Making a gesture – has the UK government got it wrong on “taking the knee”?

By Michael Carberry

The on-line abuse of three young black footballers following the heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt of the England team to win the European Cup has reignited the debate about racism in British football. The debate has come to focus on the issue of players “taking the knee” as a protest against racism and whether the British government was right to dismiss such actions as “gesture politics”. This latter term was used by Home Secretary Priti Patel and followed an earlier refusal by the Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, to condemn those fans who booed the England players when they “took the knee” before each match.


The Home Secretary’s remarks were clearly intended as dismissive and derisory, but the government should be careful. Gestures are important. Our whole life is filled with them. Waving goodbye, blowing a kiss to a loved one, hugging a grandchild or a bereaved relative are all hugely important. They express our emotions, and our values, the things that make us who we are. The same is true of more public gestures: wearing a poppy on Remembrance Sunday, standing up for the National Anthem, bowing or curtseying to the Queen, or saluting the Union Flag. “Ah”, it may be argued, “but these are not political gestures like giving a Nazi salute at football matches or pulling down statues”. But the truth is that almost any gesture can be construed as “political.” Even something so simple as a handshake can carry huge political significance, for example if given by a prominent politician to a brutal dictator, or to an Aids victim, as the late Diana, Princess of Wales, did. Or, most memorably, that by the Queen herself, who, having had her Uncle, Lord Mountbatten, brutally murdered by the IRA, was prepared to shake hands with Martin McGuinness, a former senior IRA commander. Such gestures can send a powerful message. In the Queen’s case it showed that she was prepared to put peace and stability in Northern Ireland and the welfare of the people of the province before any personal hurt or animosity. It was a courageous and dignified gesture which said a great deal about her as a person.


Of course a gesture, like any action, can be misinterpreted or misrepresented. I remember being incensed when, as a student during the Coal Miners’ strike in 1972, I heard (mainly middle class) Trotskyists representing the miners as “the vanguard of a proletarian revolution bent on smashing the fascist Tory government”. As the son of a coal miner with family members on strike I knew perfectly well that miners’ only objective was to receive a decent wage increase. Of course when I said so publicly I was shouted down by the Trotskyist rent-a-mob. But we should not stop making gestures which are important to us, simply because malicious people misrepresent them. The Union Flag and the National Anthem are regularly purloined by far right racist or neo-fascist groups but that does not mean that we should stop displaying the one and singing the other, or that people who do so are necessarily fascists or, at best, the stooges of the far right. Yet that is precisely the kind of argument which both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have made in trying to tie those sportsmen and women “taking the knee” to some of the more extreme element in the “Black Lives Matter” movement.


Our gestures mean what we intend them to mean and not what those who disagree with us want them to mean. Of course we should be sensitive to how our actions may be perceived. For Prince Harry to dress up as Adolf Hitler for a fancy dress party was frankly stupid and insensitive even if no offence was intended. But it is also incumbent on all of us to try to understand and accept actions in the spirit in which they are intended. That is particularly true for people in public life. For anyone to suggest that English manager, Gareth Southgate, and his players, several of whom had themselves endured vile racist abuse, were doing anything other than protesting about racism in British football would be despicable. That both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary should chose to do so publicly is truly shocking. As for the Tory MP who said he would refuse to watch the England team because of their action (gesture politics par excellence) such pettiness is beneath contempt.


In the wake of the reaction to the on-line abuse the government have tried to back-track, but their protestations are unconvincing. Their initial reactions and slowness to respond to the public outrage about the abuse, speak eloquently about the core values of the government and their most loyal supporters. The Prime Minister of course has a track record of crass and insensitive remarks about ethnic and religious minorities and we should perhaps expect nothing better of him. But the Home Secretary is a rather different case. As someone of Indian descent who has herself suffered racist abuse, it would be absurd to describe Priti Patel as a racist. But whereas, given her background and experience, one might have expected her to strongly support the England team’s actions, she chose instead to disparage them, allowing her hard right-wing views and Party loyalties to trump any aversion to the racist abuse levelled at her fellow citizens. In so doing she has inevitably, albeit unintentionally, given comfort and encouragement to the racists. That is rather sad.


But if this whole episode has reflected very badly on the government, that is not true of some of the other persons involved. In taking full responsibility for the performance of the England team, including the choice of the penalty kickers, and giving unstinting support to his young players, including “taking the knee” with them, Gareth Southgate gave an object lesson in leadership which the Prime Minister would do well to emulate. And the widespread outrage expressed by fans and the general public at the abuse levelled at England’s black players shows that basic decency is alive and well in Britain and that the racist trolls and those who would excuse them do not represent the majority of the British people. That is at least one reason why UK citizens can still feel proud to be British.

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