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Can the government afford to get into a row with the England football team?

By Gareth Jones
13 July 2021

By Gareth Jones

As we head towards the summer recess, the government appears to be facing difficulties on a number of fronts. The decision to end most coronavirus restrictions in England on July 19 is attracting increasing levels of concern from scientists and the general public -and today’s parliamentary vote on cuts to foreign aid risks prompting a widespread rebellion from Conservative backbenchers. Added to all this - the Government now finds itself in a potentially damaging argument with the England football team about anti-racism campaigning.

Following England’s penalty shootout defeat in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, there has been widespread condemnation of the racist abuse directed at three players – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. Yesterday, Boris Johnson and Home Secretary, Priti Patel put out statements on social media expressing their disgust at such abuse.

But for some, this type of statement clearly felt hollow. From the view of certain England players (and others), these statements had come from politicians who had failed to back the England team in their anti-racism campaigning at the start of the tournament and who had, in effect, given licence to those who wished to abuse black and ethnic minority players. One of those who took this view was England defender, Tyrone Mings, who responded angrily at the Home Secretary’s tweet last night, stating, “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

Mings’ tweet has clearly hit a nerve – with half a million likes and 150,000 retweets in less than 24 hours, it is one of the most popular tweets on UK political issues this year (if not, ever), dwarfing anything said by an actual politician or recognised political commentator (the only person with more likes/retweets on a UK-based political issue is his England teammate Marcus Rashford). Twitter is not Britain, of course (as a politician once said) – but this intervention has clearly gained wider traction - leading the day’s news and even gaining agreement and support from Conservative backbenchers

Arguments about footballers (and other sports stars) ‘taking the knee’ have been debated extensively for the past year. Many of those participating and sympathetic to ‘taking the knee’ consider it a simple act of solidarity with those suffering racist abuse and discrimination, while opponents consider it an unnecessary and divisive politicisation of the sport, which imports a political gesture from the United States, which itself has associations with the Black Lives Matter movement (considered ‘Marxist’ in some quarters). Such arguments almost seemed like abstract academic debate until fans started returning to stadiums and it became a much more visceral issue with television footage of the England football team being booed by its own fans for its stance on racism.

As the Euros began and the games went on, the boos began being drowned out by applause and public sympathy for taking the knee noticeably increased, in line with the team’s success in reaching the final. Gareth Southgate’s articulate message to fans won praise and the country had largely united to support the team. Nevertheless, in the minds of some -- a fault line had been drawn on a sensitive issue and certain members of the government have publicly sided with those engaged with booing the players. Patel, in particular, had been particularly strident in her opposition to the England team’s position, stating last month she did not support "people participating in that type of gesture politics" and refused to criticise fans who booed England players taking the knee she said: "That's a choice for them, quite frankly".

Regardless of political arguments, from a tactical perspective, taking on the England football team on the issue of racism ahead of a big tournament does now appear to have been something of a misjudgement for the government. Undoubtedly, there are political incentives for the government to engage in ‘culture war’ issues (calling out aspects of liberal left-wing politics that conservatives oppose, such as identity politics, excessive political correctness and “cultural elitism”) – but in this case, it does seem to be the case of wrong issue and wrong target.

Firstly, the government’s position risks downplaying the sport’s long struggle with racism. Many of the players taking the knee are doing so due to their first-hand experiences of racist abuse, not because they’re left-wing ‘Marxist’ culture warriors. Secondly, the England football team is incredibly popular and the players have a significant amount of political power -- unlike other popular targets for culture war debates (say, the BBC or the National Trust) they have no particular incentive to cave into government demands. Lastly, getting into a row with the national team – a symbol of English pride in the past few weeks – during a successful tournament just looks unpatriotic.

It does appear that some in government have recognised this mistake. It has been reported this afternoon that plans to have the England team invited to Downing Street for a reception this week have been shelved. A sign perhaps that the government wants to minimise any further negative publicity associated with this debate.