O Lucky Man

Gary Player famously said "the more I practice the luckier I get". But does this sporting adage work for politicians?

Robert Low

Are some politicians luckier than others? In the lucky camp you might place Tony Blair, unexpectedly elected Labour leader when Conservative fortunes were at a low ebb. His rival Gordon Brown always thought himself unlucky to lose out to Blair, and when he finally succeeded him it could be argued he suffered a tidal wave of bad luck, including economic meltdown. But perhaps he was partly responsible for it in the first place. 

Ed Smith, the former England cricketer, now a writer and journalist, notes in his new book Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters (Bloomsbury, £14.99) that the most-quoted remark about luck in sport was made by Gary Player, the great South African golfer, who observed drily: “The more I practise the luckier I get.” But Gordon Brown was a notorious workaholic, and much good it did him. Perhaps Player’s dictum doesn’t work for politicians.

Smith himself rates Winston Churchill as a good example of a lucky politician. In 1931 he narrowly escaped death when knocked down by a car on Fifth Avenue in New York. If he had died then, how differently world events might have turned out. 

But, as Smith relates, that wasn’t Churchill’s only lucky break. He credited his nicotine addiction with saving his life in a First World War trench, when he turned back to get a matchbox and so avoided a shell blast. In an earlier war he escaped from a Boer prison, and knocked on a door, not knowing whether the person who opened it would shelter him or turn him in. It was an English mine manager, who agreed to help. Luck seemed to accompany him throughout his life.

Ed Smith himself was unlucky as an England cricketer. In only his third game for his country he suffered a bad umpiring decision which effectively ended his international career. Today it would be overturned by the off-field third umpire viewing Hawkeye replays on screen.

 But a few years later Smith found himself on a train after a complex series of minor misfortunes. In the same carriage was a beautiful young woman who had changed her travel plans at the last minute. Three years later they were married. Nobody’s unlucky forever.

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