Boris Johnson’s plans for a culture war may have boomeranged


In a bizarre act of self-inflicted punishment, Lee Anderson MP decided that it would be too painful for him to watch England play Italy in the final of the 2020 Euros. He thought that England players taking the knee represented an endorsement of ‘Black Lives Matter’, a movement whose “core principles aim to undermine our very way of life”.

Mr Anderson’s comments may seem ignorant of why players have chosen to openly show their opposition to racism, but the question to ask here, is how has the country entered a divisive national debate into the question of whether footballers should take the knee? Especially when it is clear why the players are doing so – they have said themselves. They are sick of seeing footballers being subject to an onslaught of vile racist abuse. Footballers argue taking the knee is an act of solidarity with those who are racially abused.

“I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics”

Priti Patel, Home Secretary

Some suggest that the answer lies with Boris Johnson and Priti Patel. At the beginning of the Euros, Ms Patel, the Home Secretary, was asked whether she supported England fans booing players taking the knee; she responded, “I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics”. Critics have noted that Ms Patel previously stood outside a people-trafficking raid with a jacket visibly labelled ‘Home Secretary’. Mr Johnson’s spokesperson similarly explained that the prime minister respects “… the right of those who choose to peacefully protest and make their feelings known”. Both refused to condemn those booing an anti-racist message.

Ms Patel’s sudden decision to condemn racist abuse after the final backfired. She may have been banking on the entire country suddenly succumbing to collective amnesia as she began to criticise the racist abuse England players were receiving – something Tyrone Mings swiftly picked up on. Mr Johnson and Ms Patel’s rushed backtracking from their refusal to condemn racism did not go unnoticed.

Mr Johnson chose not to condemn fans booing players taking the knee

Mr Johnson chose not to condemn fans booing players taking the knee. Commentators point out that in spite of evidence showing his refusal to condemn those booing, the Prime Minister made the following statement to the House of Commons: “We made it absolutely clear that no one should boo the England team”. Politically, this situation seems strange – why would the Prime Minister risk siding against a group of intelligent, popular footballers who are both leaders on and off the pitch?

The answer is because Mr Johnson had yet to understand that people could see a somewhat clumsy attempt to distract from the bigger question at hand. Some critics suggest that debates surrounding taking the knee are used by the government to distract from other problems facing the country. Taking the knee is a way to show solidarity with victims of racist abuse, its proponents argue. However, instead of discussing ways in which systemic racism can be tackled in Britain, we are left in a situation where the public is dragged into debating whether or not to support a simple anti-racist message.

After the penalty shootout, Gary Neville remarked “The standard of the leaders in the past couple of years in this country has been poor”. Following the game, the public quickly pointed out that the prime minister’s statements regarding booing players taking the knee were contradictory. Should the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary bear some responsibility for racist abuse aimed towards players? Mr Johnson will be alarmed that his recent attempt to stir the division he appears to need to do has boomeranged straight back to him.

Image: Andrew Parsons via Flickr

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