Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar analyse a historic victory for anti-racism but warn that the ‘War on Woke’ isn’t over and that new alliances are needed

The Conservatives’ ‘culture wars’ strategy has suddenly come a cropper. They thought that they could cultivate the nationalist, racist element of their electoral coalition at no political cost. However, events have taken a different turn.

The global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement after the brutal murder of George Floyd, followed by footballers and athletes showing their solidarity by ‘taking the knee’, has produced a veritable explosion of bile and hatred from the national populist right – whether on right-wing Twitter or with countless articles in Unherd, Spiked and the Spectator, all seamlessly seeping into the tabloid press and wider culture. 

So, with the onset of Euro 2020 and the England football team declaring its intention to show its opposition to racism in sport, wider society and the media, the hard right thought that they had a juicy target. When some England fans attending a pre-tournament friendly in Middlesborough booed the team for kneeling before kick-off, the right sensed another culture war opportunity.

Before the tournament began, Conservative MPs voiced their opposition to taking the knee, with one backbencher saying that he would boycott all England games. Right on cue, the Home Secretary came out with a TV interview decrying the move as “gesture politics”. Through his press spokesperson, the Prime Minister refused to condemn those choosing to boo the team.

Yet, in the aftermath of the competition, it is clear that the strategy has backfired.

More fans chose to cheer and applaud the team when it took the knee at kick-off; many opposing teams showed solidarity by following suit; the multi-racial squad exceeded expectations in reaching the tournament’s final; and when the team lost on penalties and the racist abuse of three players followed, there was an outcry with overwhelming support for them and an emblematic rallying of community outpouring in Manchester where a mural of one of the players, Marcus Rashford, had been defaced.

Suddenly, Conservative politicians were falling over themselves to praise the team and decry the racists. Even hard-bitten, ardent Brexiters – such as former European Research Group chair, Steve Baker – were warning fellow Conservative MPs of the dangers of being on the wrong side of history.

But why did this culture war ploy backfire and what are the wider lessons that progressives and liberals can learn? 

Moderate One Nation Conservatism

Firstly, the England team followed the golden rule of campaigning politics: they focused on the core issue – in this case that there is no room for racism in sport and that all players are equal and deserving of human dignity and respect.

That is what taking the knee symbolised. It was just one element of the wider story which UEFA and all the sponsors of the competition agreed to – equality and respect. This was emphasised to the public, with television ads before the games on BT, Sky and the BBC proclaiming the importance of “hope not hate”. In contrast, for the hard right, taking the knee was part of their fantasy politics; a symbol of ‘cultural Marxism’, ‘identitarianism’ and ‘authoritarian extremism’.

Secondly, England manager Gareth Southgate showed leadership. He could see what was coming so, to use rugby parlance, he got his retaliation in first. Three days before the tournament, he published his ‘Dear England’ letter stating both his own pride in his country and that of the players under his command. In terms unimaginable from previous England managers, he wrote: 

“I have never believed that we should just stick to football. I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players. It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.

 “It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.” 

Explicitly attacking those “who choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin” Southgate went on, “it might not feel like it at times, but it’s true. The awareness around inequality and the discussions on race has gone to a different level in the last 12 months alone” – with him implicitly acknowledging the role of Black Lives Matter.

The letter was greeted with great acclaim on the left yet, in reality, it was not that far from a statement of moderate, one-nation conservatism, if nonetheless welcome for that.

Here at last was a national figure able to speak for today’s country and unreservedly welcoming its multi-racial character. Southgate set the terms and tone of the debate. He forced the nationalist right onto his turf: what’s the matter with you, don’t you recognise that we’re now a multi-racial country and aren’t you proud of the players who are representing our country? It was a letter to which they were unable to respond.

Thirdly, when things got tough after the loss of the final, the manager and players didn’t fold. Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford all stood their ground in measured statements. Rashford followed Southgate in writing an open letter, thanking fans for their support, and saying that he could take criticism of his football but no one would ever take away the fact that he is a 23-year black man from south Manchester. “I will never apologise for who I am or where I come from,” he said.

Fellow England player Tyrone Mings then pulled the grenade pin with a fierce denunciation of Priti Patel.

“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 responded when the Home Secretary condemned the racist abuse received by the players following the final.

This was hitting back straight and hard. And it got a public response. More than half a million people liked Mings’ tweet; Rashford’s got more than a million. When the latter’s street mural in south Manchester was defaced, the local communities rallied with an outpouring of support. And suddenly Conservative MPs began a muffled retreat.

It’s not all over. The Conservatives have created an unstable coalition that needs ongoing culture warfare to paper over the cracks. So they’ll come again. Progressives need to focus on the core economic and social issues that scar our country. But, when the culture war issues do arise, Euro 2020 shows us three things: the importance of focusing on the core issue; the role of leadership in taking the initiative to set the terms of the debate; and the need to rebut hard.

As a result, Patel, Boris Johnson and their Government got their fingers burnt. It’s going to have to happen again.


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