“In the contest between the Home Secretary and Tyrone Mings there will only be one winner and it won’t be the politician,” Daniel Finkelstein wrote yesterday in the Times. Which contest?
A social media survey about taking the knee? Mings would win, certainly. An opinion poll? Ditto, we think. A penalty shoot-out? Definitely Mings. An election? Not so sure. Especially if it took place in Priti Patel’s Witham constituency.
The point we’re trying to make is that more matters in politics than polls (and Mings’ Twitter attack on Patel was nothing if not political, just in case anyone’s in doubt). Or indeed a mood of the moment, which Mings certainly conveyed and furthered.
For while moods in politics can change overnight, election results tend to last longer. To beat Patel in an election, Mings would have to join a political party. Or form one of his own, and then face the voters. Who can be even more formidable than Gianluigi Donnarumma.
At any rate, disagreement about taking the knee and Black Lives matter may still be current come the next election. And the options for Boris Johnson, who appointed Patel, aren’t as simple as some suggest.
According to Ipsos MORI, 40 per cent of the British public support the England team taking the knee. That’s a sizeable percentage, though not a majority. Some of it will never vote Conservative. Some already does. Some might in future.
The Prime Minister will want to stay on the right side of those voters. But hang on a moment. Twenty-seven per cent of those polled are opposed to the gesture – a smaller proportion but, again, a significant one. Johnson won’t want to get on the wrong side of them, either.
Politicianly savvy suggests careful handling. Something like this: “If the England team want to call out racism, good luck to them. And no real supporter will boo the national team”.
“But it’s clear that taking the knee is clearly a divisive gesture, which is why I haven’t done it. Speaking personally, I’d like to see us all settle on anti-racist campaigns we can all unite around”. (By the way, that’s what this site believes, for what it’s worth).
A perfect solution? Admittedly not. But as those poll numbers suggest, there isn’t one, at least for the Prime Minister. At any rate, our line on booing the players is an improvement on his – which isn’t hard, because he hasn’t really had one.
It’s worth adding that a reluctance to commit himself until he has to, not only on cultural conflict but on much else too, normally works quite quite well for the Prime Minister.
For example, he was actually slower than Keir Starmer to condemn the pulling down of statue in Bristol last year. It seems to have done him no harm.
But not having a collective Government position on taking the knee and booing players allowed Patel to say one thing, Sajid Javid another (in the wake of England’s achievement in reaching the final), and various Tory MPs to deprive themselves of enjoying the tournament.
Some will greet our recommendation on taking the knee roughly as follows: “same old Tory party: too little, too late. Always in the rearguard of social change. Why not get in the vanguard, for once?”
That view’s right if history is a one-way road to progress. But is it? The latest thing that comes along isn’t always as popular a little bit later. Take the major example of eugenics, supported within mainstream politics before the Second World War.
Or the minor but memorable one of the Paedophile Information Exchange during the 1970s. So – back to the present. If voters see England footballers taking the knee, support for the gesture will grow. If they see police officers doing so again, they may not be quite so sure.
And if the gesture becomes linked in peoples’ minds with public disorder, support for it will drop. With America in its current state, and what happens first so often coming here next, how likely is it that the street scenes we saw last year won’t be back?
Either way, ask yourself whether Keir Starmer or Boris Johnson is the real winner of the week. The former has doubled down on taking the knee. That doesn’t come risk-free.
Now consider the backdrop against which they act. Next year, the England team is off to the World Cup. Maybe more of its supporters will still be applauding taking the knee than booing it (assuming the team carry on with the gesture). Perhaps there’ll be no catcalls at all.
Of one thing, though, we’re certain – that however loudly England fans may cheer taking the knee, they’ll sing the national anthem even louder.
No wonder, since patriotism is the driver for them identifying with the team in the first place. And the Labour Party hasn’t been doing so well on it recently. That’s why Starmer has been taking care to be photographed near Union flag.
The repositioning that his top team has been mulling won’t have been helped by a take from parts of the Left in the wake of the final. Namely, that pre-final street violence and post-final online racism are characteristic of England football supporters as a whole.
We wouldn’t go so far as to claim that at the next election, when the Prime Minster and Keir Starmer square up, “there will only be one winner, and it won’t be Starmer”.
But while Labour is ambiguous on patriotism, the Conservatives aren’t – at least as far as England’s electorate is concerned. That’s a plus for Johnson. And so one, too, for the Home Secretary.
This may offer her some consolation as some fellow Tories – indeed, some fellow members of the Cabinet – queue up to take a different view in public.