have stamina. But I think even the most seasoned broadcasting pros would find this sort of workload to be a tough act.

So why not bring someone new on board? Is it just a case of a salami slice budget cut, or is the BBC preparing to wind down its coverage of F1 altogether?

About ten years ago I shunned music radio. It no longer reflected my musical tastes, so I turned to speech radio stations instead — all on the BBC.

After a while, I began to get into BBC 6 Music. I was still interested in the speech elements of the station more than the music. Adam and Joe became a regular listen, but I also began to appreciate the music output more. Programmes like the Freak Zone and Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service simply would not exist on another station — which is why there was so much outrage when it was suggested that the station would be closed down.

But when considering alternative options in the event that 6 Music closed, I realised that the outlook was perhaps not as bad is it might seem. As a commercial alternative, Absolute Radio wouldn’t be a bad option.

Shedding Virgin Radio’s dad rock image

In the space of just two years, the new owners of what used to be Virgin Radio have given the station a completely new lease of life.

I would never have considered listening to Virgin Radio. Its playlist was limited, repetitive and fusty. It was wall-to-wall dad rock.

Looking back, the transition to the new-style Absolute was quite steady. But the day it ditched the Virgin brand was the day it could move on from that albatross and the Smashie and Nicey image. Today, I think it is easily the most interesting commercial radio station around.

More than music

The key selling point of Absolute Radio, as opposed to Virgin, is that it is now not just about music. Now it’s an “entertainment” station. When you tune in, you are more likely to hear a comedian than a dusty old Status Quo song. Its current presenters include people like Dave Gorman, Iain Lee, Frank Skinner and Richard Herring — all much better known for being funny than being fanatical about what Virgin always called “real music”.

It’s a template that has been successful at BBC 6 Music ever since it started. Its original breakfast presenter was Phill Jupitus, while other high-profile presenters have included Russell Brand, Craig Charles, Jon Holmes and… Richard Herring. And it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Absolute’s weekend morning programming has been heavily influenced by the success of Adam and Joe on 6 Music.

The really impressive thing about how Absolute have gone about it is the fact that Dave Gorman appears to have more influence over the music that is played on his programme than Adam and Joe ever did. As a whole, Absolute is more accessible than 6 Music, but it is a station that is unafraid to step out of the mainstream on occasion.

Determined to try different things

But gradually, Absolute is becoming something more than a commercial 6 Music-lite. Its deal to broadcast English Premier League football matches is a bold move to for a music station to make, particularly since Radio 5 Live and TalkSport are so well established in this area. Apparently it is the first time a music station has broadcast top flight football since Capital Gold brought Jonathan Pearce to the world 20 years ago.

Absolute have launched some interesting spin-off stations as well. In addition to Absolute Classic Rock, there is Absolute 80s and Absolute Radio 90s (that is a way to make me feel old — my decade is now for proper nostalgia!). There is also Absolute Radio Extra. The best thing is that the latter three are all available on DAB.

There was also Dabbl, an experimental station where users chose the content. It has closed down now, but it is nonetheless a sign that Absolute is determined to experiment with radio.

Doing new things with radio

The people behind Absolute Radio have a great website, One Golden Square, which takes you behind the scenes of Absolute Radio. The openness of the website is wonderful. It is a great insight into what makes them tick, and it’s all very encouraging.

Absolute are always at the cutting-edge, thinking about the future of radio and different ways to listen to it. That is no wonder — the traditional 1215 medium wave frequency is very poor quality for a music station, so it helps them to investigate alternative ways of broadcasting.

One Golden Square Labs outlines some of the really interesting things they are up to. There is some nifty iPod Nano integration. They are also pushing ahead with HTML5 delivery.

Compare My Radio - comparison of Absolute and 6 Music

One Golden Square are also behind the wonderful Compare My Radio. This website is a heaven for radio and stats geeks — perfect for me.

It is a treasure trove of stats about radio output in the UK. You can see what tracks and artists are popular, search for artists to find out what stations play them, and even compare the output of two radio stations — with Venn diagrams and everything.

