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21 July 2021updated 12 Oct 2023 11:35am

The values divide between Labour and the Tories isn’t a culture war. It’s a battle for the soul of England

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel tried to create a “hostile environment” for our footballers – but modern Britain is leaving them behind.

By Keir Starmer

As the rest of us watched an England football team that represents the best of us, the nasty party came back. While Gareth Southgate and the England team were defining an idea of the nation that was generous and inclusive, Boris Johnson and Priti Patel decided to take the side of those who think that national pride means booing their own team. Modern Britain is leaving the Tory party behind. From the government that brought us the “hostile environment”, perhaps we should expect no more. But we certainly deserve more.

If the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary want to show that they are not pandering to racism, they should retract their words and apologise. There is little chance that they will. Turning Wembley Stadium into a hostile environment creates a divided country that they think they can command. Yet before, during and after the European Championship, the England team has pointed the way to an idea of national belonging organised according to principles of tolerance and decency. When players take the knee they are asserting that they will not tolerate any longer the racial abuse that some of them continue to experience. This team is a living embodiment of a successful nation; young men of many backgrounds united by their talent and their patriotic pride.

This is a glimpse of the country we can become: forward-looking, open, kind, welcoming and in which all talents are fostered; an environment that is hostile only to intolerance. This nation will only come into being if it is led well. But instead of a prime minister who seeks to wrap himself in the flag of this new England, we have one who refused to condemn abuse directed against Southgate’s team. Patel dismissed the players’ taking the knee as “gesture politics” rather than the act of solidarity that it is. This is deeply irresponsible leadership, to give people coming to a football ground permission to boo their own team.

Yet, sadly, this is the idea of the nation this government is selling. The recent vote in parliament to cut the foreign aid budget was a case in point. The British position on aid, committing to 0.7 per cent of gross national income, has led the world. It has been good diplomacy and good international politics. By making the world more prosperous it enhances our economic interest. By creating allies around the world it makes us more secure. And, more important than anything else, the money spent has saved lives and improved the health of some of the poorest people in the world. It is hard to remember another vote that, for so little benefit, had such a detrimental effect on the life chances of so many people – indeed, on the very chance of life for some. Those Conservative MPs who dutifully walked through the lobby in blind support of their government should be ashamed of themselves.

[see also: In Gareth Southgate’s England, you don’t have to choose between diversity and tradition]

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In the course of a spending round negotiation that is descending into acrimony and chaos, Rishi Sunak has grabbed at the only cut he has so far been able to get the Prime Minister to agree to. There is a lot more to come, in health, education and policing, when the Chancellor gets his way. Chancellor Sunak likes to present himself as the human face of the government, slipping into an England team shirt so new it still had the labels on for the benefit of his resident photographer, but we should not forget that he is the instigator of this cruel move. Unable to get the Prime Minister to make up his mind on how to start balancing the books, Sunak has gone for the nastiest cut of all.

The Prime Minister’s chronic indecision was on full display in his speech on levelling up on 15 July. It is no wonder Dominic Cummings refers to him as a broken shopping trolley that veers from side to side. The speech managed to be a long shopping list which at the same time had no items on it at all. It is astonishing that the Prime Minister should set out a series of inequalities, of life expectancy and education, of job prospects and life chances, as if he has just arrived here from another planet. Has he not noticed that the Conservative Party has been in power for more than ten years? Is this notorious shape-shifter now seeking to campaign against his own party?

As I was meeting voters in Blackpool, the Prime Minister was pointing out that a man in Blackpool can look forward to an average of ten years less of life than his counterpart in Hart, Hampshire. The people I spoke to in Blackpool burned with pride about their hometown, but they also left me in no doubt about the scale of the challenge. They need a serious programme on skills and jobs and better public services. Slogans about ketchup are not much good.

It was obvious, though, that the Prime Minister was not trying to make a serious speech. This is not a serious government. The purpose of the speech was simply to deflect attention from speculation about why the Prime Minister was not receiving the England team at Downing Street. He had got himself firmly on the wrong side of a group of articulate, personable young men who represented their country at the Euros with style, humility and pride.

This is a Conservative Party that is determined to draw a dividing line between two nations. We stand on one side of a nation – the one that looks forward, that seeks to encourage all talents and include all people. Johnson and Patel stand on the other side, looking backwards to a time gone by when it was permissible to boo people for daring to complain about racism. This is not a culture war. It is a battle for this country’s reputation, at home and abroad. The England team, and the rest of the English nation, and indeed the rest of the United Kingdom, deserve so much better from our politics.

[see also: After two years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s unfitness for office has never been clearer]

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This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century