If the right to have rights is the first right above all others, and that your rights can only be enforced by your government, the right to free speech is being fatally undermined by the current UK Conservative government. Judges have ruled that punishment for Tweeting can have a chilling impact on free speech, and Gary Lineker’s tweets have been used to both supress him and the counterpunches he was making against proposed immigration legislation. Whatever your views are on the BBC, and I personally believe that the BBC is being shackled for disposal by the current government, even the merest hint of political interference with Lineker should be a clarion call to all those who value free speech in the UK.
The closest Gary Lineker gets to professional politics, aside from factually calling out the Qatari government prior to the world cup, is commenting on international transfer policy between clubs. His job is to be amiable, a mate chatting with mates about the day’s football results. On TV. On his personal Twitter his views are his own, and in a time of craven political cowardness by Labour and the Liberal Democrats an essential platform to promote the needs of vulnerable refugees fleeing oppression and war. In the perfect world Rwandan flights, small boats across the channel, and harrowing migration stories would be works of fiction. Instead, we are stuck in a world where the sixth largest economy is shipping desperate asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country where human rights are viewed as a nice to have but leave them at the border.
In comparing the UK government to 1930s Germany Lineker did the obvious Godwin and raised the bar. Of course the Tories use dog whistles and fascist rhetoric, but we simply do not talk about it in polite society. A more pertinent point would be that the Tories are using the same 1930s playbook the British and American government used to lock out Jews and other German refugees fleeing the Nazis. Britain has never been kind to refugees unless it serves a political point. The Kinder Transport was laudable, but a huge PR stunt to hide the fact the children’s parents were barred from the UK. Same with the Ukrainian refugees. White Europeans fleeing a ghastly war given immediate access to the UK, while Syrians, Afghans, Libyans, Ethiopians, and Burmese all languish in camps.
Tory policy is banal, much in the same vein as Eichmann. Reactionary, appealing to the worst aspects of British folk stripped of benefits, wages, and now with soaring cost of living. Britain cannot handle 12,000 refugees because we are full and have no money, or so the message goes. This is the message Lineker is railing against. Compassion is not a zero sum game. The Tories have deliberately chosen to lead Britain down this path, screaming xenophobia along the way to hide the malignant destruction they seed. Policy is made by those who have for those who have, and if you have not then you are left in the gutter. Your rights are only as enforceable as the State allows.
This matters because the major political parties are abnegating their responsibilities to hold the Tories fully to account. Worse, they are not telling those who have lost out to Tory policies the reality of the day to day drum beat the Tories are banging. Starmer et al are afraid to call the Tories to account for fear of losing the next UK election. Yet, in being so hesitant they leave the ground open to those who seek to sow yet further division. Gary Lineker stook up for what is morally right, and his Match of the Day mates had his back.
Tory ministers may wish to brush Lineker aside, but the reason this problem is just beginning is that once one prominent voice speaks out the dam begins to burst. This genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The right wing thrive on distorting the narrative, flooding the airwaves, and pointing to a fictious loony left to show how much worst things will be. All the while stripping back the essentials of daily life that made Britain worth seeking asylum in the first place. Unions, the NHS, teachers, rail workers, and many others have been decrying the fall of UK living standards over the last five years, and if it takes Gary Lineker to finally drum it home those who have refused to listen then all power to him. Football may well be a game of two halves, but human rights takes all of us, the whole team, to protect and preserve. I hope this is the start of a broader awakening, but even if it is not, at least Gary Lineker has stepped up and broken a certain mould of light entertainment. Twitter might be a cess pool, but once in a while a diamond appears in the much.