Johnson Decries Racism Against Footballers While Implementing Legislation that Fuels a Racist Culture War
Ben Gelblum analyses how recent legislation from the Higher Education Bill to the New Plan for Immigration undermines the Government’s anti-racist statements
In the wake of the Euros 2020 final, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and colleagues publicly called out a torrent of online racist abuse that England players were subjected to after the team lost to Italy in a penalty shoot-out – while being accused of fanning the flames of that racism themselves.
Boris Johnson was accused of “promoting” racist abuse with his own history of racist jibes and “ridiculing” those taking the knee to combat racism by former England defender Gary Neville. Current team member Tyrone Mings calling out Priti Patel for “stoke[ing] the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘gesture politics’”.
Even Conservative Party figures are concerned by the uglier consequences of the culture war the right of the party seems intent on stoking. Former party Chair Baroness Warsi warned that “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.”
The ‘Legal Protection for Hate Bill’
On the very same day that Johnson told racists to “crawl back under the rock from which you emerged” while battling accusations of racism himself, he legislated to make emerging from under that rock onto a public platform much easier.
The Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill passed its second reading just hours after Boris Johnson’s comments. It was described by Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green as a “bill that amounts to legal protection for hate speech.”
Green said the Bill told “the country everything they need to know about how the Conservative government really approaches our right to freedom of speech and expression.”
“Because of this Bill, a group spreading hatred and division on university campuses wouldn’t just be legally protected, they’d be able to sue a university or student union that tried to stop them,” she added.
The Government insists the measures counter a “growing intolerance” at higher education providers. However the Shadow Education Secretary joined many voices from academia who warn the legislation is unnecessary. The Higher Education regulator the Office for Students found just 53 of 59,574 events with external speakers were refused permission in the 2017-2018 academic year.
The legislation includes appointing a “free speech and academic freedom champion” with the power to investigate institutions which will have to “actively promote” freedom of speech. There would be powers to sanction and fine any breaching this duty.
The anti-racism group Hope Not Hate has warned that the Bill could mean universities would have to pay Holocaust deniers damages if they do not give them a platform to spread their hate speech at their campuses.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan insisted that “antisemitism is abhorrent and will not be tolerated at our universities” and the Bill would only “protect and promote lawful free speech.” Yet as Holocaust denial is not illegal in the UK, there is nothing in the Bill as it stands to stop universities being forced to give such abhorrent racism a platform in the name of freedom of speech.
While denouncing social media for giving racists a platform, Conservative MPs were therefore simultaneously voting in favour of giving a platform to any racist crank on university campuses.
The Online Hate Bill
The Prime Minister and Home Secretary were both quick to deflect from their role in the booing of England players by turning attention to social media companies as players received a torrent of racism on Sunday night.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Johnson announced on Tuesday he would also be telling representatives from social media to “up their game.”
The invitation to social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter to a garden party for the Diana Award had long been in the diary ready for the draft stage of the Government’s online safety bill. Apparently Johnson took 15 minutes to give the companies a dressing-down about racist abuse.
But despite giving the impression that the Bill would support people like 19-year-old England star Bukayo Saka – who deactivated his Instagram account amid a flurry of racial abuse – the reality looks very different.
Writing in The Telegraph, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden explained how “the last thing we want is for users or journalists to be silenced on the whims of a tech CEO or woke campaigners.”
He added that the legislation “includes strong safeguards for free speech”, including the right to appeal. This could weaken efforts to tackle hate speech on social media.
Cracking down on Black Lives Matters
While both the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and the Online Safety Bill both appear to protect the rights of those with hateful or upsetting views, there is one group of people whose freedom of speech the Government wishes to squash: people protesting for racial justice.
Human rights NGO Amnesty International has warned the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which just passed its third reading, threatens people’s right to protest. The Bill has the Black Lives Matter movement in its crosshairs.
The legislation gives police more power to stop protests such as last summer’s Black Lives Matters demonstrations, on the grounds they may be “noisy” or cause “annoyance.” It targets Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion – movements that Home Secretary Priti Patel has repeatedly condemned – to “improve the police’s ability to manage such protests.”
And while the Prime Minister and Home Secretary decry racism online, Amnesty International has warned measures in the Bill including enhancing stop and search power will entrench racism and worsen structural inequalities. Black people are already nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.
In response, Labour’s Claudia Webbe has tabled an amendment for an equality impact analysis otherwise missing from legislation which she told MPs “would not look out of place in the world’s most authoritarian regimes.”
Webbe warned “the legislation will have a disproportionate effect on African, African-Caribbean, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”
An Assault Against Migration
The much-fanfared New Plan for Immigration is a further example of how Conservative ministers make anti-racist noises while using immigration as another ugly battleground in its culture war.
The Nationalities and Borders Bill introduced to Parliament last week torches human rights obligations under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. Patel’s legislation risks further demonising and criminalising people for how they arrived in the UK – denying people the right to asylum and jailing them for up to four years if they arrive via an “unauthorised” route.
Critics such as Diane Abbott have called the legislation “completely unnecessary, the result of a frenzy of xenophobia from this Government”. She argued that for a fraction of the cost the Home Office could be clearing backlogs that have left thousands of people living in limbo, unable to work for years.
Boris Johnson should perhaps reflect when he calls out racist attacks on England stars such as Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, born to immigrant families and now representing the very best of England, how his own party’s policies are creating an increasingly hostile environment for black and minority ethnic people.
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