Downing Street has urged football fans to be respectful of England players who choose to take the knee in a stand against racial injustice.
Boris Johnson‘s official spokesperson called on football fans to “get behind” the team at the upcoming European Football Championships which kick off on Friday and to support “individuals’ rights to protest”.
But he did, however, refuse to explicitly condemn supporters who booed members of the England team making the gesture in a friendly game against Romania on Sunday.
Asked whether the Prime Minister was refusing to criticise fans who boo the gesture, the spokesperson said: “No… the Prime Minister is supporting the England football team and wants them to succeed, and he wants the whole country to get behind them in that endeavour in this tournament.”
“I would want all England fans to be respectful in any football match and, as I have said, he respects the right of those who want to peacefully protest in this way,” he said.
Asked whether that means Mr Johnson does not want people to boo the players for taking the knee, the spokesman said: “I want all England fans to be respectful in any sort of football match.
“As I’ve said, he respects the rights of those who want to peacefully protest in this way.”
It comes after one Conservative MP, in a post on social media on Sunday, drew parallels between taking the knee and performing the Nazi salute.
In a controversial Facebook post, Brendan Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw, said: “Whilst the intention may be admirable and we all want to put a stop to racism in football and wider society, it now comes across as little more than habitual tokenism and has lost its effect.”
Mr Clarke-Smith then compared the gesture to when England’s team were ordered to perform a Nazi salute at a game in Germany in 1938, describing it as a “propaganda exercise”.
The majority of players performed the salute, purportedly believing it was a cultural gesture, but those who refused were removed from the squad.
Mr Clarke-Smith joins fellow backbench Tory MP Lee Anderson, who last week threatened to boycott watching his “beloved England” at the upcoming football tournament over players choosing to take the knee before matches.
Conservative MP for Ipswich, Tom Hunt, posted on social media: “Euros [a] great opportunity for country to come together behind team. Harder when they insist on divisive political gestures.”
A minority of fans jeered England’s players for taking a knee before the 1-0 friendly win over Romania at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium on Sunday.
England manager Gareth Southgate said at the weekend that his players were “more determined than ever to take the knee”.
The PM’s official spokesperson said Mr Johnson respected the right of people to “peacefully protest” amid the ongoing row.
Asked whether Boris Johnson believed that taking a knee showed support for the political aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister’s spoken on the record on this issue before.
“On taking the knee, specifically, the Prime Minister is more focused on action rather than gestures.
“We have taken action with things like the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities and that’s what he’s focused on delivering.
“But… he fully respects the right of those who do choose to peacefully protest to make their feelings known.”
He added: “I would want all England fans to be respectful in any football match and, as I have said, he respects the right of those who want to peacefully protest in this way.”
The act of taking the knee rose to prominence in 2016 when NFL player Colin Kaepernick sat and later knelt during the US national anthem, in a gesture that became a common form of protest over racism and police brutality against black people.
Premier League and England players began doing it before matches in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020, which prompted a wave of protests across the world over systemic discrimination faced by black people.