Jetlagged in the small-hour darkness of Santa Monica last week, and perusing various write-ups of the previous evening’s Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, I had a sudden epiphany as to why America holds all these sporting contests with ‘world’ in the title which don’t involve anybody else. It’s because everybody else is dreadful.
Eurovision has been dreadful for so long that this has almost become the point, and any act these days which doesn’t feature a singer who looks like the mistress of a warlord who can only visit the same countries as Roman Polanski doesn’t have a hope. When the whole shebang is being held in a country which is only very tenuously in Europe anyway, where a broad-knuckled hereditary dictator has given his whole capital a £600 million makeover in preparation, and has opted to put his own son-in-law on as the interval act, it feels no longer horribly wrong, but actually horribly right.
Britain doesn’t belong in such contests any more; whoever we send, they always give the impression of standing awkwardly in a corner, like Cliff Richard at one of Silvio Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties. You look at Eurovision, and you realise that the grown-up countries really don’t own the world any more. We’re being muscled out.
It’s a thought I’ve had before, but usually only in relation to sport. Remember that big freak-out Fifa had last year? When various global Alan Partridges spent a while indignantly denying accepting bribes, while simultaneously awarding the next two World Cup competitions to a pair of countries which contained nothing of note, football-wise, but which did contain lots of rich people and not much of a legal system? And it all seemed a bit suspect for some reason? Yes? Our worry should have been existential. Why shouldn’t football be like this for now and evermore? Why shouldn’t everything?
In theory, when you invite dodgy nations into your noble institutions, the nations are supposed to assume nobility. But it doesn’t work like that, does it? In fact, the institutions just get dodgy. And there’s nothing that anybody can do about it. Boycott, and it goes ahead anyway, without you. Even now, when the proper countries come on, you go to the loo. Imagine Old Europe pulling out of Eurovision. It would be even better, wouldn’t it?
Syria is coming to the Olympics. Saudi Arabian women aren’t coming to the Olympics. What are you going to do about it? Ban them, and you’d have to ban all sorts of people. Ban all sorts of people, and you end up with a timid little scouting sports day featuring the members of Nato, the Finns and the Swiss. And meanwhile, President Boilthemalive of Nohumanrightsistan is putting on his own rival jamboree in a brand-new stadium made of platinum and diamonds, where all the women look like Anna Kournikova and the fencing is to the death. Which one are you going to watch?
Formula 1 in Bahrain, that’s another one. No wonder Bernie Ecclestone, horrid little lizardman that he is, favoured Manama over Silverstone. Why do anything in Silverstone? We have laws here, and they apply to everyone, and it’s all just so damnably inconvenient.
For me, it’s cast London 2012 in a whole new light. Morally compromised or not, it’s a bold last stand, a chance to show that the free world isn’t just ceding everything to the bad guys. If you want an easy point of reference to show how Britain has changed in the years that Ma’am has been earning her diamond then this one, I think, works pretty well. It’s not just us, though. It’s everybody like us, too. Pretty soon, world events will be things that only horrible oligarchies can manage to the standard that the world expects. Countries like ours will toddle along and stand there, embarrassed to be seen but afraid not to be, trying hard not to hate everything, like the priest at a mafia wedding.
What’s going to happen to Sayeeda Warsi, then? Writing, as I am, five days before you are likely to be reading, I’m struck by how impossible it feels to anticipate whether the current fuss about her expenses will be completely forgotten by the end of the week — a career blip, silly, regrettable, look, there’s another politician blithely producing a five-figure cheque to say sorry without apparently hurting at all — or the reason why the Conservative party has a new co-chairman. There’s no way to tell. And yet by the time you pick up this magazine, I suspect that it will be obvious, one way or another, and feel like it always was.
The expenses scandal, it reminds me, was a lot like the phone-hacking scandal, in that it made no sense at all. Lots of people do X, and they don’t think X is a particular problem. Then X is declared evil, and a couple of people get it in the neck. But lots of other people, who were merrily doing X just the same, don’t. Weirdly, despite the way that everybody was so very cross with the people outed for X, nobody really cares about this. Forever after, though, whenever somebody wants to beat up on somebody else who did X, for whatever reason, they just shout ‘X!’ And it works. Not to belittle the crimes of anybody, and all that, but it’s a load of faffing arbitrary drivel, isn’t it?
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 2, 2012