England does it, Wales does it, France and even little Belgium does it

Lots of grassy knees

Is the English football team in the grip of a Marxist conspiracy? Paul Demarty considers the ‘taking the knee’ controversy

With the 2020 Euro finals underway, a mere year late, the most gripping drama so far has been of a most unwelcome sort - the on-pitch cardiac arrest of Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen, which interrupted a sort of Scandinavian derby against Finland for several hours.

And - although, of course, we do not wish a heart attack on anyone - there was at least something cheering about the response in the ground. The players immediately attended to Eriksen, screening him off. The Finnish fans joined the Danes in chants in Eriksen’s honour. The game stayed stopped until it was confirmed Eriksen had regained consciousness (a protocol which has not always been followed in such circumstances). In the end, when play was resumed, the Finns took home the points, but had the grace not to gloat over what was, for these minnows, a historic result.

However, this article is not about the Danish international team, but the English. We start with our northern cousins to make the point that there is always a strange, distorting influence between us and football, which consists of the endless chattering of the media and its insistence on flattening the game into the prevailing hobby horses of the moment. It seems to take a heart attack - or previously a failed coup like the European Super League - to show us what is always there: the partisanship of fans for the game and their concern for its players and its honour.

Certainly one thing will not do that at the moment: the increasingly silly controversy over ‘taking the knee’. The gesture was adopted widely in the English league, when play resumed after the first lockdown in empty stadiums and in the wake of chaotic mass protests in the United States over police murders of random black citizens. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan appeared on shirt sleeves. A rather meagre attempt on the part of the right to Israel-bait the gesture (did the Football Association not know that BLM in the UK backed boycott, divestment and sanctions, and therefore was basically the same thing as Julius Streicher?) was easily batted aside at a moment when the entire corporate world became feverishly woke. The players - largely from working class origins (where the police are not necessarily well loved), and disproportionately black, to boot - were on board; the FA and Premier League PR people were on board; this united front easily faced down culture-warrior crotchetiness.

Of course, now we have the fans back - or some of them, anyway. And since that has been the case, the booing of the gesture, which in an empty stadium had almost the feel of a minute’s silence, has been common. With the pre-tournament friendlies in the last few weeks, things came to a head. The English players took the knee before their game against Austria, and immediately boos came from sections of the crowd at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light, causing great scandal.

That was not the whole story, as anyone who watched the (dreadful) game will have noticed. No sooner had the boos started than clapping came from everywhere else. In England’s first tournament game - a narrow win over Croatia - the same story played out, except if anything more dramatically: loud cheers drowned out a smaller chorus of boos at Wembley. If we take the crowds in the north-east and the capital alike, in other words, the idea that ordinary fans are utterly opposed to the completely banal anti-racist messaging of English knee-taking is at least problematised - nor does it easily map onto ‘north-south divide’ ideas.

We should not want to erase the boos, of course. It is plain that a more serious culture-war counteroffensive is taking place than was possible last year. BLM is widely calumnied as ‘Marxist’ (if only … but we will return to this point later). Lee Anderson, the Tory MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, declared that “for the first time in my life I will not be watching my beloved England team, whilst they are supporting a political movement whose core principles aim to undermine our very way of life”. Boris Johnson refused to condemn the booing, since people have a right to protest and all that, though he later clarified that he wanted fans to get behind the national team. Priti Patel made clear she supported the right of fans to protest and derided the “gesture politics” of BLM, but refused to say whether she would have booed the players herself. Manager Gareth Southgate backed his players; the atmosphere was decidedly frosty between Wembley and Westminster.


The story of how we got to the point of politicians lecturing the national team on anti-racism is a little complicated and, of course, begins outside football, with the wave of migrant workers invited to this country from former (and indeed then-extant) colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

The famous Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury with a few hundred West Indian migrants in 1948, but numbers steadily increased, as the British economy settled into a long boom. By the 1960s the ‘race problem’ so-called was already a hot topic in bourgeois politics: in 1962 the Tory government restricted the rights of citizenship of former colonial subjects and, more scandalously, in 1968 the Labour government of Harold Wilson - anticipating a huge wave of Asian migrants from Kenya, who were in imminent danger of ethnic cleansing - introduced what was effectively a colour bar into immigration controls.

At the same time, domestically the government introduced the first elements of what would later become known as ‘multiculturalism’, and so the racist backlash continued. Enoch Powell made his notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and then, as the 1970s wore on, the fascist far right had its first real revival since World War II. In the same period, unsurprisingly, the left took up the question of racism far more assertively, with propaganda against domestic demagogues dovetailing with the anti-apartheid movement and solidarity with anti-colonial national struggles.

It was quite inevitable that this intensely controversial conflict would filter out into wider popular culture, football support included. There was a colour bar in the teams of this era. Racist stereotypes - that ‘lazy’ black players could not be trusted to put a shift in, for example - prevailed. Just as, over time, the more integrated cities become more ‘liberal’ on such questions and the more homogenous ones subject to migrant panics and the like, so the popular racism of the day gained a serious bridgehead in football support, as a self-fulfilling result of its overall melanin deficiency. When black players did finally start to get selected, especially in the early 1980s, they could expect relentless abuse from the terraces, monkey chants and thrown banana skins.

