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Taking the knee is about empathy – that's why we should support those who wish to do it

4 min read

I’m away from Parliament for a while. I am busy refreshing my Constituency operations; taking up causes I perhaps let slide whilst I was a Minister that really got me going in Politics; fighting for the poor and delivering real tangible change for the people who voted for me in Plymouth.

We have a new office; the website is being redone. It’s not easy being sacked so publicly; the isolation by my colleagues is extreme, as though my calling out of our broken promises to Northern Ireland veterans is a personal affront that makes them look bad. It has been a deeply dispiriting time.

So I’m trying to stay low and keep out of the way. Four of the six cases against Veterans in Northern Ireland have collapsed since I left Government to campaign on their behalf. I will keep going, and I was entirely right to leave.  

But this week I could not watch the appalling abuse of our England footballers and remain quiet. We Conservatives are currently in Government. We are the leaders – we set the tone of debates; we set the conditions for the Country, and we have deep and serious responsibilities to our Nation.

And this nation of ours clearly currently has a significant problem when it comes to racism. Sunday was a sad day, and not just because we lost.

It’s a minority, of course – we all know that. But it is a hard truth we have to accept, that for far too many of our fellow citizens, their lives are blighted by horrific racism day in and day out.

Symbols have been hijacked for years. Everyone I know believes black lives matter but thinks the official Black Lives Matter movement are wrong. Everybody I know wears a poppy but thinks those who use this as a symbol of white nationalism are wrong. People were taking a knee an awful long time before any of the “Black Lives Matter” leaders were even born. Let’s park this idea that anyone who takes a knee is supporting the official Black Lives Matters aims and agenda.

The footballers concerned have repeatedly said that their kneeling is simply a ‘togetherness’, a solidarity, not an endorsement of any political view. So when we see that we have a choice. Support them in their struggle, empathise with their experience, respect their stance and even join them if you want to.

Or as leaders do we not support them; do we not see their pain, do we not see their efforts in the bigger picture? That’s why the Home Secretary was wrong to side with those booing the players before matches, and why the Prime Minister was absolutely right to ask them to stop.

Taking the knee is an individual choice. Would I do it unprompted? Probably not. Taking an inauthentic posed photograph in your office a la some of my Labour colleagues seems a pointless gesture to me. But I once played in a rugby team in the Army composed of fourteen Fijians and me. If they had asked me to show solidarity together with them in public before a match? I wouldn’t have given it a moment’s thought, before taking the knee.

Because it’s about empathy. What’s it actually like to walk in their shoes? What’s it like to live in Britain as a Briton in 2021 and be subjected to racial abuse on the nature and scale of these footballers?

And this empathy deficit in my Party at the moment reaches far further than just this issue. What is it like to live on Universal Credit in Britain in 2021? What is it like to be a Veteran in Britain in 2021? How does it feel to lose your house to pay for social care, or be trapped in a high-rise block of flats with a young family, unable to move because of the cladding crisis? What’s it like to be one of the 100,000 kids who were taken into care last year in record numbers, what’s it like to be reliant on UK Aid in the developing world in 2021?

Are we really meeting these challenges in a meaningful way, or are we saying just enough to give us a nice headline and maybe a soft-focus photograph for twitter?

Because I thought that was the whole point of politics.

Maybe I’m wrong. We’ll see. Just my view. We’re all allowed one, last time I checked.

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