Johnson and Starmer are jumping on the England bandwagon – but they need to take lessons from the team

With their support for racial equality and LGBT+ rights, both the players and manager have given us a clearer vision of progressive patriotism than many

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 07 July 2021 14:52
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Gareth Southgate wants England to keep breaking down barriers at Euro 2020

As the public relishes the progress of the England football team, Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer predictably try to muscle in on this moment of national pride and unity. Johnson said Gareth Southgate and his squad have “done the nation proud,” while Starmer added: “Both on and off the pitch, they have shown the best of England.”

Both leaders could learn from Southgate and his team. They are a powerful symbol of a modern, diverse Britain and, with their support for racial equality and LGBT+ rights, have given us a better vision of progressive patriotism than Starmer has managed. The joke in Labour land is that his strategy is to get a bigger and bigger union flag. In fact, Labour made progress this week by announcing a “buy British” policy on public sector contracts – clever, as it merged patriotism with economic gain.

Although Johnson will hope to benefit from a feelgood factor stemming from England’s success, he won’t deserve to. The Tories who criticised the team for taking the knee do not look so clever now. Priti Patel dismissed the act as “gesture politics” and Tory backbencher Lee Anderson vowed not to watch his “beloved England team” for the first time. He insists he is sticking to his ban. The small minority of fans who booed when the players kneeled, and were defended by the home secretary, have thankfully been drowned out by the vast majority.

Some Tory MPs are privately uneasy about what they view as Southgate straying into politics, even insulting his intelligence by hinting that others might have penned his brilliant “Dear England” letter. Sports editors who have handled Southgate’s polished articles on football will testify otherwise.

The England manager celebrated that “we are moving towards a much more tolerant and understanding society” and that “awareness around inequality” and race have moved to a different level in the past year. Some Tories don’t like it because this has interrupted their divisive culture war. Johnson claims he doesn’t want one but Downing Street and ministers behave as if he does.

Two new studies suggest the Tories might not benefit as much as some of them think, since moderate voters who occupy the centre ground are the biggest group of voters. Although the UK has not yet descended into a US-style culture war, both reports warn of worrying signs we will follow.

King’s College, London, and pollsters Ipsos Mori found that despite the noise generated at the extremes, half of Britons are disengaged from culture war debates or have comparatively moderate views about them. The UK does not have “two warring tribes” but four groups: traditionalists (26 per cent of the population), the disengaged (18 per cent), moderates (32 per cent), and progressives (23 per cent). So people on the extremes are outnumbered by those in the middle.

In a study for the Centre for Policy Studies, the former US Republican pollster Frank Luntz gives us a clue why the England team has captured the nation’s mood. Six in 10 Britons believe “equality” will have a more positive impact on the economy and society than “meritocracy”, including 40 per cent of Tory voters. Luntz’s advice to our politicians? “Be more like Gareth Southgate”; he showed leadership, brought people together and said what he is for, unlike politicians who often tell us what they are against. Luntz wrote: “Most voters are in the sensible centre ... Focus on values and you unite the country.”

His polling and focus groups found the divide which most worries voters is the gap between rich and poor, much more than those between between north and south, elites and ordinary people, or Leavers and Remainers. Ministers should take note as they resist pressure to extend the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit due to end in September. Luntz also found that what the public want most from their politicians is “trust and integrity”. That suggests Johnson was wrong to dismiss the Matt Hancock controversy as a “Westminster bubble” story.

There will be no winners in a culture war. Although the Tories might reap a short-term dividend by preaching to the converted, the Chesham and Amersham by-election showed that a strategy aimed at the red wall can lose support in the party’s traditional heartlands. The Tories could eventually be on the wrong side of their self-made divide if they alienate younger, better-educated voters, especially as many of them leave London for the home counties.

Johnson’s allies argue that, far from neglecting the centre ground, he is dominating it. As one cabinet minister put it, he leaves no room for a Ukip-style party to his right and hopes his big spending will push Starmer’s Labour Party further left. The Tories will never admit it, but many of them will hope normal political service resumes after Euro 2020 – that while we’ll remember the football, we’ll forget about Southgate and his team’s powerful off-the-pitch messages. We shouldn’t let that happen; we should bottle and keep them.

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