News from Nowhere: Black and Blue
the UK government has in recent weeks come under increasing scrutiny for its views on race, and, in particular, for its response to popular movements protesting against racism in the UK.
You can say what you like about Boris Johnson’s government (and many frequently do) but it’s not easy to accuse it of overt racism, at least in its hiring policies. Its senior members include a number of key figures of minority ethnic heritage: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Health Secretary, Business Secretary, Attorney General, Vaccines Minister, Cabinet Office Minister, and the Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa (yes, the UK has one). The opposition Labour Party, by contrast, currently boasts few high-profile politicians of BAME backgrounds - Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic - the most notable exception being the charismatic Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Although, to be fair, it’s sadly the case that very few members of its top team have very much of a public profile at all.
Yet that government has in recent weeks come under increasing scrutiny for its views on race, and, in particular, for its response to popular movements protesting against racism in the UK.
Last year, footballer Marcus Rashford led a widely praised campaign that forced the British government to rethink its plans to withdraw the provision of free meals for disadvantaged schoolchildren at the end of the teaching term. This month, another member of the England men’s team has called out the Home Secretary for her part in promoting the conditions which prompted a racist backlash following his squad’s defeat in the finals of the European Championships.
Home Secretary Priti Patel had tweeted that she was disgusted that footballers had been ‘subject to vile racist abuse’ on social media. Yet Ms. Patel has previously been known for her tough stance on immigration and asylum-seekers, and had repeatedly criticized the actions of Black Lives Matter protesters. Last month, she dismissed the act of footballers’ taking the knee as ‘gesture politics’ and supported the rights to freedom of expression of those spectators who chose to jeer the teams which were engaged in this act of unity against racism.
In September 2016, American football players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid went down on one knee while their country’s national anthem played prior to the start of a game, as a gesture of protest against racist violence in the United States. The act of ‘taking the knee’ has since spread as a symbol of solidarity through various sports across the world.
England footballer Tyrone Mings last week issued a powerful response to Priti Patel’s tweet: ‘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.’
Members of Patel’s party have been quick to respond. It may be that they’re still mindful of the embarrassing policy climbdown Marcus Rashford had forced upon the government, but it also appears that they’re taking advantage of the current public mood (and the sudden media reversal) to articulate long-held frustrations on this matter. Her fellow Tory Baron Finkelstein has responded that it breaks his heart to think that any political ally of his would withhold their support from young people being jeered because of their race. Another Conservative member of the House of Lords Baroness Warsi has also criticised the government for its shift to the political Right. Meanwhile, the influential parliamentary backbencher Steve Baker has said that his party must challenge its hitherto dismissive attitude towards the actions of contemporary anti-racism campaigns, as it is in danger of misrepresenting its heart ‘for those who suffer injustice’. Last week, former Conservative Minister for Sport Tracey Crouch added that she’s proud of the stand England's footballers have taken against racism and that it would be wrong for her as a white person to tell people of colour that they shouldn’t take the knee to oppose such abuse.
Boris Johnson himself has a history of typically buffoonish remarks in relation to ethnicity which many would consider as inappropriately perpetuating offensive stereotypes and ridiculing cultural practices, but which we should not dignify by rehearsing here. Johnson had initially refused to condemn those fans who’d abused players taking the knee, with a spokesperson again dismissing such actions as mere gestures – although he was eventually obliged to make his censure of such conduct clear. But this volte-face hasn’t convinced anyone: former England star Gary Neville has, for example, denounced both Johnson and Patel as ‘total hypocrites’. The pair have certainly been proven remarkably foolhardy in their bid to beat England’s soccer football squad in the BAME game.
Mr. Johnson’s problem has been, in these matters as in so many things, that he has failed to anticipate the tide of events, and that as a result his moral leadership, such as it is, has appeared reactive rather than proactive; he does too little too late. True to his populist credentials, he’s a follower rather than a trendsetter, an opportunist who strives to sail upon the winds of public opinion. On July 14, the Prime Minister agreed that the perpetrators of racist abuse should be banned from attending football matches, but that wasn’t until the opposition Labour Party had demanded he does so, and an online petition to that effect had exceeded a million signatures. We may also note in this context that the British police have been rather more proactive than the government in this fight against racism, having arrested some of those responsible for the worst online abuse within a few days of the incidents.
Like the deluded figure of Wilkins Micawber in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (who always believed that something would ‘turn up’ to extricate him from his latest mess), Boris Johnson’s characteristic short-term thinking, aligned with his perennially bullish optimism, have, once again, prevented him developing the realistic vision and critical strategy that the nation has needed.
This isn’t, of course, just about football, nor is it even only about a signal of resistance against racism. The problem is this: Boris Johnson’s government doesn’t agree with the struggle against racism in the UK because it appears to believe that such racism doesn’t actually exist.
This is extraordinary but perhaps understandable. It is a government which, in its own appointments, has bridged some ethnic divides, but which is profoundly divorced from the realities of life in today’s Britain. It is a government which constantly pledges its plans to ‘level up’ socio-economic opportunities for people across the country, yet it’s one which has conspicuously neglected to do so – which is why, in July, a group of 50 Conservative Members of Parliament announced that it was high time for the government to start delivering on those promises. Two days later, the Prime Minister responded with a speech of such eccentric and freewheeling vagueness (in which he explained that he didn’t want to ‘decapitate the tall poppies’ in a ‘jam-spreading operation’) that one could hardly blame Her Majesty’s Opposition for describing it as ‘gibberish nonsense’. Mr. Johnson has been starting to find that his boundless enthusiasm is one of the least infectious things in Britain today.
In March, the UK’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (which had been appointed by Downing Street the previous year) published a highly controversial report which argued that the country was no longer systemically biased against ethnic minorities and that there was no evidence of institutional racism. While racism might continue to exist among individuals in isolated pockets, it proposed that this heinous phenomenon was no longer seen as posing a national or organisational concern. By contrast, in the middle of July, the independent think-tank the Runnymede Trust submitted a report to the UN’s International Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which argued, just as controversially, that levels of institutional, cultural and legislative prejudice in Britain in fact breached the international convention on such discrimination ratified by the United Nations more than half a century ago.
As always, the truth probably lies somewhere in between these polar extremes. The trouble is that the British government had appeared to welcome the initial view that the country doesn’t have much of a problem in this area. That’s why so many members of the Prime Minister’s own party have very publicly declared that they believe that his government must now explicitly acknowledge the issue and join forces with England’s footballing heroes in their crusade battle towards a fairer and better society for all. Mr. Johnson’s choice is clear, as is the best advice from his own people. We eagerly wait to see if he will take that political leap of faith, and offer a divided nation the leadership he’s so often promised and upon which it so desperately calls.
On the same day in mid-July on which Boris Johnson had to answer questions in Parliament about his responses to football racism, his government narrowly won a vote to reduce the UK’s budgetary commitment to international aid, despite a rebellion from within his party’s own ranks. If the progressive wing of his party had hoped his administration might begin to explore some of the statecraft’s more ethical dimensions, one must concede that this wasn’t an especially good start.