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13 July 2021

The England team have exposed the lie of the government’s culture war

Boris Johnson and his cabinet present race and class as binary opposites but England’s footballers are as committed to tackling poverty as racism.  

By David Olusoga

Watching England’s journey through the Euros and then witnessing the sickening torrent of racism that, within minutes of Sunday’s final, was directed against the players reminds me of George Orwell’s description of England as a nation in which “the young are generally thwarted”. In the same wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941), Orwell described England as “a family with the wrong members in control”, but wrote that it somehow, despite its dysfunction, remains “a family” with “its private language and its common memories”. 

Orwell’s belief that at times of peril there were forms of English patriotism behind which the whole nation – despite deep inequality and structural unfairness – could unite is being sorely tested. Five years after the Brexit vote there now exist mutant strains of English nationalism, so toxic to those north of the border that they could well bring about the end of the 314-year-old Union. Those same forms of Englishness have, it appears, become so corrosive that they are tearing apart England itself.

In the England and the Britain of 2021 the wrong people remain very much in charge but for a few brief weeks the young – or at least one group of young men – have not been thwarted in their efforts to put forward an alternative vision of Englishness and English patriotism.

Sport, by its nature, excludes the old and places the young centre stage. Politicians, journalists, academics and business leaders, the groups that usually keep a firm hold of the microphone in our defective national conversations, tend to be people in their late thirties to mid sixties. After the 2019 general election the average age of an MP was 51. The average age of this England football team is 25. 

For the past four weeks we have heard their voices as they made engagement with their moral priorities part of the England football experience. If their voices and the issues they highlight sound unfamiliar to some it is because we are unused to hearing their generation unmediated. Yet this team is what Britain in its twenties – rather than its forties or its fifties – actually looks and sounds like. 

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This England team are more diverse and more opposed to intolerance than their parents or their grandparents’ generation – and in that they are the perfect representatives of their generation. They should be understood not as “woke” fanatics, as the government would like to paint them, but as a sneak preview of the coming England, the part of the nation that is now at school. That England, by some projections, will by the middle of the century be around one-third black and minority ethnic. 

Yet part of the government’s frustration with Gareth Southgate’s team is that the players, their activism and their backstories, risk exposing the false dichotomy that underpins the right’s culture war. Key to this has been a concerted campaign to present race and class as binary opposites, suggesting that addressing one means neglecting the other. To support anti-racism, so the argument goes, is to abandon the so-called “white working class”. 

Southgate’s team are racially diverse: their families have deep links to Ireland, Nigeria, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago. The New Statesman columnist Jonathan Liew has calculated that 13 members of the 26-man squad could, in theory, have played their football for those other nations. But their backstories also explode the lie of the class vs race dichotomy. 

England’s players grew up in places such as Sunderland, Sheffield, Barnsley, Manchester and Bury. Averaging 25 today, they were around 11 during the 2007-08 financial crisis and came of age in the midst of the austerity imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne. Whether their parents or grandparents came from Kingston, Jamaica or Kingston upon Hull they are young, working-class men with skin in the game of poverty, from families and communities for whom political decisions have consequences. In this respect, they could not be more different from most cabinet ministers (the majority of whom were privately educated). Their working-class childhoods mean they are as committed to fighting poverty as racism, with Marcus Rashford exemplifying that instinctive dualism. 

The government’s refusal to denounce the minority of England fans who, in the early stages of this tournament, booed their own players was motivated by standard culture-war calculus. Focusing on the team’s anti-racism, and seeking to portray taking the knee as a divisive symptom of political extremism or even (ridiculously, given this is a team of young millionaires) rampant Marxism, was intended to direct attention towards race and away from class and poverty – and the fact that this team fight against both.

Yet a government so skilled at scapegoating and demonisation (if little else) has struggled against Southgate’s players. With each victory the decision to stir divisions between the team and sections of its fanbase became more politically damaging. Hence the pantomime of ministers being bundled by aides into newly purchased England jerseys, for a series of embarrassingly misjudged photo opportunities. 

Most preposterous of all was Boris Johnson, bursting out of his replica England shirt, his office shirt and tie bulging underneath. He looked about as convincing a football supporter as David Cameron did in 2015 when he couldn’t remember whether the team he was pretending to support was West Ham or Aston Villa. 

Having regarded the tournament as a culture war opportunity and having failed to stand up for England’s players, Johnson’s government has no moral authority in the urgent debate about racism and Englishness that followed the team’s defeat by Italy. In football, authenticity – an attribute alien to this Prime Minister – is everything. A real leader would not have looked upon the England team as a pawn to be exploited, but as a portent of the country’s future from which lessons could be learned. 

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This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook