The events of the last week following the Euro 2020 final present an opportunity for anti-racists to take our arguments into every corner of the country, argues Martin Hall
In the week since the England team lost the Euro 2020 final, we have seen the predictable and appalling online racist abuse of the three black players who missed penalty kicks, an attempt by the Tories to condemn that and ride the wave of public outrage, an excellent response to that from Tyrone Mings and other players, millions signing petitions in support of the black players, the alleged cancellation of the Downing St celebration for the team, statements from various players, the defacing of the Manchester mural to Marcus Rashford, solidarity rallies at the mural and elsewhere, former player Gary Neville stating that racism comes from the top and Tory MP Natalie Elphicke forced to backtrack after initially suggesting Rashford should keep out of politics and stick to football.
There is much to be said about the last week, but let’s concentrate upon two areas: the response to Mings’ criticism of Priti Patel in the corporate media and that of the vast majority of people to the racist abuse, especially given some of the popular narratives about the UK in the last 5 years.
In terms of the first issue, in the context of the debates that have been going on regarding the efficacy of the England team's anti-racism in the context of English nationalism, a quick google at the start of the week provided only one Daily Mail article making any attempt in its headline to defend Priti Patel against Tyrone Mings' comment, and even that was reasonably even-handed when subjected to further scrutiny (essentially, a report of Stephen Barclay’s risible defence of Patel) - compared to how this would have played out in the past.
This is very different from even recent reporting of football and race; while all the papers nominally support the various anti-racism initiatives in the game, that hasn’t stopped them representing the lifestyle choices of Raheem Sterling in a very different way to those of Phil Foden, for example.
There is of course a discussion to be had regarding the effect of England success politically, and the ways in which the right can attempt to capitalise on it. Football, like all cultural arenas under capitalism, is a contested space even in its international form, and one in which people display contradictory consciousness. A fan can scream their lungs out for England, while having no love of the national anthem nor the Tories.
Furthermore, the Tories have no real space to make hay from the England team currently. There’s no one in the cabinet who can convincingly come across as a football fan. Fans are aware that both Patel and Johnson criticised taking the knee at the start of the tournament, then ended it by trying to condemn the very racist abuse against which the players were taking a stand. Even other Tory MPs like Johnny Mercer, who backed Tyrone Mings’ criticism of Patel for ‘stoking the fires’ of racism, have been quick to point out how out of touch and fake their positions are.
The reason there is little space for criticism of the players in the media or even in the Tory party is a direct result of where the team has driven the debate. This is a popular anti-racism that reflects the anti-racist good sense of most people.
This is not an argument for any kind of ‘progressive patriotism’; rather, it is one for noting and building upon the relations that have been built up between the team and the vast majority over the last month. Yes, the racist abuse has been vile; but over 30 million people watched the final, and their views are what is being reflected in the press, even the reliably right-wing sections, not those of the abusers.
What this shows is that, regardless of what you think of football and supporting the national team, it is nevertheless a mass event involving huge layers of ordinary people, and where there exists a huge amount of natural revulsion to racism. To assume that support for the England team can only translate into purely right-wing patriotic sentiment is to assume the working class is a homogenous mass without agency, waiting to be led by the ideological nose.
Furthermore, what is the reality of racism in England compared to other countries in Europe? The 2020 British Social Attitudes survey reports that from 2011 to 2020 “the proportion saying immigration undermines Britain’s cultural life has halved from 40% to 19%”. The same survey also reports that attitudes to immigration have actually improved overall since Brexit.
Meanwhile, the burqa is banned in Denmark, Austria, France and Belgium and various parts of Europe have seen the normalisation of the extreme and far right over the last decade both in terms of parliamentary representation and more broadly ideology. The picture beloved of liberals of the UK as a uniquely ‘rainy fascist island’ in a sea of pluralism and liberalism does not stand up to scrutiny.
None of this is to suggest racism is not a major problem in Britain; it is, and it is driven from the top and is systemic. We have seen it in the ‘hostile environment’ and many other ways. But the idea that there is something uniquely racist here, and indeed that it is driven by the working class, has little basis in reality. We have seen the working-class response to racism this week, and it is one of unity in revulsion. Certainly, while racist incidents continue to occur at English football grounds and indeed from a minority watching the national team, it is nothing compared to the problems of central and eastern Europe.
Yes, the Tories and Labour continue to try and stoke the culture wars and play off sections off the working class against each other. Yes, there has been the section who booed taking the knee and who caused trouble after Sunday’s final, but overall, the team has provoked a united response, as have the event of the last week, one that has shifted the debate significantly. It has put the Tories in a pickle and given confidence to anti-racist activists throughout the country. Anti-racism has become anti-Toryism very quickly.
The task of the left now is to build upon this confidence – as we have already seen this week with the fantastic show of solidarity towards black footballers, including after the vandalising of the Marcus Rashford mural in Manchester, and protests around the country – and to carry the wave of anti-racism as deeply as possible in order to popularise opposition to this government.
Their recent attempts at a culture war around the football only scratch the surface of what they are really about and why we should mobilise against them. Their awful ‘hostile environment’ policy towards migrants met with a fantastic display of popular opposition earlier this year in Glasgow, and their appalling treatment of the Windrush generation continues to feed resentment which has found expression in the form of movements like Black Lives Matter. We need to combine these grievances with others – such as over the climate, the disastrous handling of Covid, ‘fire and rehire’, and attacks on the right to protest – and build a fighting movement which can take on the Tories and the status quo they represent.
If the left wants to speak to the majority, then we need to take the openings that are presented to us and push anti-racism in the workplace, in our unions, at the football, and in all our conversations. This is one such opportunity.
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