Playing politics with football is a new low for this Tory government

Boris Johnson is quite happy for his party to wage a divisive culture war, making a nonsense of his repeated pledges – and his duty – to bring the UK together

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 16 June 2021 12:25
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Priti Patel says fans have right to boo England team for taking knee

England’s multi-ethnic football team unites white and ethnic minority people alike. But some Downing Street aides and ministers are more interested in dividing them, and using the row over whether players should take the knee to further their culture war.

Labour MPs note that it took an intervention by Gordon Brown (who was quicker on his feet than Keir Starmer) to force Boris Johnson to eventually make clear he did not want England fans to boo when players take the knee.

But Priti Patel didn’t get the memo, accusing the England team of “gesture politics” – which is precisely what she is indulging in. Remarkably, we have a home secretary who cannot support the players’ decision to make a statement against racism. It’s nonsense to suggest they are trying to propagate Marxist dogma by endorsing everything on Black Lives Matter’s agenda.

Tellingly, there was no Downing Street slapdown for Patel; as ever, Johnson wants to have his cake and eat it. His aides insist he made his own view clear: he wants fans to cheer not boo the team. But during the G7 summit he refused to say whether he would take the knee. Johnson might (just) keep his own hands clean but is quite happy for the Tories to wage a divisive culture war, making a nonsense of his repeated pledges – and his duty – to bring the UK together.

At a time when the traditional “Tory cuts versus Labour investment” dividing line has been blurred by a public spending splurge in the pandemic, Johnson can create a new divide with Labour by portraying it as “woke”. In Tory eyes, this fits neatly with the caricature of Keir Starmer as a liberal leftie North London lawyer, out of touch with the red wall. Picking fights, which are gleefully amplified by right-wing newspapers, is a convenient distraction from the difficult decisions ministers must make on issues like coronavirus.

It is not only liberal commentators who are appalled by the culture warriors. Today Samuel Kasumu, Johnson’s race adviser until quitting in April after a government-ordered inquiry found institutional racism did not exist in Britain, has rightly warned the Tories they are playing with fire.

He fears another Jo Cox, Stephen Lawrence or Windrush scandal “if you don’t find a way to overcome this cultural moment”. He warned Johnson that “being trapped in a vicious cycle full of hate and not hope” will put the Union at risk, as failing to “find a common narrative and shared identity” will make Scottish independence inevitable.

Kasumu believes most Tory MPs share his concerns but won’t go public “because we do so well in the polls”. This is the heart of the matter. Whatever their private doubts, ministers take their cue from Munira Mirza, head of the Downing Street policy unit, who is seen by anti-woke Tories as the culture war’s commander-in-chief.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, raised many eyebrows at Westminster when he criticised the English cricket authorities for suspending Ollie Robinson for racist and sexist tweets when he was 18 and 19. Some Tories wondered if that was the same Oliver Dowden who was a tolerant, liberal-minded, deputy chief of staff to David Cameron. “It just doesn’t feel like him,” one former colleague told me.

Playing politics with Euro 2020 could also undermine football’s progress in tackling racism. While the number of black managers and senior administrators remains low, the days when National Front supporters refused to count goals by black players are from a different age.

As the British Future think tank argues, the England team is a good model for Englishness that should be followed by other institutions to bring people together – even if that is uncomfortable for some on the left who associate the flag with right-wing extremism.

Polling for the group found that two-thirds of white and ethnic minority people agree the England team is a symbol of a country that “belongs to people of every race and ethnic background”. That view is held by young and old; Tory and Labour supporters and Leavers and Remainers. Despite that, for crude, narrow party political purposes, the Tories would rather drive people apart.

The prime minister ignored his communications advisers by twice picking a fight with Marcus Rashford over free school meals. Result: Rashford 2, Johnson 0. Does Johnson really want to risk souring the mood of national unity created by Euro 2020 by demanding a replay?

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