David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.
It seems an age ago now but ,for a brief moment, England’s glorious European Championship run brought the country together in support of our footballing heroes. Almost until the penalty shootout that guaranteed at least 56 years of hurt, the country seemed united and optimistic. This tremendous multi-racial squad, bursting with pride about their country and the honour of representing it, represented the hopes and dreams of the whole country.
It didn’t last of course. As soon as the last penalty was missed, the footballers who had shown the guts to take a penalty for their country in the unflinching all or nothing spotlight of a shootout were subject to vile racial abuse from a few morons. Harry Kane was right to suggest that the contemptible idiots who abused our heroic players aren’t really England fans.
The abuse from a small minority was a reminder that, as Sunder Katwala emphasised in an excellent article, the UK has made great progress on race, but still has more to do. The fortnight that has passed since the final has given us time to reflect on how to build on the optimism of the cup run, but also to tackle the issues that arose in the aftermath (including the fact that much of the abuse has been shown to come from abroad).
We should look to build on the sense of unity and national pride that we saw during the tournament to build a renewed sense of national solidarity. This means that the identity obsession of today’s Left, as well as the snobbery that has again reared its head in the past week and a half, should be eschewed in favour of a focus on removing barriers, tackling prejudice and focusing on what united us.
The end of the tournament and the return of the sneering
The social snobbery of the progressive left, which had been on hold throughout the tournament was also evident again in the early part of last week. Although clear that the vile abuse came from a small, vile minority, too many modern snobs seemed determined to paint all working class football fans with the same brush.
The Twitter account of Have I Got News For You “joked” that “amid calls to ban racist football fans from grounds indefinitely, clubs argue that they’d struggle to survive with attendances of 12.” This is the kind of satire that is downright offensive. Multi-racial estates around the country have been covered in the England flag, and the black members of this England team are absolute heroes to most working class football fans.
As satire it was grim, but it was a reminder of the attitude of too many parts of progressive Britain. The tweet was a neat distillation of the snobbery and sneering that has become all too common in the past few years. After the Brexit referendum, the assumption that working class Brexit voters were bigoted or racist became commonplace in politice, progressive society. An example of this offensive narrative was a prominent Corbynista commentator talking about a ”toxic narrative of nativism and xenophobia” in Red Wall constituencies.
The sneering attitude that caricatures working class football fans as bigoted and racist has become commonplace in too much culture and comedy, including the News Quiz and Daily Mash, which have a habit of punching down. The writer of Dead Ringers even said that comedy writers regard condservatism and patriotism as “distasteful” and the comedy writers in London “should be a little more careful about seeing England as “backward and nationalistic… or racist.” Creating an enhanced feeling of national solidarity is important, but that isn’t going to happen if a progressive elite continues to unfairly caricature large sections of society.
Building a multi-racial working class conservatism
We need to build a multi-racial working-class conservatism that takes the lead in tackling discrimination and racism and also prioritises in removing the barriers that prevent people advancing, whether they’re based on race or class. It should look to build on the progress that has been made and should reject the narrative of a dystopia that parts of the modern left seem determined to paint.
As Trevor Phillips points out, the UK has more ethnic minority politicians in senior government positions than the rest of the EU put together, and cross-European polling shows that prejudiced attitudes are much less common in the UK than in many other European countries.
The kind of vile racism that was once commonplace in British football grounds, and remains so in places like Spain or Italy, is thankfully seldom heard in the stands today. We should be proud of the advances we have made as a society, but always conscious that there is more to do.
We must be prepared to take on prejudice head on, which is why the Prime Minister was right to announce that anyone convicted of racist abuse should not be welcome in any football ground. A multi-racial conservatism also means that we should not be questioning the motives of black footballers or dictating what kind of stand they decide to make.
As Danny Finkelstein argued, the idea that Raheem Stirling and Marcus Rashford “taking the knee” was somehow associated with Marxism or defunding the police is patently absurd. When black players take steps to highlight the racist abuse they have been facing, the players should have our full-throated solidarity and support.
Conservatives should be quick to disregard the excesses of “wokeness” and identity politics. Phrases like “white privilege” and “white fragility” are deeply unhelpful, and the identity politics of the left seems more concerned with highlighting virtue and emphasising what divides us than seeking genuine solutions to important problems.
Endless debates about statues might create media opportunities for previously obscure academics but they won’t improve the opportunities for ethnic minority Brits. Equally, a continual chipping away at British history is not going to help build a strong and cohesive sense of national unity. The UK shouldn’t import the highly polarising rhetoric about race from the US, which is both divisive and unsuitable for our very different circumstances.
Instead, we should focus on an approach that shows zero tolerance for prejudice and also has a real focus on tackling the issues that harm the life experience for too many ethnic minority people in this country. Addressing issues such the high levels of unemployment facing Britons from a black and Bangladeshi background will be important, as will taking on board the concerns that black Britons continue to have with elements of the criminal justice system and continuing health inequalities.
Black people are also more likely to work in low-paid, insecure work, meaning that steps we need to take to boost pay and improve dignity in the workplace will tackle barriers that impact based on both race and class.
The success of the England football team and the way in which they managed, for a brief period, to make the country both positive and united should give us inspiration. As conservatives, we shouldn’t pay heed to the divisiveness of identity politics, but nor should we indulge in the shrillness of US-style culture war rhetoric.
We should continue building a multi-racial, working class conservatism that has zero tolerance for prejudice, looks to remove barriers that still face and builds a strong sense of national unity and solidarity. Whereas the Left seems determined to pull apart the ties that bind us, we should be doing all in our power to strengthen those ties.