Today
Wed 29 September 2021

Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu argue that the racist abuse targeted at England’s black players has revealed why the Government’s attacks on ‘wokeism’ will not ultimately win out 

Boris Johnson’s ‘culture war’ has rumbled on for three years. The opening shot for his leadership campaign in 2018 was to describe Muslim women as ‘bank robbers’ and, ever since he has occupied Number 10, Johnson’s only consistent policy – aside from cronyism and self-preferment – has been to stoke division over race and ethnicity, in order to hide the failures of Brexit and his response to the Coronavirus crisis.

For two years, these flashpoints in the kulturkampf have defined his Government as it has attempted to define this nation. From institutionalising Islamophobia through appointments in Whitehall, to copying Donald Trump in trying to classify the Black Lives Matter movement as ‘Marxist’, denying structural racism in the much-mocked report into race and ethnic disparities, and cancelling academics and institutions that explore Britain’s history of colonial exploitation, the overall plan has been clear: to copy the ‘southern strategy’ in the US. Only, in this case, focused on Johnson’s newly-snatched ‘Red Wall’ in the north of England. The trick, it seems, is to get the ‘white working class’ to vote against their economic interest with the wedge issues of identity and race. 

This summer – founded by Government advisors, funded by Conservative Lords, and backed by the Culture Secretary – a new weapon was even wheeled out: GB News, with an avowed core mission to carry out a ‘War on Woke’. 

But then the war spilled onto the field of sport – and the rout began. 


Drawing the Battle Lines

While universities, museums, and even media establishments have been key battlefields in Johnson’s ‘War on Woke’, these dusty and distant institutions pale in comparison to the arena of football. 

Not only is sport both a mixture of culture, ritual, community bonding and key to local and national identity, it takes place in real time – binding millions together in a lived experience with a precarious and thrilling outcome. The 2012 London Olympics proved what a collective force sporting success can be. The Euro 2020 championship showed how even failure at a football final can expose the soul of a nation. 

Gareth Southgate and his diverse, socially-conscious team have given us another kind of England. A country famed for its long history of migration and asylum, this vision was set out by the England manager in his ‘Dear England’ letter to the country, in response to criticisms of his players taking the knee to recognise the reality of structural racism. 

In doing so, Southgate was not only directly taking on Britain’s right-wing press (the Sun described it as “virtue-signalling baloney” and a “grotesque woke pantomime”, while the Financial Times reported concerns that Southgate is an agent of “deep woke”), he was also standing up against the holder of one of the most powerful offices of state – the Home Secretary – who had dismissed the stance as “gesture politics” and averred that fans had a right to boo it. “That’s a choice for them, quite frankly,” Priti Patel told GB News.

Ironically, given that the Vote Leave figures behind the current administration have been using culture and media as their favourite arsenal for five years, the main criticism of Southgate and his players was that they shouldn’t, as cultural figures, get involved in politics. 

For days leading up to the tournament, Conservatives joined in to support Patel, with Ashfield MP Lee Anderson even boycotting the final. The Prime Minister too refused to condemn the booers, framing the issue as one of ‘free speech’.

But, by the time England reached the semi-finals against Denmark, both Johnson and Patel were rapidly retreating. Out came the awkwardly staged photo ops of them in England shirts cheering on the team they had criticised. By the time of the final against Italy on Sunday night, there was a full attempt at infiltration – with senior Conservatives ready to co-opt any victory for its associations with Brexit and the governing ideology of English exceptionalism.

To the distress of England fans, that was not to be, as the team lost a tense and closely contested final to Italy on penalties. But what happened next revealed something much more valuable than the ludicrous race report Johnson commissioned and publicised earlier this year. 

Priti Patel watching England in the Euro 2020 semi-final. Photo: Priti Patel/Twitter

Defeat – For the Government

Three of the penalty takers who missed – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – were immediately subjected to an onslaught of racial abuse on social media. Words are actions, with racist abuse being both an indicator and an inciter of real life violence. Around Wembley Stadium and in Trafalgar Square, the racist rump elements of England supporters rioted and reportedly targeted foreigners and people of colour. 

After the racist abuse, Patel tweeted: “I am disgusted that England players who have given so much for our country this summer have been subject to vile racist abuse on social media. It has no place in our country.” While Johnson told the perpetrators, “I hope you crawl back under the rock from which you emerged”.