The 1980s were a bad decade for English football in a lot of ways: the wider social dislocation of the Thatcher government inevitably had a bad impact on the provincial working class supporters and small-bourgeois owners of football clubs. The government openly treated fans with contempt, thinking them little better than animals. Those who took that view could point to the various violent incidents involving fans as evidence; and when, at the 1985 European Cup final at Heysel Stadium in Belgium, an attempted attack by Liverpool fans on Juventus supporters led to a horrific crush that killed 39 (in contrast to Denmark-Finland the other day, the game was played regardless), English clubs were banned from European competition for years. Four years later, it would be Liverpool fans crushed to death in even greater numbers at Hillsborough - the contemptuous attitude of the police to fans in general contributed to the horrendous death toll that day.

There developed in these years a distinct counterculture of fans, for whom the poor state of the game’s infrastructure, the barely-concealed contempt of the elite, and - for many - the unwelcome intrusion of popular racism demanded a clear-headed response. The most visible record of this healthier fan subculture is the explosion of fanzines across the country. And one of its outworkings was serious efforts to fight back against terrace racism - from the terraces themselves. It was perhaps inevitable that some crossover would take place with the political left, and in fact the Militant Tendency played an important role here, initiating the campaign known as Give Racism the Red Card (though it was more an initiative of quick-witted comrades in the ranks than the notoriously economistic leadership).

The English game was soon due for a serious shake-up. The advent of pay TV made enormous amounts of money potentially available to the big teams - if only they could unshackle themselves from the overall football pyramid to strike deals on their own. So they did - the Premier League was formed and kicked off in 1992. Although it was a few years before the super-slick galactico spectacle of the premiership really got into its groove, the influence of the corporatisation of the game on its wider life cannot be underestimated. The response to Hillsborough, for example, was mandatory all-seater stadiums, which restricted capacity and exacerbated ticket price rises.

So it was for anti-racist activities - these were rapidly co-opted by the game’s authorities. Give Racism The Red Card gave way to Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football, which is now Kick It Out (whose remit can conveniently expand to cover any other unsightly prejudice). Its mechanisms of enforcement are no longer active fans motivated by political values and civic pride, but bureaucratic bans and police reports. The problem of terrace racism has hardly been eliminated, but, at this remove, anyone spotted making monkey chants at a Premier League fixture is in line to have their welcome removed at the ground at the very least.

Gesture politics

The overall state of football should frame our view of taking the knee. This, of course, originates as a very admirable act of courage on the part of Colin Kaepernick - an American football quarterback who knelt during the singing of the ‘Star-spangled banner’, effectively ending his career there and then, in protest at the police murder of black men.

The form in which it is subject to an English culture war blow-up is rather different. There is no serious doubt that players by and large support the protest; but, with the unanimous support of all the relevant authorities, it fits too easily into a pattern whereby anti-racism is expropriated from its grassroots origins and imposed on fans as a spectacle (or, for those who feel they are the target, an insult). Indeed, the reduction of this political issue to a fan reaction - cheers or boos - is a telling picture of the state of anti-racism in society at large. Anti-racism has substantial penetration into the bourgeois establishment, though the anti-woke backlash threatens some of its old strongholds. Yet it has almost nothing to offer except reminding everyone that racism is very, very bad - boo!

Squarely within this camp we find, naturally enough, the Socialist Workers Party and its intellectually bankrupt front, Stand Up To Racism. The SWP’s barely concealed hatred for football does not stop it enthusiastically backing the England team on this one: “It is an outrage that … Priti Patel has come out stating that England fans have a right to boo the England team taking the knee,” screamed an SUTR circular, promoting a petition in support of all teams taking the knee and encouraging fans to cheer instead.

With the latter recommendation, we could hardly have any argument; but what about the earlier question, about the right of fans to do so? Is the idea so outrageous? Does SUTR support ejecting such fans from stadiums? It does not say so; so it is a completely empty gesture of displeasure - no more coherent, alas, than a Daily Mail-addled petty bourgeois screaming at the snowflake soccer players on his television.

It seems we face something like the limits of this form of anti-racism, which - for all its rhetorical radicalism - cannot conceive of any redress other than ever more aggressive policing of public discourse, including in the football stadium. For the SWP/SUTR, we have long crossed the Rubicon, where liberal anti-racism completely neutered any critique of the bourgeoisie.

For BLM, the case is a little more complex, if not in the end more encouraging. The movement has always been Janus-faced. It deals in great rhetorical radicalism, drawing on the revolutionary wing of the civil rights and black-power movements of the 1960s and 1970s and, by implication, the soft-Maoists of the period. It is this r-r-revolutionary rhetoric that authorises the red-baiting of the rightwing culture warriors. Yet its actual existence as a vague assemblage of affinity groups united around a slogan (or not even a slogan, for heaven’s sake - a Twitter hashtag, which is to the slogan what the Hallmark card is to poetry!) means it is utterly incapable of defending itself from such rightwing attacks. It is instead dependent on the good graces of the liberal bourgeoisie, which means its more radical demands (the abolition of the police, for example) will inevitably be swamped by - as Patel put it - gesture politics.

Football offers a microcosmic view of the whole problem: a cycle of bureaucratic anti-racism and chauvinist backlash seems all too familiar to even the most sport-phobic observer today, surely. And the ‘solution’ lies just as surely in broadening our horizons from the simple problem of racism: if we trust people to govern themselves, as all serious socialists must, then we trust them to govern their sports. The extant prejudices of the terraces can be challenged more effectively from the terraces themselves than from the offices of some NGO. Pre-match rituals on the part of players are admirable in their own way, but simply will not do the trick.