A lot of people turned to this website to learn about 6 Music. Many defended the station on the basis of statistics collected by Compare My Radio. You can see how 6 Music compares to Absolute Radio.

The website is a fascinating service that must take a bit of work to maintain. It’s great that a radio station can take a step back and fairly allow others to compare it with other radio stations.

All-in-all, you get the impression that the people behind Absolute Radio are seriously passionate about radio. As a bit of a radio fan myself, that is a big winner for me.

Limited edition crisps

Walkers’ limited edition crisps are marketing genius, but culinary crap. Am I the only one to have noticed that Walkers just wheel out the same flavours over and over again? The only difference is the names.

From the current World Cup series, I have definitely had ‘French garlic baguette’ some time before. And surely there are no prizes for guessing that ‘Dutch Edam’ is yet another name for what was previously their Cheddar cheese flavour, which has also been ‘feta cheese’ and a few other things in the past.

Smaller packets than John Prescott

While I’m at it, why is a packet of Walkers crisps never enough? They are not exactly filling, are they? I am sure I normally polish off a packet within a couple of minutes, and I never feel any less hungry afterwards.

Unacceptable deviation from standard crisp packet colours

And has anyone ever got to the bottom of why their cheese and onion crisps are blue, while salt and vinegar are green? This policy completely goes against everything we learnt about the colours of packets of crisps when we were growing up.

I ask all the tough questions.

This the accompanying article to my contribution to this week’s edition of The Pod Delusion. Here you can find videos and links if you want to delve further into the topic.

As you may guess from the title, this article is about motorsport. I do not normally write about motorsport on this website. That is reserved for my motorsport website, vee8. However, I have published it here as it is designed to be of interest to people who do not like motorsport.

You can listen to the full podcast below.


My name is Duncan, and I am a motorsport fan. Is it a bad thing? Am I evil? Do I need to join Petrolheads Anonymous?

This year’s Formula 1 World Championship is coming to an end. The Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships have been wrapped up by Jenson Button and Brawn-Mercedes respectively, and now we have one last race to enjoy before the sport takes a break for the winter.

This has not been an easy year to be an F1 fan. In terms of newsworthy stories, it’s the sport that keeps on giving. But even by F1’s standards, it has been an extraordinary year for scandals.

Bear in mind that in previous years Formula 1 has brought extraordinary enough stories. There was, for instance, the so-called “spying” scandal which led to the sport’s governing body, the FIA, handing the McLaren team a fine of ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS. Then there was the “German prisoner” sex scandal involving the FIA’s President Max Mosley.

This year cranked up the scandal ever-further. Even in the first race, a major scandal blew up when Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren team were caught lying to the race stewards.

It also emerged this year that the Renault team had colluded with its driver Nelsinho Piquet to deliberately crash his car to hand an advantage to his team mate Fernando Alonso in last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. This endangered the life of Piquet and of other drivers and spectators.

In the past year, two major manufacturers — Honda and BMW — have pulled out of the sport, with persistent rumours surrounding the commitment of the other manufacturers. Moreover, almost all of the teams threatened to break away from F1 to set up a rival championship, in protest at the way the sport is governed by Max Mosley and the FIA.

The governance of the sport may change this week, as Max Mosley is stepping down as FIA President. The election to replace him is taking place today, on Friday. This actually may have more widespread implications than many realise.

Even though during last year’s sex scandal Max Mosley was persistently described by the media as “F1 boss”, the job of FIA President goes much further than that. The FIA has significant sway over road safety issues and effectively represents car users on the world stage. If you are a member of the AA, the RAC or even the Camping and Caravanning Club, you are represented by the FIA.

Clearly, this year there has been a lot going on in the world of motorsport. While cynics point out that, for the sport’s commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone, any publicity is good publicity, this all served to further discredit a sport which isn’t exactly the most popular among some. Formula 1 is seen by many as a sport which is dangerous, environmentally unfriendly, the personification of greed — and perhaps even sexist.