But then the turnaround happened.

England player Tyrone Mings – who has previously met the Home Secretary as part of the Kick It Out campaign to tackle racism in football – responded to Patel’s message. “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” he said.

Conservative MP Johnny Mercer agreed with Mings, saying that “the painful truth is that this guy is completely right. I am very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into”.

Conservative peer Baroness Sayeed Warsi also provided the Home Secretary with a warning. “Priti – we, as government, as Conservatives, need to think about our role in feeding this culture in our country. If we ‘whistle’ and the ‘dog’ reacts, we can’t be shocked if it barks and bites. It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division. Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations.”

Patel refused to comment on Mings’ tweet and Downing Street backed her up again, saying that “the Home Secretary has been clear there is no place for racism in our country”.

But, in this pitched battle of its own making, the Government has lost. 

It is not just its hypocrisy that has been exposed, but the links between a divisive culture war its ministers wage daily and the consequences of the racism this feeds.

For Gary Neville, who has been vocal in his critique of the country’s current political leadership, “it starts at the top”. “The taking of the knee… was ridiculed by our top-ranking Government officials,” the football pundit, coach and former player told Sky News. “So when we get racist abuse after a football match, at the end of a tournament, I expect it unfortunately. Because it exists. And it’s actually promoted by the Prime Minister… I knew the moment that Saka, Rashford and Sancho missed, we would be waking up to headlines of racist abuse.” 

Little Mix, the girl band with a huge following, joined other public figures from the arts and music worlds in support of Rashford, Sancho and Saka. 

In a moving social media post, Rashford said “I will never apologise for who I am” and “I’m Marcus Rashford, 23 year old, black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that”. A defaced mural of him in Withington has been restored and covered in hearts and messages of support in the past 24 hours.

With reports of Downing Street shelving plans to host the England team at Downing Street, Johnson, Patel and their pals are clearly running scared.

Hardeep Matharu explains why Priti Patel has a hardline approach to immigration on Byline TV

The Winning Side?

Euro 2020 could well be a defining moment in Boris Johnson’s culture wars.

The British are keen to cite the Dunkirk spirit of 1940, when a routed British army retreated from Nazi-occupied France – but this is a new version, where defeat on the football pitch and its aftermath has stirred an immense spirit of support for England’s team and the three key penalty takers. This strange reversal – converting a loss into a positive sense of solidarity – could come to redefine Englishness.

So what will the Government do now? Its media outriders in the Murdoch press are already rowing back rapidly from their previous positions. Johnson is learning again what Dominic Cummings revealed he was told last year over the free school meals issue: “do not pick a fight with Rashford”. “The Prime Minister decided to pick a fight and then surrendered twice,” the former chief advisor told MPs in May. This could be more than a surrender. It could be a rout. 

The power of these footballers and their wider support easily outguns new ‘anti-woke’ outlets such as GB News – which has seen its viewing figures halve in the past two weeks. As Damian Hastie points out, Marcus Rashford has nearly 11 million followers on Instagram, which is more than the vote for the Labour Party in the 2019 General Election. Little Mix has 14 million followers, which is more than the Conservative vote in the same election. Big brands such as EE and BT have come out in support of the England footballers against racism. The concerted power of these wider players in civil society is quite awesome. 

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Which means that they are unlikely to be quelled. Just as the Vote Leave Government has broken every norm and protocol around British public life, there is now nothing stopping those who oppose them from also breaking convention – from speaking out against senior ministers and their policies and the whole panoply of structural racism and inequality exposed in the bright lightning flash of sporting defeat and the public reaction.

The ‘woke’ brigade also has time and demographics on its side. In 1968, when Enoch Powell made a bid to create an ethno-centrist Conservative Party with his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech,  all but 3% of the UK population was ‘White British’. By the time of the 2011 Census, the percentage of non-British white and ethnic minorities had risen to 20% and could be as high as 30% in a decade. As the Migration Museum so poignantly pointed out, more than half of the England team wouldn’t be playing in the national team if it wasn’t for immigration.

So far, Boris Johnson’s kulturkampf has been conducted in stealthy raids and attacks where they can pick off individuals and co-opt a few institutions. But, in the fields of football, music and the arts, their opponents can easily draft a levee en masse. As the culture war goes mainstream, we shall soon see who has a stronger vision of the country: those who want to divide and rule, or those who want to celebrate and unite.

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