Saturday night at the 19th Hole, live on BBC One

The economic health of the nation can be measured through many means. The moral health of the nation, what the Nepalese call the measure of national happiness, is far less easily quantifiable. If you’re a tabloid journalist or a middling member of an ITV daytime chat show with a space to fill, though, take one icon of the British high-street and watch the comment sections fill up with thousands of words time, after time, after time.

Across the country, women of a certain age and income level treat M&S as economists treat the daily updates from the ONS (let us avoid the rare moments of men being concerned with Marks, because that did necessitate me searching for the words “Jeremy Paxman” and “underpants”). Confidence in the High Street (future of which should be a future blog post) seems to rest on whether every element of “Marks'” is doing very well or tanking horribly. The first whiff of an unsavoury gusset gets the Fashion columns pouring out into the Business section within ten minutes. There’s no stopping presenters of moving wallpaper television from coming over all “Massacre of first born in Damascus (Reuters)” when the opportunity arises to ask “Is the Per Una range completely ignorant about the shape of an English woman’s bust?”

Consumer confidence can be measured from the reaction to “Which” magazine tutting at an M&S trifle in much the same way as earthquakes off the Pakistani coast can be picked up in California. It is precisely because they occupy such a cosy place by the fire that the middle classes use them as both stable go-to confidence boost and easy tut-tut country’s gone to the dogs easy target. Empires fall, politicians waffle, the middle classes have an opinion on M&S maxi dresses.

If ‘cosy’ is the M&S brand as well as its place on the “High Street”, what to choose as its equivalent elsewhere in British life? I think we all know the answer to that…

Placed in the television schedules as something of an unbreakable habit, a comfort in tough times, and guaranteed hangover cure (for the Sunday repeats, and not always successfully), “Match of the Day” is analogue football in a digital world. And that’s not necessarily stinging criticism, just as shaking your head at the sight of four-dozen canary yellow polo necks is not criticism of M&S. As wiser people have commented many times before, “MotD” has not been designed to compete with SKY or ESPN or BT Sport; nor are any of the pundits required to pick apart each move or tactic beyond anything accepted as a talking point or controversy. If “MotD” is considered ‘safe’ then that’s the programme doing its job…

……And yet here’s the “but”. Roy Hodgson is to appear as a guest/pundit this weekend. Promising? Probably not, and nor ‘exciting’, ‘interesting’, or anything else like that. The “safety” of the BBC’s flagship football highlights programme has long since wallowed in ‘complacency’, and that’s never good. For many years the show has struggled to wander out of the golf club/old boy’s network approach to sports broadcasting, stuck in an era of “World of Sport” and “Grandstand”. There’s ‘safe’ (nodding) and there’s ‘safe’ (shaking head).

“MotD” is the closest most blokes have to M&S; that safe, secure, not always agenda setting constant that for generations would always be guaranteed to provide just what you need at no great cost. Unfortunately, and just as with M&S and their dodgy autumn/winter collections, the BBC has considered ‘no great cost’ to mean more than ‘analysis of the weekend games’. With the Hansen/Lawro dream team, that ‘autumn/winter’ collection was always more ‘permanent winter’. When not content with sounding utterly indifferent to the continuing existence of football as a sport at all, Mark Lawrenson was being picked apart on line for failing to predict any weekend games to within 15 goals or so of reality. And yet he, and professional grump Alan Hansen, brought home the five/six-figure pay checks.

Nobody wants “MotD” to undergo too radical a change, least of all the casual fans/viewers who make up the majority of viewing figures. There are so many post-match analysts out there – not just SKY with their massive fuck-off television screens but blogs, podcasts and Twitter feeds – that the BBC knows nothing good would come from wholesale changes in one go, for just like The Daily Mail with Ed Miliband, going all out to prove a point often ends up looking horrific. Changing “MotD” into the Football Ramble in one leap would alienate, not attract.

That said, the BBC should have learned about the dangers by now (Colin Murray, in general, Colin Murray wine-tasting specifically). What many critics want is the end of the BBC’s very smug and often blatantly lazy old boy’s ties. Whilst not stepping into Keys/Gray territory of over familiar chumminess, the Beeb still manages to create an atmosphere of members club bars, the FA itself represented somewhere in the background, ready to cough and splutter if something approaching direct criticism were to drift across somebody’s lips.

M&S survives by understanding the trends of the day, and then suiting them exactly to their audience’s needs. Their televisual comrade appears unable to do that, either not getting anything changed at all, or making too much of a leap in one go. Being bold and brave means picking pundits from outside the usual cast, allowing more controversial opinions, particularly pointed towards the FA, avoiding the ‘golf club’ presenter/pundit pairings every week to encourage different views.

