On Saturday, as spectators were allowed back into football stadiums in England, a section of the crowd at the Millwall v Derby County match booed players kneeling before kick-off, an expression of opposition to racism both on and off the field. The custom of taking a knee in English football began after Project Restart in June during the resurgence of Black Lives Matter (in the wake of the murder of George Floyd) and was inspired by American athletes kneeling during the national anthem at sports events (most famously the NFL player Colin Kaepernick). Although inspired by Black Lives Matter, the slogan for the English Premier League is actually ‘no room for racism’, while the English Football League (in which Millwall play) have adopted the slogan ‘not today or any day’ for the 2020-21 season.
This is not the first time that Millwall and their supporters make headlines for such reasons, and the club has long been associated with this politics. Even though not the only club to be dealing with such issues (fans at Colchester United also booed on the weekend), this recurrence has made it somewhat the symbol of what is bad within football and has often acted as a diversion away from more systemic issues. This is partly why many prominent figures who usually support systemic oppression condemned the actions of these supporters at The Den. However, it has been telling to witness some come to their defence.
Perhaps the most prominent voice was Cabinet minister George Eustice who declared on Sky News that while there had been ‘problems obviously with racism in football in the past’, ‘[i]f people choose to express their view in a particular way that should always be respected’. In the same interview, Eustice criticised Black Lives Matter for being a ‘political movement that is different to what most of us believe in’. This statement from a prominent mainstream politician and member of cabinet builds on the common post-racial denial of racism, where illiberal articulations of racism are acknowledged, but marginalised and individualised, rather than seen as part and parcel of broader power structures. However, Eustice went further and expressed ideas which were until recently only heard on the far right, such as the creation of false equivalence between racism and anti-racism.
Eustice went further and expressed ideas which were until recently only heard on the far right, such as the creation of false equivalence between racism and anti-racism.
This line was echoed by Douglas Murray in a piece for UnHerd suggesting that the events on that Saturday at Millwall was ‘a wake-up call’ that ‘a majority feels that the BLM agenda is divisive and even dangerous’. This ludicrous and yet increasingly common idea that the real racists or fascists are the anti-racists was promptly taken further by Nigel Farage who declared on Twitter:
As football fans return it will not just be Millwall supporters who have sussed out BLM as a Marxist mob who now want to be a political party.
There must be no more taking the knee.
Over at Spiked, Brendan O’Neill argued that the booing was a demonstration by football fans of ‘their disapproval of the colonisation of the beautiful game by the divisive cult of identity politics’. O’Neill claimed that the middle class had hijacked the game during lockdown and the boos were a working class reaction against the ‘virtue-signalling nonsense of Black Lives Matter’. The use of colonisation here was reminiscent again of traditional reconstructed far right discourse, and in particular of Marine Le Pen’s denunciation of the Muslim ‘occupation’ of France. The use of counter-intuitive and historically-loaded jargon not only ridicules the struggle and suffering of oppressed minorities and people, but aims to create a shared victimhood between widely different categories as media elites pretend to speak for the downtrodden. It also obscured the fact that those targeted often hail from working class backgrounds themselves, something which has become a core strategy on the far right as we shall see.
For sections of the right in 2020, the booing of players taking a knee on the pitch was a symbol of working class opposition to Black Lives Matter and the ‘identity politics’ that supposedly underpin it. However, the right, particularly those in the Conservative Party, had not always been so favourable towards the views and actions of football fans, with football ‘hooliganism’ seen as a major problem throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During the Thatcher and Major years, football fans in England were heavily policed and demonised by the media, politicians and the police. The primary concern of the authorities was the risk that football fans presented to public order and this was the prism through which they treated fans – as ‘hooligans’ that threatened violence and disorder. While the Popplewell Inquiry in 1985-86 highlighted the racism expressed by some football fans as a problem, concern about this racism was largely advocated by anti-racist and anti-fascist activists, particularly about the far right’s efforts to recruit football fans. The tackling of the racism of football fans was through the Public Order Act, updated in 1986 after the inner city riots of 1985, numerous football disturbances and the Miners’ Strike.