No doubt there is an element of truth to some of these accusations. So, how does this sit with me? I am a massive fan of motorsport, but I have liberal political views and a concern for the environment. Do I lack principles? Is F1 a guilty pleasure for me?

I actually see no reason why it should be. Some motorsport fans are unapologetic about their passion, and they see no reason to dress it up as anything but an extravagant bit of fun. But I see motorsport as a positive force that has a lot to contribute to the world.

Yes, Formula 1 is dangerous. This year, one driver, Felipe Massa, had an horrific accident when he was struck on the head while travelling at 170mph by a spring as heavy as a bag of sugar which had fallen off another car and was bouncing around on the circuit. He was lucky to have suffered no long term damage. The spring destroyed his helmet, but if it had hit him at another point he could have lost his sight or even died.

Sadly, one Formula Two driver was not so lucky. Henry Surtees was killed when he was struck on the head by a tyre which was bouncing around on the circuit after it had detached from another car in another accident.

While a ticket to a grand prix states in large letters, “motor sport is dangerous”, such accidents are mercifully rare in top-line motorsport these days. Major injuries are rare, and the last fatality in Formula 1 was in 1994. Believe it or not, more than 2½ times as many people have died while competing in the Great North Run than have died in F1 since 1981, when the Great North Run began.

But this year’s events in motorsport show that complacency should never set in, which is why improvements in safety are always being pushed forward. Perhaps the real scandal though is that, despite the increasingly safe environment that professional racing drivers face, 1.3 million people still die on the world’s roads every year.

F1 technology can play a major role in reducing the number of accidents on public roads, and already has done. In 2007, one F1 driver, Robert Kubica, survived a 75g impact with nothing more than light concussion. The materials that make an F1 car so safe are exotic and expensive, meaning that the opportunities to help make road cars safer using F1 research are a bit limited.

But electronics such as ABS and traction control are commonplace on today’s road cars. Such technologies unquestionably save lives all the time, and their development was helped by early applications in racing cars.

The money that flows through F1, and the high-stakes nature of the competition, make it a great test bed for important technologies that improve our daily lives. F1 is an R&D powerhouse.

There is currently an exhibition in the Science Museum in London called Fast Forward, which showcases twenty instances of F1 technology improving the lives of others.

Included on display are high-tech tyre pressure indicators which alert drivers to a developing puncture before it becomes dangerous. Then there are F1 materials being used to help protect troops in Afghanistan from bullets and explosions. Slip-resistant boots based on F1 tyre technology for people who work in slippery environments, thereby reducing injuries in the workplace, are also on display.

A bit more down to earth is the gadget that can stop your central heating system from becoming clogged up with rust and sludge, thereby reducing energy consumption in the home. Hospitals have even analysed mechanics’ behaviour and procedures during pitstops in order to improve the speed and accuracy of medical teams.

But how about the environmental impact of this gas-guzzling sport? I must say that my view is that rather too much is made of this. That is not to say that Formula 1 does not a significant environmental impact — it does. But emissions from the F1 cars themselves are actually a drop in the ocean. The racing itself does little environmental damage.

What is really damaging is all the travelling that teams, the media and fans must do in order to attend the races. The good news on this front is that F1 is carbon neutral, and has been since 1997. The FIA Foundation, the charity arm of the FIA, has taken into account not only emissions from the F1 cars and the travel of the teams, but also the transport of the fans that attend the races.

But any activity that involves being somewhere requires travel. F1 is a global sport, so there is a lot of global travel involved. But otherwise the sport actually seems rather restrained. In just 17-or-so races, a World Champion driver emerges.

Compare this to another competition, say the English Premier League in football. To come up with a mere national league-winning club, 380 football matches must be played, with all the travel this entails too. In comparison, F1 looks positively restrained.

Maybe that is an apples-and-oranges comparsion. It is just as well, then, that F1 technology also looks set to pave the way towards a green future. Formula 1 has the potential to help greatly reduce energy consumption. Refuelling during races will be banned from next year, shifting the balance more towards fuel consumption rather than raw power.

