Own GoalGovernment Faces the Consequences of its Culture War
In this turning point in the ‘war on woke’ may be the seeds of a new revolution, says Jonathan Lis
The problem with waging an endless ‘culture war’ on behalf of the people is that eventually you run into the people themselves.
Following England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 final, members of the team lined up to condemn – explicitly or implicitly – both the behaviour of some of the fans and the Government which encouraged them.
England captain Harry Kane criticised the “vile racist abuse” and told the perpetrators “we don’t want you”. Manager Gareth Southgate described it as “unforgivable”. But more poignant were the responses from the three black footballers who missed their penalties and found themselves subject to the barrage of hate.
Jadon Sancho wrote that the abuse was “nothing new” and that “as a society we need to do better, and hold these people accountable”. Bukayo Saka said he “knew instantly the kind of hate that I was about to receive”. Marcus Rashford declared that “I will never apologise for who I am”.
These players form a new class of athletes – incisive writers, emotionally literate, socially engaged. And something else too: they are powerful political actors.
When the Home Secretary tweeted that she was “disgusted that England players who have given so much for our country… have been subject to vile racist abuse”, squad member Tyrone Mings replied: “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”. His tweet was shared 90 times more than Priti Patel’s.
This time in its culture war, the Government has picked the wrong enemy.
A Gesture of Importance
Downing Street faced three predicaments. The first was that England did not win Euro 2020 and so Boris Johnson could not capitalise on the team’s achievement for his own political gain. No triumphant parade or bombastic national address, no orgy of flag-waving for the Prime Minister to boast about Brexit. The feel-good summer would not kick-off as planned.
That, in turn, led to the second problem. As the England footballer Reece James shrewdly noted on Twitter, “we learn more about the society when we lose, far more than we learn when we win”. What we learnt was what we already in fact knew: that England is a deeply racist country, in which a sizeable minority only welcomes black people when they are succeeding.
If the team had won, the players would have been greeted with adulation. Johnson could have pretended that the country had no problem with racism and that he had no part in whipping it up. As it happened, both propositions became impossible to sustain.
All of which led to Downing Street’s third and most serious predicament: its previous opposition to taking the knee and failure to condemn those who had booed the players for doing so. For weeks, England’s players had made this anti-racist gesture before every match. But in their stupidity and hubris, ministers had attempted to co-opt it as another front in the culture war.
Last year, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the gesture as a “symbol of subjugation and subordination”. Shortly afterwards, Johnson said that he didn’t “want people to be bullied” into it. Then, last month, the Prime Minister went further – pointedly refusing, through his spokesman, to condemn the booing. Priti Patel followed up days later by saying that the booing a “choice” for fans.
The subtext was clear: taking the knee was a meaningless, left-wing act. So confident were they in their unassailable power, that Johnson and Patel never appeared to question whether England’s team might fight back, better.
After the squad’s defeat by Italy on penalties, it became glaringly obvious to millions of people why taking the knee mattered. Those who had previously dismissed it as a stunt could see what the black players had to face. Even before the match, an Opinium poll showed that 56% of people supported England footballers taking the knee – an increase of 6% since the start of the tournament. Less than one-third opposed it.
Gestures form part of every historical movement. It is not that speeches, symbols or acts of defiance directly reduce oppression, but that they help to produce the political conditions which can. It is this which politicians cannot or refuse to understand.
In a profoundly divided country, one of the few symbols of unity is the England football team. Like football itself, its popularity transcends age, class and politics. That makes its players potentially formidable opponents.
Taking the knee is no longer something that those in power laugh at or dismiss, but fear. This is because it goes to the root of the culture war itself.
The endless populist battle against ‘woke’ only works when the public – or the warriors’ base of it – can get behind the chosen targets. Boris Johnson’s Government has relished attacking easy, soft targets – either those without power, or those perceived to think themselves superior to the ‘Red Wall’ working class. Now voters could see ‘woke’ in action, many more found that they sympathised with it – and saw the Government on the wrong side.
Like a Soviet regime that has made one denunciation too many, this time the Government had over-reached. Its opponent was more popular and more powerful. They waged their culture war on the most charismatic men in the country and, for some reason, found that they had lost. And so they denied all knowledge.
Repeatedly in the past week, the Prime Minister has lied and said that he had always condemned the booing of England’s players. This is not simply an Orwellian erasure of recent history; it demonstrated a Government in full retreat – fearful of both its opponents and its political base. But it also went further than that. The Government has not been simply hiding from its statements but from its values.
The England of Johnson and Patel is in total contrast to the England of Rashford and Mings. The footballers represent something compassionate, diverse and defiant. It is not simply a question of the Prime Minister’s long personal history of racist insults and stereotyping, or that he appeared to give the green light to racist abuse against the footballers. It is also that his ministry actively promotes policies which would have prevented half of the England team from even being in the country.
This is not just a moment of danger for the Government, but its co-dependent media ecosystem. Populism requires popularity, and if your audience is on the other side of a fence then you must scramble over it.
Quickly sensing that it had found itself on the wrong side of history, the Sun – which last month published a piece condemning the kneel as a “grotesque woke pantomime” – pictured Rashford, Sancho and Saka with the headline ‘We’ve Got Your Back’.
The manoeuvring at GB News was still more chaotic. Its presenter Guto Harri took the knee live on air, which was denounced as ‘woke’ by numerous right-wing accounts on Twitter that vowed never to watch the channel again. Two days later, it issued a bizarre set of tweets, first announcing that “we do not have a company line on taking the knee”, then declaring Harri doing so to be an “unacceptable breach of our standards”. Revolutions that do not end in tears frequently end in embarrassment.
The incident was merely a reflection of the channel’s difficulties. Part of the viewer base has changed its opinion on taking the knee; another part has doubled-down. The right-wing media can attempt to alternate its output to accommodate both sides but cannot do so for long. Both Harri and GB News’ director of programming, John McAndrew, have now left the network.
A Turning Point?
After years of unlimited feasting, the Conservatives’ revolution has now begun eating itself. A government without serious policies or interests must simply invent diversions – and, after Brexit, it has only the culture war. This requires configuring any popular opposition or challenge to the status quo as an ‘enemy of the people’, until the designated enemy becomes the people themselves.
In this turning point, there may be the seeds of a new revolution. It is possible that black people will no longer suffer invisibly, that racists won’t simply be tolerated, and that national heroes will double as political actors.
Under this charge, the forces of progress or ‘woke’ will not simply be dismissed or derided as comic stereotypes, but seen for what they are: people facing discrimination and abuse, fighting for their dignity.
The Government has so far waged its battle almost unopposed, with active encouragement from the right-wing press. This is now faltering and the anger ministers have whipped up may soon visit them.