Consumers flit to where they feel most comfortable. Neither institution, M&S or “MotD”, need to change at all, for loyalty will always win out. But not adapting at all took Woolworths and HMV to the sword, and if the BBC insists that even tinkering might be too much of a change, then I suspect there’s sharpening knives just around the corner.

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We’re all in this forever

James Bond and Victoria Coren make gambling look sexy. George Osborne has spun the Roulette Wheel with all the allure of knitting phlegm. His Spending Review was sprinkled with good news, in the same way a paper-cut finger wafted around a bit splatters blood on the walls.

(There will be blood on the carpet following the SR. If any LibDems are pushed into on-coming traffic there is still a chance Charles Kennendy could be called upon to top-up Osborne’s water with Islay Malt. Or cyanide).

Such is the breadth and depth of the SR that the reaction has seems breathless and confused. The BBC having its life effectively guaranteed for 6 years is news nevertheless greeted with utter incredulity. “Save The BBC!” doesn’t sound quite so logical when the review has done just that. Over the six years, a freeze is as good as a cut, so expect Match of the Day 2014 to feature unrivalled coverage of the Zamaretto Midlands League.** But still they shout it, like football fans cheering for a player they hadn’t noticed substituted (which, incidentally, reminds me of a recent Burscough game which involved a young fella continually cheering a player who wasn’t even on the bench. Oh how we laughed…).

Much as been made of the (pre-announced) proposal to remove child benefit from higher wage earners. Cue the most bizarre through-the-looking-glass political arguments in modern times. “The lowest earners in society should not fund the child benefit of the well off!” cries David Cameron. “The most well off are entitled to handouts no matter how middle class they are!” bellows Ed Miliband. If Gordon Brown’s removal of the 10p tax rate made you question the known-knowns of British politics, welcome to Kafka Plus…

The SR was neither rape upon the nation or reasoned treatment for an ill patient; the truth lies somewhere in the muddle. Over 100 pages of mindgasm explain each Department’s budget in terms Sir Humph could not disagree with. Everything is covered; from a new suspension bridge over the Mersey to a Universal Benefit (one handout to unite us, etc. and so forth). In truth, of course, no politician truly denies the scale of the problem faced by the Chancellor; the nation is in mammoth debt, and so are its people.

The Osborne Agenda is pithily labelled “ideological” by critics who, on the whole, are exactly as ideological. Union leaders dust off their placards, Labour members fill up with nostalgia for childhood lost in demonstrations and marches. Thought ideological divides in politics were dead? Welcome to the most significant divide between sides since the introduction of the Community Charge.

The review comes at the very end of what could be called “the age of entitlement”. With a benign economy, low interest rates and banks throwing mortgages and credit cards around like samples at a supermarket, it is little wonder so many millions of people took advantage. I certainly did, maxing out the credit card on long weekends and (most shamefully of all, perhaps) Domino’s pizza. But years of 100% mortgages, holidays and flatscreen televisions did not build the debt mountain bequeathed by Labour; the two tales of national and personal debt run parallel, and one is disguised as an elephant. The demise of Woolworths, near demise of Wedgewood, epic scales of economic catastrophe across all the professional football leagues; they too wore the elephant suits. There are only so many ‘known knowns’ we dare acknowledge, no?

The review touches us all. With such drastic cuts in local council funding – council tax frozen for at least one year, though not necessarily across the country I suspect, notice the Sir Humph lexicon in the Report – every library, swimming pool and elderly care centre will suffer from the sharp pencil. Councils may learn from this sharp slap across the buttocks, scrapping the ‘non jobs’ which soak up so much money. “Audience development officer” for £30 grand a year? £19,000 a year is a decent enough wage for anyone – but for a “street football co-ordinator”? Does it sound patronising to draw attention to these jobs, or instructive? Is this another trip through the looking glass? When the Daily Mail covered the “non-job” story, a council spokesperson explained that money was spent on “everything from lollipop ladies to librarians”. Good, how it should be, and unfortunately such roles may be curtailed by the council funding slash-and-burn. There is something rotten with the system if – and, alas, I am not making this up – “teeth cleansing instructors” are on the Town Hall payroll.

Within the lifetime of this fixed-term parliament – if we ever get there – the Spending Review will soak into our wallets, our skin, get under our hair, interrupt our phonecalls with a high-pitched noise like a cat being tickled by an ovengloved hand. The size, depth and generosity of the welfare state must be tackled. Ditto the inexorable pouring of Government borrowing. And the size, nature and behaviour of our police force in their ‘war with fear’ must be altered. In short, the Coalition are tasked with achieving reform through force; it doesn’t make me feel easy or comfortable, but neither do Northern Rail’s damp and frosty Pacers and I have to put up with them too….

**You thought it didn’t exist, eh?