Victorian Values: football, politics and poverty in the campaign of Marcus Rashford

Image: Marcus Rashford via Wikimedia Commons

Marcus Rashford’s campaign for the government to extend the provision of Free School Meals (FSMs) for the country’s neediest children has been nothing short of inspirational. Indeed, the government even recommended he be awarded an MBE for his work after his initial campaign on the issue during the summer, which is slightly curious as the work in question involved pressuring Prime Minister Boris Johnson to U-turn on the issue.

Yet just a couple of months later, the government rejected the England and Manchester United striker’s calls, declining to support the very thing for which they had decided to honour him. Now, the narrative has turned insofar as to describe such interventions as ‘ celebrity virtue signalling’, and Conservative MPs have been at pains to shift the debate back towards the age-old British political paradigm of individualistic parental responsibility.

What this episode demonstrates, however, is just how much the young Manchester United forward is the Conservatives’ worst nightmare, as journalist Nooruddean Choudry explained on Twitter.

The unusual, often seemingly agnostic relationship between elite footballers and politics came to the fore earlier in the Coronavirus crisis with Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock’s criticism of footballers for not ‘doing their bit’, and is important to consider here also. The argument must also be situated in the historical context of British political discourse, and why the government has focused its attention on this rather than try to take on the hugely popular figure of Rashford himself.

Firstly, the smelting of football and politics under the pressure of coronavirus began as early as 2 ndApril 2020, when Matt Hancock declared during a daily briefing that Premier League footballers should take a pay cut. Such a direct criticism of one group raised interesting questions around why elite footballers are so often targeted for their wealth, which, while certainly considerable, is nowhere near the levels of the richest people in the country.

With the vast majority of top-flight footballers coming from modest upbringings or out-and-out poverty into careers which make them multi-millionaires, perhaps this is no surprise; whether you agree with it or not, the riches of modern football are perhaps the ultimate example of social mobility. Indeed, even compared with other major British sports such as rugby and cricket, a Sutton Trust study found that only a tiny fraction of England’s national team’s male players were privately educated. The difference is even more pronounced when England players are compared to other entertainment professions such as musicians and actors.

As such, elite footballers represent a fairly unique group in the United Kingdom: young men who are very wealthy yet are not part of the ‘elite’. They did not achieve success through expensive private educations, do not belong to professional or friendly networks of financiers and politicians, and owe no favours to those who reside in the traditional upper-class circles of power. Furthermore, even without being a part of such networks, footballers have huge followings owing to the popularity of Premier League football in the UK and beyond.

From this angle, it is clear how a prominent footballer would be a concern for the ruling elite class, namely the Conservative Party. However, footballers have traditionally been fairly politically inert, often being told by fans to ‘stick to football’ if they dare to express an opinion. This stems from a misguided view held by many that football is not the arena for politics, and that football is not political. Of course, football has politics but denies it; consider the unmissable ways in which football commemorates Remembrance Sunday, or the goal celebrations which invoke Balkan geopolitical controversies, to name a couple of examples.

When footballers embrace politics, though, this is clearly a problem for the Government. Players, particularly those for the biggest clubs, are able to mobilise huge support from fans who adore them. The demographic of the fans may be made up of a large proportion of working class or lower-middle class people, often including those who are perhaps usually not so politically engaged. After all, even in the money-laden Premier League era, football is still regarded as the working-class sport, and many of the biggest clubs trace their roots back to Victorian industrial towns and teams of local workers. When the support is able to cut across club rivalries and appeal to football fans in general, this following increases to many millions.

In the case of Marcus Rashford, he has been able to garner such support for a couple of reasons. Firstly, his campaign to extend the provision of Free School Meals, which children from low-income households are entitled to during the school term, is based on the simple goal of poor children not starving; an aim which no respectable person could disagree with. In addition, Rashford has consistently declined to be drawn into party politics, instead framing his argument in purely moralistic terms and ‘not about politics’.