In the 1990s, there were more concerted efforts to combat racism in football, led by fans, which then pressured football authorities and politicians to take the issue more seriously. Although there had been previous fan-led initiatives, the 1993 ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign can be seen as a turning point, which happened against a backdrop of wider reforms to football in England after the Hillsborough disaster and the establishment of the Premier League. The incoming Labour government supported these campaigns, but even post-Blair, both David Cameron and Theresa May made strong statements about incidents of racism in football, at both league and international level, with David Cameron hosting an anti-racism and football summit at Downing Street in 2012.
For a long time, those over at Spiked have argued that all politics needs to be ‘kicked out’ of football, reacting against campaigns against racism in football, but also the policing of football fans. Part of this goes back to the days of the Revolutionary Communist Party (Spiked’s political party predecessor) which criticised the Thatcherite ‘moral panics’ around hooliganism, but is also informed by the free speech absolutism of the RCP/LM/Spiked network. When the Spiked website first got up and running in 2001, an early piece proposed, ‘Football fans should be free to shout what they want, drink where they want, and stand if they want.’
However, the mask often slips and Brendan O’Neill, as an editor for Spiked, has not always held to this anti-politics stance for football. For example, he has commented positively on the Football Lads Alliance as a ‘working-class movement’ against ‘terrorism and the ideologies that fuel it’, rather than as what has been widely documented to be yet another far right Islamophobic movement with ties to other organisations. Similar to the Millwall booing, O’Neill claimed that the FLA was ‘a direct product of the chilled, censorious climate our political and media classes have created around issues of extremism and division.’ Here again, anti-racists were the real fascists.
It is not surprising that sections of the Tory right and libertarian/contrarian right of Spiked have converged on this issue in recent times and that The Spectator has been a site for this convergence (with the magazine publishing O’Neill’s defence of the FLA). It is also not surprising to see the right evoke the working class in their defence of the Millwall booing. As we have seen over the last decade (and possibly even longer), working class culture has been essentialised and weaponised against progressive politics – citing anti-racism, as well as LGBT rights, feminism, decolonial politics and even climate change, as forms of identity politics that did not interest working class voters and communities. The default setting of the working class in Britain is, in their eyes, seemingly white, male, cis and heterosexual, even though progressive struggles often owe their origins and strength to the very diversity of the working class, as do most football players ironically.
In a post-Thatcherite world, the idea of the ‘working class’ has served for sections of both the right and the left as a nostalgic throwback to ‘traditional British values’ and ‘common sense’, an oppositional force to the ravages of neoliberal (post)modernity and to the aforementioned progressive politics of race, gender and sexuality. The (white) working class has become an elite construct to push reactionary politics on behalf of the ‘left behind’, whose ‘legitimate concerns and grievance’ simply happen to be those reactionary ones of the traditional right and far right elite. Such narratives, while debunked on numerous occasions, have become increasingly internalised on the centre left with Labour wringing their hands about these working class concerns (often supposedly about immigration, ‘race’, nationhood and multiculturalism), arguing that ignoring them has left these working class voters with no option but to drift to the British National Party, UKIP or more recently, Johnson. As Richard Seymour wrote back in 2011:
By adding the word 'white', moreover, the 'working class' becomes de-odorised, neutralised, cleansed of menacing cadences of militancy and leftism. It becomes an object of pathos and melancholia, inherently reactionary, and typified by the middle aged white male emoting about family and country... This sort of 'working class' is tame, dull, conformist, and deferential, but also vicious, sadistic, and vindictive.
The defence of the Millwall supporters as supposedly the voice of the working class against the ‘wokeness’ of Black Lives Matter fits into this framework. In the eyes of the right nowadays, their views, even if expressed through booing and through the racism of the few, are to be ‘respected’ and listened to, far more than the many working class who would oppose them. This lends reactionary politics a veneer of democratic legitimacy, which is strengthened by their hypocritical use of freedom of speech. In the current setting, free speech is only for those few racists and their elite supporters, while anyone disagreeing is seen as curtailing it and participating in the oppression of the working class. As those narratives suffocate our public discourse, the culture war continues unabated.