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Johnson should back England team for taking the knee, says Brown

Gordon Brown has told the government to support the England football team’s decision to take the knee before matches and stop fighting culture wars over “unimportant” gestures.

The former prime minister made the remarks in response to Downing Street’s failure to back the players, instead only issuing a statement urging fans to be “respectful”. It added that Boris Johnson “wants the whole country to get behind” the England team.

The anti-racism gesture originated among American football players in 2016 in protest against police brutality and racism in the US, and has since been adopted around the world. Football players use it to reinforce the message that racism will not be tolerated in the sport.

Speaking to the BBC’s Nick Robinson, Brown said the players were trying to bring the whole country together. “I think it is very important we support the footballers who have made this difficult decision, actually, because they’ve had to agree among themselves what to do,” he said.

“I don’t think it was right for Downing Street not to support Marcus Rashford, I think Marcus Rashford has stood out for some really good causes over the last year, but he’s also standing up for far better race relations [and] community relations in this country.

“I think we should support the team when it does this and I hope the crowds who are at the football matches will actually acknowledge that the footballers are doing something very, very important – they are bringing the whole country together.”

Players were booed by some fans when taking the knee at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough before the friendly matches against Austria and Romania last week.

When asked if he believed Downing Street was trying to avoid a confrontation with those who oppose the move, Brown said he did not believe the prime minister was responsible for the statement.

“I would like Boris Johnson to come out publicly and support the England football team and what they do, so I’m not going to say he was behind that statement that was made by Downing Street,” he said.

“But I do think it would be very bad for Britain if these culture wars started to develop where someone seized on one instance of someone doing something and tried to make it a big issue that divided the public rather than united the public.”

He added: “I think we should stop fighting these culture wars.”

The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, also showed support for taking the knee. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said it was “only right that we back our team” when asked if the prime minister supported the England squad’s decision to take the knee before matches.

“The elegant way, quite passionate way, that the England manager, Gareth Southgate, put this is exactly where the prime minister is, where this government is,” he said. “I think he articulated the emotions of young men beautifully and I think it’s only right that we back our team.”

On Thursday evening, the education minister Gillian Keegan claimed taking the knee was “creating new divisions” in sport.

When asked about this, Zahawi said: “The symbolism of reminding the world of how painful it is to be subjected to the racism that Marcus Rashford has been subjected to, whether on social media or elsewhere, I absolutely back.

“If you then extrapolate to a Black Lives Matter movement that has a political agenda … that’s a different place, that’s my point, which is why I think we just have to differentiate and rightly back our team.”

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