‘Too many of us have fundamentally misunderstood the gesture taking the knee’
Senior Conservatives have warned the party urgently needs to “challenge” its attitude towards people taking the knee, with one former minister telling his colleagues: “This is a decisive moment for our party”.
Steve Baker’s remark comes as a letter from a Conservative anti-racism group claimed MPs’ actions may have “laid the foundations” for some of the racist abuse levelled at England players during the Euro tournament.
The Conservatives Against Racism For Equality group (CARFE), which boasts nine MPs on its board, including Jeremy Hunt and Robert Halfon, added that too many parliamentarians had “fundamentally misunderstood” the action used to express solidarity against racism.
On Monday, the England defender Tyrone Mings claimed Priti Patel, the home secretary, had “stoke[d] the fire” of racism when she described taking the knee earlier in the competition as “gesture politics”.
Ms Patel, who condemned the racist abuse suffered by England footballers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after the Euro 2020 final, previously refused to criticise fans booing players taking the knee, saying it was a “choice for them”.
And in a sign of the wider unease in the party over the leadership’s message against racism, former minister Johnny Mercer expressed his support for Mr Mings, saying: “The painful truth is that this guy is completely right”.
The damning letter from CARFE’s co-founder Albie Amankova – addressed to Conservative MPs – said: “As a young man who is proud of being a Conservative as he is of his African and English heritage, I have been disappointed at the way our side of the house has engaged with how our national football team decided to stand against racism by taking the knee.
“Too many of us have fundamentally misunderstood the gesture taking the knee, and we have not listened when those who support the gesture have explained why.”
In a stark warning, he told MPs: “I fear that the way some of us have spoken out against taking the knee laid the foundations for the actions of some England fans after the football game both on social media and in real life and I bitterly regret that.”
Circulating the letter, former Tory minister Mr Baker, who sits on the group’s advisory board, told MPs: “Colleagues may know we have a UQ [Urgent Question] tomorrow on racist abuse on social media in the context of the Euro final.”
“This may be a decisive moment for our party,” he added. “Much as we can’t be associated with calls to defund the police, we urgently need to challenge our own attitude to people taking the knee.”
One Tory former minister who sits on CARFE’s advisory board also endorsed the letter’s contents, telling The Independent: “Taking the knee should be up to individuals and many of the people doing it have nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, but just deeply care about racism.
“The problem for us as a party is that by outright rejection, we show we misunderstand this and we don’t take into account people’s sensitivities and anguish.”
In his letter, Mr Amankova also suggested in his correspondence that many in the party had failed to understand the gesture of taking the knee, which he said dated back to the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr used the action to pray and reflect on the civil rights marches in the United States.
“It is not an expression of support for the political left, or of some Black Lives Matter organisations who support positions that we Conservatives rightly reject, like defunding the police, dismantling capitalism, talking Britain down and other Western free and democratic societies,” he added.
“In its modern form taking the knee is exactly as I described, a display of solidarity with those who suffer from racism and for non-white people, a personal stand against the racism many of us have suffered ourselves.
“Modern, compassionate, patriotic conservatives who believe in fairness, liberty, individual agency and equality of opportunity should stand with, not against those who peacefully protest against injustice and inequality in our society.”
Earlier, No 10 said Boris Johnson would meet with social media companies instructing them that the government expects the firms to do “everything they can” to identify those responsible for the racist of abuse of three black England penalty takers on Sunday evening.
The prime minister also told a meeting of the cabinet that the abuse was “utterly disgraceful” had emerged “from the dark spaces of the internet”, and there was “no question” that it needed to be “stamped out”.
The spokesperson defended Ms Patel after criticism from England star Mr Mings, saying: “The home secretary has been clear there is no place for racism in our country and that’s why she is backing the police to hold those responsible accountable. The home secretary is working every day to clamp down on hate crime, racism and violence.”