This is made all the more compelling by the fact that he is speaking from personal experience, as he grew up in Manchester in a family that needed FSMs, in an area of the country in which, even before the pandemic, 28% of children were eligible for the scheme. All of this means that support for Rashford’s campaign has been huge, and the Government have been reticent and unable to attack him personally despite voting down Labour’s motion to extend FSMs through the school holidays until Easter 2021.

That said, some Tory MPs have tried to land political attacks on Rashford, with Brendan Clarke-Smith arguing for less “celebrity virtue signalling on Twitter”. Such attacks are outliers though, with the government seemingly recognising that it would be unwise to take on Rashford personally. Indeed, prominent Ministers have continued to praise Rashford for highlighting the issue, despite voting down the very proposals he has asked for, in an almost sneeringly ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ fashion.

“Arguments […] are based upon Victorian presentations of the delinquent poor”

Instead, most of the Conservative counter-arguments have aimed to shift the narrative towards notions of ‘parental responsibility’. This idea — that parents are responsible for their children and not the state — exists as an incredibly pervasive paradigm in British political discourse, that can be traced back several hundred years. Woven into this is the more modern narrative of irresponsible ‘scrounger’ parents using state handouts to buy cigarettes and alcohol, with Conservative MP Ben Bradley going so far as to make the claim that FSM vouchers were “effectively” used by families for crack dens and brothels. While frequently used together, these two assertions, if taken as they are, are actually contradictory — how can we place responsibility for children solely on parents in poverty if they are reckless with their money and care?

Of course, this is not actually the case. The vast majority of children eligible for FSMs need them because they come from genuinely struggling families, with parents who struggle despite being employed, and want nothing more than to be able to adequately provide for their kids. Arguments repeating the motif of the irresponsible parent are based upon Victorian presentations of the delinquent poor, whereby poverty is a symptom of immoral and negligent behaviour rather than a circumstance or unfortunate situation.

Yet these views persist, and when such debates resurface there is a torrent of Tweets from individuals who believe they would be better at being poor than the poor. Those that proudly profess that they can feed a family for a pound or two, making a list of onions (5p), butter (1p), chicken breast (50p) and so on, are evidence of the ingrained myths and fundamental misunderstandings of poverty in modern Britain. The Conservative Party seeks to reproduce and reinforce this story of the caricatured irresponsible parent because it shifts blame onto the individual instead of the state.

Whether it is that such Twitter critics forget that you cannot buy half an onion or one smear of butter at a time, and that you buy such things in packs which cost several pounds instead of single servings in pence, or that their privilege is blinding them to the hidden costs of cooking utensils and utility bills, not to mention rent, these arguments can be taken apart fairly easily. The worst part is that the claims fall apart without even mentioning morals; why should children miserably eat boiled potatoes and plain chicken every day? And more importantly, if their plight is in any way due to the faults of their parents, why should we punish children and make them go hungry for it?

All in all, the Rashford saga shines a light on key aspects of British politics. Football and footballers have an interesting and complex relationship with politics, and are capable of making potent interventions and mobilising huge support, making them a difficult opponent for a government. Secondly, this relationship shows that being ‘elite’ in the UK is not just about money, as footballers are often working class individuals who gain vast wealth yet are never truly regarded as part of the elite upper classes. And finally, the argument that Free School Meals for the country’s neediest children should not be extended through school holidays during a pandemic often rests on fundamental misunderstandings of poverty which further centuries-old, ingrained notions of the immoral poor.

Hopefully, even if Marcus Rashford MBE cannot force a second government U-turn, his outstanding work has increased attention on an issue which is a shameful blight on 21st century Britain, and perhaps players of the sport which grew out of the Victorian working class can help to challenge the antiquated arguments around poverty in the UK today.

This article was originally written for The Meridian Magazine, a new online publication of international politics allowing students to share stories from all across the globe. Visit The Meridian here.

Originally published at https://meridian-magazine.com on November 3, 2020.

Oxford Geography graduate, now at UCL; Geography, Politics and Football, in no particular order…