Britain’s right-wing government has carved out an electoral advantage in ridiculing “woke” politics and campaigners for racial justice, but is now on the defensive against a unified and popular group.
Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “culture wars” and ballot-box inroads have made life difficult for the Labour opposition party.
One group, however, knows where it stands: England’s multi-racial, youthful and idealistic football team.
“They have made an appeal to the best aspects of Englishness and done so against the direction of play, during an era in which politicians mobilise our worst instincts and darkest fears,” historian David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian newspaper.
“Twenty-six young men and their remarkable manager have again reminded us that there is another path, another form of English patriotism, another way of being together and — if enough of us want it — another England.”
Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel donned England shirts late on in the European Championship to trumpet their support for the team, after previously mocking its anti-racism stand.
Taking the knee before their games, an anti-racism gesture, was empty “gesture politics”, according to Patel, who like Johnson initially refused to condemn England fans for jeering the players at the start of the tournament.
Now, in the face of toxic racial abuse levelled at three black players after England’s agonising loss in the Euro2020 final against Italy on Sunday, the politicians profess disgust.
But current and former players have accused them of hypocrisy and of fomenting the post-final hatred, prompting a rattled Johnson on Wednesday to promise tougher action against online abusers and social media platforms.
Conservative lawmaker Sayeeda Warsi urged the prime minister to go further and “stop the culture wars”, adding: “Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations.”
Hardline Brexiteer MP Steve Baker said Patel was wrong in her dismissal of taking the knee, following scornful criticism of the minister by current player Tyrone Mings.
Conservative lord Daniel Finkelstein warned the government was falling on the wrong side of history, in an opinion piece for The Times headlined: “In Priti Patel v Tyrone Mings there’s only one winner.”
England manager Gareth Southgate, in a pre-tournament letter to the nation, dwelt on patriotism and pride as he underlined the meaning that representing their nation held for all his players.
“This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves,” he said.
“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.”
After years of financial austerity followed by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, the footballers have given English people reason to smile, even if they ultimately came up just short of winning their first international tournament in 55 years.
Win or lose, there had been talk of Johnson honouring the squad with a Downing Street reception. That talk has receded, with Number 10 anxious to avoid any public showdown with players who have united the country in sympathy and admiration — excepting the racist trolls online.
It has been another reminder of the political power of football in Britain.
One of the black players targeted, Marcus Rashford, last year forced Johnson to climb down over his refusal to offer free school meals to poorer children during pandemic lockdowns.
Critics on the left wish the opposition Labour party would show more resolve in taking on Johnson’s verbal and legislative offensive on “woke” issues, including a new bill that would dramatically increase punishments for vandalism during Black Lives Matter and other protests.
But with the Conservatives making historic inroads into Labour strongholds in northern England, the party has fought shy of doing battle on the cultural front.
That needs to change, the left-wing Fabian Society said, echoing Olusoga’s point that a different and more unifying form of English patriotism is possible.
“When culture is being weaponised against us, we need to bin the scripts and awkward soundbites and find stories and images that come from the heart and speak to everyone’s sense of pride and belonging,” it said.
Pride and belonging are embodied in England players whose family trees include roots in Ireland, Nigeria and the Caribbean, even if the worst of the game was also on show in the loutish behaviour of some fans on Sunday.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Johnson’s war on woke was a “double-edged sword” as it risked alienating more liberal-minded, affluent Conservative voters.
But he told AFP that for now, its apparent appeal in socially conservative, working-class areas once held by Labour was “probably sharper and electorally more valuable, so I wouldn’t expect the Conservatives to give up on culture wars just yet”.