For all the fact that it’s taking place in Abroad, what an uncomfortably British production the Bahrain Grand Prix has turned out to be. The whole thing echoes tales of forgotten outposts of the British empire, where a rogue commandant runs amok, assisted by conspiratorial officials banished there after various disgraces back in Blighty. Were the story in the hands of a novelistic genius like Joseph Conrad, our despotic rogue and his factotum might be some renegade captain from the East India Company and his amoral manager. But modern life has a way of failing to live up to fiction, which is why we’ve got Bernie Ecclestone and John Yates.
That said, this monster and monsterling are among the most eye-catching characters of a debased age. In Bernie, we have a post-moral mogul whose political crushes include Hitler and Saddam Hussein, and whose endless assaults on intelligence are too wearisome to repeat. In Yates, we have a police officer enriched by years at the teat of the state (and a force pension likely to exceed that of his junior colleague Brian Paddick’s £63,000 a year), whose studied failure to fully investigate what is alleged to be the defining corporate cover-up of the era, and subsequent resignation from the force, has not seen him break stride on the way to accepting a contract to advise the widely condemned Bahrain government on security. He has special responsibility for the Grand Prix, naturally. It is the sort of second act that could throw a sacked defence secretary’s prompt appointment to consult for an arms manufacturer into sympathetic relief.
Even looked at from the Bahraini side, Yates seems an eccentric hire. There are only two tenuously sane explanations for his appointment. The first is that the Bahraini king was only in possession of outdated news cuttings, and imagined he was hiring the heroic Yates of the Yard of popular newspaper lore circa 2008. (You may since have developed suspicions as to why he was so popular with certain of those papers.) The second explanation is that the king is secretly a self-saboteur who wishes to be overthrown by protesters. Because the thing about Yates of the Yard, as closer students of his oeuvre will have noted, is that he never gets his man. I’m sure he’ll have binbags of evidence of people plotting against the king, and will spend at least 20 minutes deciding that there’s nothing to see here.
As for the Mr Kurtz of Formula One, it is almost touching to watch Britain’s plucky politicians cower from criticising Ecclestone with any bite. Perhaps it feels a little too soon for Labour, who may remember the time when his £1m donation caused such a stink, but fortunately didn’t do such lasting damage to Tony Blair that he wasn’t able to spend a decade schmoozing Colonel Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak and other much-missed Middle East faces.
Thus Yvette Cooper probably thought she couldn’t go wrong with a people-pleasing Question Time declaration that “British drivers” should boycott the race, though to my knowledge the shadow home secretary has not called for any wider boycott of the Bahrain economy, or lambasted anyone else doing business with Bahrain. Quite why people who drive cars for a living should fill the moral vacuum left by useless politicians I’m not sure – but bravo for ceding the foreign brief to Jenson Button, Yvette. I dream of a future where all geopolitical strategy is handled by people who would no more offer an opinion that might pique their sponsors than they would live under their birthplace’s tax jurisdiction.
Needless to say, the ruling class is quite right to have identified its impotence as far as Ecclestone goes. As Formula One’s chief executive, he is head of the same strain of supranational body as football’s Fifa and the International Olympic Committee. They are less sporting administrators than moveable states which descend on host nations, and begin by establishing their own proxy apparatus for enforcing their will for the duration of their stay (witness, for instance, the “Fifa World Cup Court” instituted in South Africa in 2010). Once these quasi-federal structures are up and running, the organisation then gets down to the business of siphoning cash out of the country, before withdrawing its parasitic corporate proboscis and leaving the host organism to cope with the aftermath of the raid.
How much life Formula One’s presence will suck out of Bahrain remains to be seen. At time of writing, things seemed to be going swimmingly. The champagne-like fizz of the teargas canisters, the reassuring pop of Molotov cocktails – close your eyes and you could be in Monte Carlo. Then again, Bernie has tempted fate before. Consider the time he explained that thieves “look for anyone that looks like a soft touch and not too bright … people that look a bit soft and simple”, only to find himself mugged fairly shortly thereafter for £200,000 worth of watches and jewellery. So, were the man to have ruled Bahrain “very quiet and peaceful” to find himself in some low-level peril this weekend, it would certainly be an irony. I’ll leave you to decide how cruel a one.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist.