The Strange Death of Liberal England
Or: What’s The Difference Between Migrants And A Corner?
Gary Lineker is one of the most uncontroversial and likeable figures in the British broadcast media. He scored 48 goals for England, including the brace that took England into the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup. In that semi-final — the best England have done in a major tournament since 1966 — not only did he score the penalty that drew England level, but he was also the person who drew the world’s attention to Paul Gascoigne’s tears after being yellow carded and disqualified from a possible final. Coming just a year after the Hillsborough disaster the England teams successes in that tournament, capped by Gazza’s heartbreak, replaced the bleak memories of 1980s football with a new, Pavorotti-soundtracked vision for the future. It’s arguable that Italia 90 was responsible for not just the increased acceptability of football, but the entire birth of lad culture, where educated figures like Baddiel and Skinner were prepared to ‘slum it’ by making jokes about breasts, beer and, of course, football. No one has benefited from the mainstream position football inhabits in our every day life more than Lineker: he’s just urbane enough for middle-England, but just jocular and cheeky enough for the lads. My mum likes Gary Lineker. The blokes down my pub like Gary Lineker. It’s hard to find, or even imagine, anyone who doesn’t like Gary Lineker. He’s the David Attenborough of a five-goal thriller at the Emirates.
Yet the front page of the Sun, Britain’s most read newspaper, is suggesting there are calls to fire Leicester’s favourite son for peddling ‘migrant lies’. It seems the paper has taken poorly to the former England legend’s view that child refugees should be treated fairly and kindly. It’s worth centering on the fact that nothing he said should be considered radical: he didn’t profess support for the No Borders movement; he didn’t tweet ‘smash the fash with a hammer and sickle’; when he hosted Match of the Day in his boxer shorts, following Leicester’s unlikely title winning season, he wasn’t covered in antifa tattoos; all he has said is that the small number of Calais migrants that the Government has allowed to settle in the UK should be treated decently. Mealy-mouthed platitudes about the essential humanity of all people, no matter where they were born, are certainly worthy, but they do not a revolutionary make. Furthermore, a man, rightly, regarded as a hero by men of a certain age for his England exploits should surely be inoculated against charges of insufficient patriotism by the right. Yet even a tiny show of compassion seems to have fallen afoul of the new mood in the country. A crisp-flogging footy man is now apparently a ‘lefty luvvie’, as if he presents highlights of West Ham getting trounced at Anfield in a smoking jacket, swilling a brandy glass, and sardonically intoning to the camera that it was ‘the worst performance since Patrick Stewart’s Hamlet’.
More tragically, in the run up to the vote on whether the UK would leave the EU, a campaign that saw outright racism that culminated in UKIP’s Nazi-esque ‘Breaking Point’ obscenity, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered. There is very little in her voting record that suggests she was a radical, she nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership, but voted for Yvette Cooper. Cox’s comment that seemed to draw the ire of her killer were cut from the same cloth as those that Lineker is currently being attack for today: an almost de-politicised humanitarianism, and a support for the benefits of diversity. On the witness stand Tommy Mair gave his name as ‘Freedom for Britain: Death to Traitors’. 5 months after the attack, a Tory councilor in Surrey launched a petition calling for pro-remain sentiment to be added to the Treason Felony Act. In the Batley and Spen by-election that followed her death all the major parties agreed not to run opposition candidates, leaving a motley bunch of fascists to stand against Labour’s candidate Tracy Brabin. When Brabin won the eventual contest her heartfelt tributes to her slain predecessor were drowned out by heckles from members of the far right.
It’s hard to get away from the feeling that there is a rising tide of definite nastiness rising in the country. I can remember self-congratulatory columns about how Britain had absorbed a million immigrants without any serious backlash. Those thinkpieces of course elided an always-present undercurrent of racism, but they were legitimate in their hopefulness, they now look like 1960s predictions that we would all soon be driving hovercars to work. Growing up the central ideology was a sort of milquetoast liberalism that was proud that tikka masala was our national dish, embarrassed by Yarl’s Wood — but never embarrassed enough to want it closed down. I never particularly cared for that worldview, and quite proudly mocked it, but now it’s dead I feel slightly nostalgic. It’s now perfectly fair to call for boats carrying migrants to be torpedoed and sunk, or to question whether a woman in a hijab should be allowed to present a news story on terrorism. Our Prime Minister attacks anyone who feels discomfort at exclusionary nationalism as members of a rootless elite. To point out that things are noticeably worse is not to romanticise the past, just to recognise that we have slipped much further into the darkness.