Another major initiative is the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or kers, which the FIA finally legalised for this season. Kers is a system which harvests the kinetic energy that is dissipated under braking and would otherwise be wasted, and re-deploys that energy into the powertrain.

This technology has had a rather troubled birth in F1. The systems have been too expensive for teams to develop in the current economic climate, and it looks as though kers may take a back seat for a few years. There is also scepticism over whether kers as it is applied in F1 is actually relevant to road cars.

But one team, Williams, is adamant that its flywheel system will find a large variety of applications in the real world. The team says that its energy recovery system could improve road cars, vehicles used in mining, rail systems and “anything that moves”.

(For more on this, I highly recommend the recording of a Q&A with the Technical Director of Williams, Sam Michael. I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Williams F1 factory earlier this year along with a number of other web journalists and bloggers. The excellent Brits on Pole website has fantastic coverage of the visit.)

Plans continue to gather pace on this front. On Wednesday, the FIA outlined its plans for a green future of F1 (PDF). This includes a plan to make motorsport a competition based more on efficiency than raw power, and a stronger focus on energy recovery technologies.

The FIA also plans to introduce its own carbon neutral scheme, including offsetting its regulatory presence. It may also make carbon offsetting a condition of involvement in a championship.

So there you have it. Motorsport is a force for good in the world. Not bad for something that is hugely enjoyable. My halo is in tact.

I see that The Scotsman has again been trying to wring another story out of a politician’s use of Twitter. This time it is Jo Swinson exposing her ignorance about football.

As she was overwhelmed by members of the Tartan Army at a railway station, Ms Swinson got out her BlackBerry, logged on to her Twitter site and wrote: “Have I missed something? What’s the football festivity? Can’t move at Queen Street station for folk in Scotland tops.”

Seven minutes later, Graham Barrie posted: “The Tartan Army v the Dutch Army tonight at Hampden Jo. You really need to get out more :)”

Jeff and Mr Eugenides both have good takes on this. I have to agree with them. For some, football is a matter of life and death. The Scotsman‘s David Maddox calls the match “do-or-die”. But in truth, it isn’t much more than a slightly tedious playground game.

The Scotland–Netherlands tie wasn’t exactly in my diary, though it is true that I was quite aware of it thanks to my football-loving friends. My own take on the match, as published on Twitter, would probably have got me into more trouble. I wasn’t merely ignorant; I was aware, but sarcastic and dismissive:

Advice to football fans: Scotland won’t win the World Cup, so I wouldn’t concern yourself with it.

I find it difficult to get excited about football at the best of times. My enthusiasm for Scotland internationals is marginally above zilch. In my defence, I was rather put off by the fact that last month I was taken by a friend to the pub to watch what I was told would be a football match but turned out to be a disaster film. Strange.

Really, you could argue that the people who don’t think about football are making the right decision. All that worrying over whether Scotland gets knocked out in this round or that does seem to be a waste of energy. And I can well imagine Jo Swinson has plenty of other things to occupy her time with.

This comes just a few months after Patrick Harvie was at the centre of another Twitter row manufactured by David Maddox. His crime was to discreetly tweet at the dinner table, something which I think many people do.

I don’t get this obsession with politicians having to be identikit robots who all have to be up-to-date on the price of milk, whatever music is in the charts and some tedious sporting exploit. I have written about this phenomenon before, and my views haven’t changed.

The fact is that there are 646 MPs and 129 MSPs. If you took 775 random people, you can be guaranteed to find people who couldn’t give two hoots about football and couldn’t tell you how much a loaf of bread costs. You would certainly find plenty of people who didn’t feel the need to contrive odd opinions about the Arctic Monkeys. Yet we expect all this from our politicians. Why?

On the one hand people criticise politicians for being almost like robots if they are perceived to toe the party line, talk in soundbites or reel off reams of irrelevant statistics. But then if they reveal a bit of their personality by representing part of the variety of society by not fitting a media-constructed template of what a “normal person” is expected to be, they are blasted for being “out of touch”.

