England's footballers leading against racism.

The Blame Game

December 8, 2019

Leadership is difficult to quantify.  It should be a defining characteristic in our politicians, a blend of gravitas, consistent values, integrity, and the courage to stand firm when others flinch.  We’ve seen real leadership this week, but it’s come from footballers.  Last Monday’s Euro Qualifier saw 26 year-old Tyrone Mings stand strong against monkey chants and Nazi-salutes, with his team mates in full solidarity, followed by dignified press interviews.  This weekend saw Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town walk off the pitch after racist abuse, with Cameroonian goalkeeper Valery Pajetat being spat at.    

The irony is that last week was Hate Crime Awareness week.  In the past five years, hate crimes have more than doubled, with a big spike after the Brexit referendum.  The 122% rise may in part be the result of better recording, but everyone I speak to reports a genuine increase across the board: racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, disability abuse and misogyny. 

Hate Crime is a complex sociological issue, but I’ll draw out two strands: stereotyping, and blame. 

We all rely on prejudice to navigate daily life – literally pre-judging people, based on their age or clothing.  We pre-judge which stranger is likely to give us reliable directions or advice, based on their face and expression.  The line between snap judgements and lasting stereotyping is where the problem begins.  How can we know about our unconscious biases if they’re unconscious? 

This week’s incidents of racist football crowds will reinforce the perception that football fans are inherently racist.  But it was the England fans in Bulgaria who chanted back, “Who put the ball in the racists’ net?  Raheem F***ing Sterling!”  Wit and solidarity from the terraces, a moment of hope, not hate.    

The assumption that bigotry is most prevalent amongst the “white working class” is itself a stereotype.  Negative attitudes to immigrants are higher amongst households with incomes of £25,000 to £50,000 than amongst lower income households.  Bigotry, and unconscious bias, is prevalent right up the income ladder.  It’s not the “white working class” who are paying black male graduates 17% less than white graduates, or £3.90 an hour.  It’s not people on council estates paying women 9.6% less than men.  And the editors of those tabloids so keen to push xenophobia are not short of a few quid, neither are their billionaire owners. 

Then there’s blame. 

Blame first requires labelling others as deserving mockery or contempt.  Attitudes change over time.  Last year, Netflix’s algorithm put the Two Ronnies into my recommended list.  Some of the sketches have clever wordplay, Four Candles being a classic, but I’d forgotten how many are based around causal racism and routine sexual harassment.  But as we entered the millennium, it seemed that racism, homophobia and sexism were in retreat. 

Then came Farage & co, channelling the spirit of Enoch Powell.  It wasn’t financial speculation that meant your kids couldn’t afford a house, it was foreigners. 

We saw Theresa May’s “Hostile Environment,” used to direct attention from the loss of frontline police from 124,000 in 2010 to 104,000 in 2018. 

The 2016 referendum was fought on blame.  I heard people screaming “traitor” at campaigners on street stalls.  The current frenzy is “get Brexit done”. 

A question has disappeared from public debate: why?  What is the problem that a hard Brexit will fix? 

1.6 million people have needed foodbanks in the last year.  210,000 homeless children in the UK.  Is the European Parliament to blame for that?  Or the fact that 1 in 4 northerners earn less than the Real Living Wage?  If it is, let’s hear the evidence.    

The imminence of Brexit worries many; trade barriers and the loss of jobs.  There are also faults with the EU, not least the way agency workers are exploited.  

Our politics needs to drop the frenzy of blame, and return to debating policy.  Temper tantrums and threats to “die in a ditch” are not the leadership we need. 

Otherwise, who will we blame once we’ve left the EU? 

This article was first published in The Journal and The Chronicle on Monday 21st October 2019.

This is what leadership looks like. Nice handwriting too.