England players take the knee ahead of their Euro 2020 warm-up friendly against Romania

Credit: AP

Downing Street has told England fans not to boo the national team for taking the knee in protest against racial injustice. 

Despite No 10 previously declining to condemn those who booed players, a spokesman said: "The Prime Minister respects the right of all people to peacefully protest and make their feelings known about injustices. 

"I think the Prime Minister has spoken before about his desire to get everybody to get behind the national team and the PM would like to see everyone getting behind the team to cheer them on, not boo."

Gillian Keegan, the education minister, had previously described England footballers taking the knee as a divisive gesture that represented "symbolism more than action".

Speaking on BBC Question Time, Keegan said she was "pretty sure" that the majority of those fans who were booing footballers for taking the knee were also anti-racist but disagreed with political positions linked to the Black Lives Matter movement.

England players have repeatedly said that taking the knee is about equality and anti-racism and is not meant as a political gesture or linked to a political movement.

The taking the knee gesture began in English football last summer during the Premier League’s Project Restart and was accompanied by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ logo on the shirts of the players. That was then replaced for the 2020-21 season by a badge saying ‘No Room for Racism’.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared to take a different stance on Friday morning and said that it was "only right that we back our team" and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson fully backed Gareth Southgate and his players in taking the knee.

"The elegant way, quite passionate way, that the England manager Gareth Southgate put this is exactly where the Prime Minister is, where this government is," Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

"I think he articulated the emotions of young men beautifully and I think it’s only right that we back our team."

Keegan, though, claimed taking the knee was "creating new divisions" in sport. England players were met with boos by some fans when performing the gesture before last week’s friendly matches against Austria and Romania. 

Southgate has stressed that the players will continue to make the gesture. "Actually what we’ve ended up with, whether it’s for statues, whether it’s the Queen’s picture, whether it’s taking the knee, we’ve ended up with these things being things that kind of divide us and actually, united societies are what solve these big issues,” said Keegan.

"It’s not my judgement to say whether they should take the knee or not. They’re perfectly free to do what they want. If you want to say, do I think it’s symbolism more than action? Of course it is … but we’ve seen it’s creating division.

"And by the way, the people who are booing, I’m pretty sure most of them would like to end racism as well. They disagree. There’s different things that people are interpreting."

Keegan made the link to the Black Lives Matter movement. “There are some Conservative MPs very much against it [taking the knee], why? Because Black Lives Matter stands for things that they don’t stand for. It’s really about defunding the police and the overthrow of capitalism, which is, you know, Black Lives Matter the actual political organisation.

"And some people will take it and think that’s supporting Black Lives Matter. I’m sure Black Lives Matter will think it’s supporting them."

Football’s anti-discrimination group Kick It Out says the gesture is "in no way linked to any political organisation".

Zahawi said that it was important to make the differential. "The symbolism of reminding the world of how painful it is to be subjected to the racism that Marcus Rashford has been subjected to, whether on social media or elsewhere, I absolutely back," he said.

"If you then extrapolate to a Black Lives Matter movement that has a political agenda… that’s a different place, that’s my point, which is why I think we just have to differentiate and rightly back our team."