Boris Johnson seeks moral high ground despite pivotal role in divisive culture war

Prime minister’s refusal to condemn those who booed players taking knee helped facilitate ugly racism

British prime minister Boris Johnson has condemned the "appalling" racist abuse on social media directed at a number of England players after their defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.

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At the start of a coronavirus press conference in Downing Street on Monday, Boris Johnson paid tribute to the England team following their dramatic loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley.

“They made history. They lifted our spirits – and they brought joy to this country and I know that they will continue to do so,” he said.

“And to those who have been directing racist abuse at some of the players, I say shame one you, and I hope you will crawl back under the rock from which you emerged.”

Moments later, there was a flash of lightning in the skies above Westminster followed by a loud clap of thunder. It was as if the gods were registering their own protest against the prime minister’s gall in seeking out the moral high ground.

England’s progress through the championship, which began with a controversy over the team’s decision to take the knee at the start of each game, ended with a sordid display of what drove them to do so.

Within hours of the penalty shootout that gave Italy victory, a mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester was defaced with obscenities. Rashford and the two other young black players who missed penalties, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, had already faced a flood of racist abuse on social media, much of it including monkey and banana emojis.

Home secretary Priti Patel joined Johnson in condemning the abuse but, like him, she had consistently failed to condemn fans who booed the players as they took the knee. Patel never went as far as Lee Anderson, the Conservative MP for Ashfield who boycotted England’s matches in protest against the players’ protest, but she dismissed their action as “gesture politics” and said it was up to fans to decide whether to boo or not.

Patel was reflecting the views of many Conservative MPs and commentators, some of whom have suggested that they players have fallen under the influence of cultural Marxism and critical race theory. Rashford is viewed with particular suspicion on the Right on account of his success in forcing a government U-turn on offering free school means to poor children during the holidays and his broader campaign against child poverty.

So Dover MP Natalie Elphicke probably thought she was preaching to the choir on Sunday night when she sent a message to other Tory MPs on a WhatsApp group.

“They lost – would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics?” she wrote.

Criticising the most popular footballer in the country is a mug’s game and most Conservatives avoid it in public. But until now, many saw taking the knee as a risk-free ‘dog whistle’ to signal solidarity with older socially conservative voters.

Both ways

“If we ‘whistle’ and the ‘dog’ reacts we can’t be shocked if it barks and bites,” Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative peer and former party chair said on Monday.

Johnson’s own record on racism is mixed. His decades of journalism are littered with racist epithets and insults, describing black people as having “watermelon smiles” and suggesting that women wearing burkas looked like letterboxes. But he presides over the most ethnically diverse cabinet in British history and was twice elected mayor of London, where more than 40 per cent of the population identifies ethnically as Black, Asian, Mixed or Other.

The prime minister sought to have it both ways over taking the knee, not criticising it directly but saying he would not make the gesture himself and holding back from condemning the fans who booed it. Labour leader Keir Starmer, who faced derision from the right-wing press when he took the knee last year, said Johnson had failed the test of leadership.

“Whatever he says today about racism he had a simple choice at the beginning of this tournament in relation to the booing of those who were taking the knee. The prime minister failed to call that out and the actions and inactions of leaders have consequences,” he said.

Johnson’s flashy but shifty leadership style faces a stark contrast in that of Gareth Southgate, whose modesty, calm and culture of respect among his players helped England to their first major final since 1966.

In his Letter to England in the Players’ Tribune last month, Southgate articulated a vision of English patriotism based on tolerance and openness to change as well as respect for tradition and said it was the players’ duty to speak out on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice.

Despite the passion it arouses, the fate of the England football team has historically not had much lasting effect on politics and there is every chance that this week’s events will soon be forgotten.

But they have left Johnson exposed as a politician who facilitated a divisive culture war over a football team that had gathered up the hopes of their nation, and is now trying to slip quietly away from the toxic consequences of his cynicism.

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