Johnson and Patel must learn that others get burned when politicians play with fire | David Conn
So, as the prime minister has learned, a week is a long time in football. He and Priti Patel began it grinning in their crisp new England shirts, seeking kudos for their politics from a triumph in Europe just months after they took Britain out of the European Union. Instead, the racism that rained on England’s young black players following defeat on penalties on Sunday meant Johnson and Patel were finally confronted with consequences of the green light they gave to racism before the tournament started.
One senior football figure told me there was “deep outrage” in the game about Johnson and Patel backing the fans who booed England players taking a knee, describing it as “the deepest insult”, evoking the most shameful period of racism in football. For the first time, a government saw an advantage for itself from siding with racists rather than supporting those who have worked for decades to kick racism out.
They did it so casually. Johnson’s backing was communicated by a spokesman during the daily lobby briefing with politics reporters, saying the prime minister would not condemn those who booed and that he “fully respects” their right to do so. Patel delivered a patronising mini-rant to the national team’s footballers, dismissing their chosen form of protest as “gesture politics”, saying people had the right to boo.
Reports from journalists with solid sources in the Conservative party have explained that these comments were considered positions, taken in the “culture war” or “war on woke”, coordinated in particular by one of Johnson’s advisers, Dougie Smith, a long-term Tory fixer. The husband of Munira Mirza, Johnson’s policy director, Smith’s CV includes a period when he was involved in organising sex parties and orgies for wealthy people in Mayfair.
Tim Shipman reported in the Sunday Times that Smith is behind the strategy, which stirs divisions on racial and heritage issues, as a chosen route to allying the Conservatives with “working-class voters in the new swing seats in northern England”. Smith is said to be behind Oliver Dowden’s reinvention, from moderate remainer and somewhat ineffectual culture secretary, to culture war secretary. Dowden publicly rebuked the England and Wales Cricket Board when it responded firmly to the bowler Ollie Robinson’s historic racist tweets, a rebuke then supported publicly by Johnson.
But as Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho experienced on Sunday, when politicians play with fire, other people get burned. Patel, who then condemned the racism, was directly called out for hypocrisy by Tyrone Mings, a leader among the England players, who told her she stoked the fire.
The gleeful terminology – “culture war”, “war on woke” – really just glamorises a very old, deeply dangerous and dishonorable form of politics: playing on perceived prejudices to foment division. Johnson’s and Patel’s choice of side in football was felt as a deep violation because they were allying themselves with racism in a game with a shocking history of it. We should never need reminding that black players in the 1970s and 80s were subjected to poisonous abuse, mass booing and monkey noises, the National Front recruiting at football grounds under the union jack, causing a generation to grow up fearful of the national flag.
Before England played Croatia, Paul Elliott, the former Chelsea and Charlton centre-half and now chair of the Football Association’s inclusion advisory board, pleaded with supporters not to boo the players taking the knee. He recalled that when he captained the England Under-21 team and played for England B in the 80s, England fans told him he didn’t belong, because “there’s no black in the union jack”.
Now it is another sally in the culture war that Johnson’s government places the flag in every photo and flutters it from every building, which seems to be another knowing drive to provoke division between people who have been made to feel the union jack as a signal of fear and those who never have.
For years football’s extreme racism was not confronted or even mentioned by people in authority. The great black players of the time have talked about having to pretend it did not hurt them. Elliott has said he believes Gareth Southgate is so supportive of his players’ protest for racial justice because as a young Crystal Palace player he saw the ordeals of Ian Wright and Mark Bright.
The football authorities began to seriously address it as late as 1993, forming Kick It Out, which, with 10-point plans and insistent argument, consistently supported by governments, succeeded in making overt racism in grounds unacceptable.
This is the context in which the booing of players taking the knee, supported by Johnson, Patel and many other Conservative MPs and commentators, was felt with such alarm, instantly taking veterans of the game back to the worst of days.
But Johnson haplessly forgot how huge the platform Southgate and his players would have once the Euros started and were broadcast to the nation. Against that inflammatory backdrop, five years after a Brexit campaign based on disdain for other European countries and demonising immigrants, the team resolutely took the knee and showed the way to a better England.
This awful week, when shame finally landed at Downing Street’s door for the games played there, also prompted a glimmer of hope. It seemed even to be glimpsed by some of Johnson’s MPs, who began to wonder if they might perhaps stop with the stoking of division. No doubt it is futile to think that Johnson and his strategists might consider how Southgate and his players conducted themselves and follow their lead: embrace equality, unity, celebrate the diversity of modern England. But this week and during the Euros we could just start to imagine it: the relief we will feel when decency prevails.