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16 June 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:45am

In praise of Marcus Rashford

The England striker brought heart, and common humanity, to questions that are fundamentally, deeply political. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Gosh, how much we needed Marcus Rashford. The political landscape has felt fractured and bleak of late, for reasons you probably don’t need me to relay. 

Then Marcus Rashford, the 22 year-old England striker, showed up. In a powerful open letter to every MP, he turned the light on and made us wake up. Look, he said, simply: hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children across England are going to go hungry this summer. “Hear their pleas and find your humanity. Please reconsider your decision to cancel the food voucher scheme over the summer holiday period.” 

The government listened, and an expected 1.3 million of the most vulnerable children in England will now receive support during what could well be the most difficult summer in decades. 

It is a remarkable story of someone leveraging their position of prominence to do good. He writes of his own experience growing up in a family of five, his mother working full-time on the minimum wage. As a family, he writes, they relied on free school meals, breakfast clubs, food banks, soup kitchens and the kindness of neighbours and coaches. Now, as a famous footballer, he has used his position to amplify the voices of those in the same situation, and delivered a meaningful policy change that will instantly provide a lifeline to young Marcus Rashfords across England. 

“This is not about politics; this is about humanity,” he wrote to MPs. “Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”

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Except there is, of course, a lot of politics in Rashford’s request and in his open letter: the question of the support given to the most vulnerable in society is an inherently political one. When Labour called for the same policy at last week’s PMQs, it was rejected by the government. The beauty of Rashford’s campaign is that he framed the issue as one that, morally, ought to traverse the divides of political opinion; and, therefore, it did. 

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In a letter about common humanity and the plight of deprived children, Rashford gently asserts the racialised aspect of this inequality. “45 per cent of children in black and minority groups are now in poverty,” he writes. “This is England in 2020…” He never explicitly states that this makes BAME children twice as likely to grow up in poverty as children from white British families; the policy change he has championed helps all of them. But the tacit acknowledgement is there, as is his pride at being “a 22 year-old Black man lucky enough to make a career playing the game I love.”  

“The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked,” he writes. It speaks to questions of class and social mobility, but also to the intertwined issues of systemic racism and deprivation among black and minority communities in the UK that have been highlighted in recent weeks by the Black Lives Matter protests and by the disproportionate deaths from Covid-19 in black and minority groups. 

There should be no patronising of Rashford nor of his achievement: as a political actor, his policy proposal was robust, his facts accurate, his case urgent, and the government could not mount a serious argument against the proposal. 

But his biggest achievement is bringing heart, and common humanity, to questions that are, of course, deeply political. Politicians all say they are in politics to make a difference; with this intervention on free school meal vouchers, the quietly political England striker offered an opportunity to do exactly that. He made the moving, human case for supporting hungry, vulnerable children, and in doing so, cut through the burgeoning culture war to deliver a policy change that meaningfully supports young black lives. It’s a tricky political manoeuvre, but Rashford has shown that the two different framings can be one and the same thing.