I can more easily admire Jo Swinson for her personal choice not to worry about football than any politician who feels the need to pretend they are interested when they are so clearly not. Indeed, Jeff’s comparison with Gordon Brown’s uneasy comments about Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland in Euro 96 reveals that this is one of those issues where you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

While you would expect parliamentarians to have a knowledge of certain things in order to do their job, there’s nothing wrong with them being human when it comes to their personal interests. In cases like this, it is those in the media who seem more out of touch.

Despite my lukewarm relationship with football, I was very sad to hear about the death of Dumbarton FC captain Gordon Lennon yesterday. He was killed in a car crash while on a family break.

Dumbarton players celebrate Just a few weeks ago, in the first football match I had attended in years, I watched him captain Dumbarton in a dominant victory against Elgin City. Gordon Lennon was probably the player that struck me the most as I watched that match. He was a distinctive presence, tall and skilful.

That match, Dumbarton effectively sealed the Division 3 Championship. In the photograph I featured in my article about the match, you can see Gordon Lennon on the very left of the picture. He appeared to be the figurehead of the celebrations.

As my dad noted, he celebrated with his now five month old child, Kai. All thoughts are with Kai, and his partner Kelly.

The circumstances could hardly be more tragic. In addition to recently becoming a father, Gordon Lennon recently completed his studies too. After leading Dumbarton to the Division 3 Championship, he said, “Nothing I have achieved in football even comes close.” Not being so heavily interested in football, I didn’t know him well, but by all accounts he was a thoroughly decent person too. It’s so cruel for this to happen to someone who was so well regarded and had so much to look forward to.

More on Gordon Lennon

Here it is: that post I’ve been sitting on for upwards of a year. Before I start, I am going to make a few introductory notes about what I do and don’t mean when I call democracy disturbing. I find that all too often debates about this subject are clouded by dogma, which leads to poor thinking and boilerplate arguments.

Before some cheesy person wheels out that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system apart from all the other systems, yes of course I have heard it. And it is true. I am a democrat because I believe it brings about favourable conditions. For instance, there is the correlation between democratisation and higher GDP per capita. (Whether democracy is cause or effect does not matter. If the value of the higher GDP per capita is greater than the cost of democracy per head — as it almost certainly is — then democracy is a price worth paying.)

Furthermore, I should define more closely what I mean by democracy. Most of the flaws I will point out are actually problems with elections rather than democracy as a whole. Aspects of democracy such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process, and so on and so forth, are of course things that I am deeply supportive of. This will become clear in my first point.

I tackle the issue not from an anti-democratic perspective. Far from it. My problem is with the approach which sees democracy almost like a religion which ought not be questioned — what Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter called “democratic fundamentalists”:

Its purest expression is the cliché, attributed to failed 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, that “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” In other words, no matter what happens, the case for democracy remains untouched.

No case should remain untouched. That is why, for me, there is not enough scrutiny placed on democracy. There is a fear of investigating it, because the benefits of democracy are perceived to be so self-evident that anyone who stops to ask what the disadvantages are is instantly regarded as a fool. That must be dangerous. If we agree that the system is imperfect, the only way to improve the situation is to investigate it and have an awareness of what the problems are.

Just as a final point, much of my thinking in this area came about as a result of the research I did for my dissertation, which was about the “paradox of voting“. In case you want to read more about voting behaviour, I have uploaded my dissertation here.

Having got all of the caveats and explanations out of the way, it is time to move on to my five points.

1. Democracy is not guaranteed to uphold freedoms

This is more or less a rehash of The Devil’s Kitchen’s post which I referred to yesterday. Above I said that “aspects such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process” are important. Arguably, these have all taken a battering by recent democratically elected governments.

Wave goodbye to your right to peacefully protest, have a fair trial and take photographs in public. Say hello to ID cards, the database state, endless reams of CCTV footage, mass DNA collection, control orders, detention without charge and extraordinary rendition. Thanks, democracy!

2. Tyranny of the minority

Most people are familiar with the concept of the tyranny of the majority. Thanks to the system of democracy adopted in this country, it doesn’t even take a majority to construct a tyranny. In the 2005 General Election, 9,562,122 people voted for Labour candidates. Assuming a population of 60 million, this translates to around 16% of the population.

The votes of this small percentage of the UK’s citizens has given the Labour Party 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, a majority of 67 seats. What gives the government the right to rule the country with such dominance? Not the people, that’s for sure. Only 16% of the people expressed a preference for the current government. In fact it is the way the system is constructed, and nothing else, which gives Labour its “legitimacy”.

That brings me neatly on to…

3. The system can’t be fixed

Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there can be no voting system which will be able to fulfil a number of desirable criteria:

  • The Pareto principle — if everyone prefers x to y then y should not be elected
  • Anonymity — every voter should be treated equally
  • Neutrality — every candidate should be treated equally
  • Independence of irrelevant alternatives — the ability of x and y to win an election should not be affected by the entrance of a candidate z
  • Transitivity — if x is preferred to y and y is preferred to z then x should be preferred to z

Independence of irrelevant alternatives is the one that riles up proponents of electoral reform the most. Just think of Ralph Nader, or the farcical events of the 2002 French Presidential election. In this case, the voting system is far more important than the voters themselves. The fifth item on the list refers to Condorcet’s paradox, whereby attempts to find a winner of the election leads you on an endless circle.

We can argue among ourselves about which voting system should be adopted. But (and I’m not saying this will necessarily come as a surprise to anyone), you will never find a system that will please everyone. It will be a matter of choosing the least worst option, as every system has a fatal flaw of some kind. For what it’s worth, my preference is Single Transferable Vote — but that’s a matter for a different post in the future.

For more along these lines, read this post about a talk I attended a couple of years ago. It was given by economist Eric Maskin en route to collecting his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He had some very interesting views on electoral reform.

4. An individual vote is almost worthless

If you are concerned with affecting the course of history by having your say on major political issues, going to cast your vote in an election is more or less a complete waste of your time and energy. It is said that you are more likely to be killed on your way to the polling station than to actually cast the deciding vote.

The probability the the outcome of an election will hinge on your vote is minuscule. Even under the fanciful assumption that in a two candidate US Presidential election each other person is likely vote for either candidate with a probability of 0.5, the probability that your vote will be the deciding vote is 0.00006.

Yet the costs of voting are actually rather large. You have to spend time and possibly money learning about each of the candidates and their policies. The time and money spent travelling to the polling booth is not exactly negligible in the context of the minuscule probability of your vote actually meaning a damn thing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that voting is wrong. People don’t vote because they believe it will affect the outcome. They vote because it makes them feel good. But the fact that you need to resort to non-instrumental incentives in order to justify the act of voting leaves wide open the possibility that people with bad motives (or motives with bad effects) are more likely to vote…

5. Many who do vote base their decision on prejudices

In his very interesting book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan said that the fact that people vote can be explained by the fact that they like to hold certain political beliefs. Let’s call our voter a sheep. He may hold suboptimal opinions and support policies that would actually make him worse off. This might be due to social pressures, a sense of self-image or whatever. It is, after all, all too common to meet someone who votes Labour just because their dad did.

It is precisely because a person’s vote is so worthless that sheep are encouraged to vote. They like to go and vote because it makes them feel good, reaffirms to themselves their ideological loyalty and so on. But sheep never stop to think if the policies they support would make them worse off. They don’t have to because their vote doesn’t matter anyway. The cost of ideological loyalty is low. Indeed, the benefits of it are enough to outweigh the costs of voting.

Those who hold no strong ideological loyalties, and who may therefore be expected to enter the polling booth ready to judge fairly based on all of the information they have gathered, are actually far less likely to vote. This is because they feel no warm glow from the act of voting for their favoured party.

As such, the traits of voters are the sort of traits you would normally expect to find on a football terrace. They will trudge along to express their tribal feelings, and will keep on doing so even in the driving rain, even if their football team is rubbish and the game is low-quality.

One might say that the political party you support is rubbish and the state of politics just now is low-quality. Who wants to buy a season ticket? Is it not better to leave that sort of behaviour on the football terraces?