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On Gary Lineker’s tweet, the politics of comparison and denial of racism
No one is illegal

Cross-posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power – Blog post by Aaron Winter, Lancaster University, UK

On 7 March 2023, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, escalating the rhetoric on and punitive approach to migration, asylum and refugees, announced the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ and strategy to stop migrants crossing the Channel in small boats by arresting, detaining, deporting and banning those caught. In response, former football player and BBC Match of the Day (MOTD) Presenter Gary Lineker tweeted that it is ‘an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’. The tweet led to a backlash in which responses ranged from the claim that he was operating beyond his remit as a sport presenter (as if they have not had to discuss racism and nationalism before), that he was in breach of the BBC’s impartiality rules, and that the comparison was unhelpful. Keir Starmer, Leader of the opposition Labour Party stated: ‘I think comparisons with Germany in the 1930s aren’t always the best way to make one’s argument’. Others took offense and expressed shock that anyone could associate Britain and the current government with the lead up and precursors to Nazism and the Holocaust. Some claimed that Lineker actually referred to these explicitly in his tweet, which he did not. Former Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Jonathan Gullis claimed that Lineker was calling ‘people up here’, referring to Northern ‘Red Wall’ voters, which Starmer and Labour are also targeting with anti-immigration rhetoric, ‘racist bigots, Nazis’. According to Matthew Goodwin, Lineker’s comments are an example of how out of touch the ‘new elite are from the majority of the ‘people’ from the ‘Red Wall’ to ‘Tory Shires’, and particularly those at ‘the bottom’: ‘the white working class, straight men, non-graduates, and those who cling to more traditionalist views, such as supporting Brexit’.

Gullis and Goodwin connected the comments to longer standing ‘populist’ narratives about how Northern white working class ‘left behind’ voters support such anti-immigration politics and policies, which are often justified by the Tories and Labour on their behalf and as a bulwark against the rise of the far right and fascism, leaving this population stigmatised as racists and fascists for it. This is something both Gullis and Goodwin, who played a major role in developing and legitimising this narrative, seemed to be doing and criticising at the same time. Aurelien Mondon and I examine and challenge this narrative, and examine its role in euphemising and mainstreaming the far right, in our 2018 Identities article, ‘Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States’.

Some critics evoked the specificity of the Holocaust and Jewish experience as part of the argument against Lineker, including, notably, Braverman herself. On BBC’s Political Thinking podcast on 9 March, Braverman said that Linker’s tweet ‘diminishes’ the Holocaust and was ‘offensive’ because her husband is Jewish: ‘My children are therefore directly descendant from people who were murdered in gas chambers during the Holocaust’. On Times Radio, Tory Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said ‘[m]y children are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and I think those sorts of words should not be thrown around lightly’. On 10 March, The Times published an article by Karen Pollock, CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), titled ‘Let’s calm down, remember history, and keep Nazi comparisons out of political rhetoric’. In it, she argued that ‘the rise of the Nazis and the events of the Holocaust are the ultimate example of evil. At times, these events seem to be used as shorthand for anything that we hate or fear, anything that evokes pain and horror, triggering a strong emotional response. But using these events as shorthand is wrong.’ She continued: ‘However passionately we feel about important and pressing issues of the day, comparing those current concerns with the unimaginable horrors of the Nazi period is wrong’.

What followed was a somewhat basic history of the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but no attempt to address the government’s dehumanisation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, increasing authoritarianism, removal of rights and mainstreaming of the far right, which occurred with support and agenda setting from the media. This is something Mondon and I have examined in Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream (2020) and other work, and Hope Not Hate detail, specifically around the government’s rightward turn on immigration, in their recent State of HATE report: Rhetoric, Racism and Resentment. In fact, there were actually statements of support for the policy from the far right across Europe, including Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) party reported in the British media.

With the BBC under pressure as a public service and political football in a right-wing culture war that targets alleged ‘left-wing’ or ‘woke’ bias, and represents criticism of the government as evidence of this and impartiality (even when the Director General of the BBC Tim Davie is a former Tory politician, donor and appointment), Lineker was also under a lot of pressure. On 10 March, he was suspended from the BBC and presenting MOTD. As an illustration of the political context the BBC was operating in, soon after the Lineker incident, the BBC announced that it would not air a new Richard Attenborough documentary out of concerns about a right-wing backlash and further claims about impartiality. This was something, ironically, that free speech warriors did not jump at and fellow BBC presenters Alan Sugar and Jeremy Clarkson did not experience previously. In the case of Sugar, he issued a racist tweet about the Senegal national football team, as well as an overtly political anti-Corbyn tweet showing him next to Hitler. While Clarkson called for the shooting of striking public sector workers in front of their families, Lineker was supported by fellow MOTD presenters, a large section of the public, migrant, refugee and asylum charities and activists, as well as Labour Peer Alf Dubs, who is Jewish and was rescued from the Nazis as part of the Kindertransport, and has devoted himself to refugee, asylum and human rights.

I also feel the need to respond to both Braverman’s statement about being offended and Pollack’s piece as a Jewish person and migrant who had family in the Holocaust, as well as those who sought refuge from antisemitism in Britain and other countries, and as an academic and educator working on and teaching about racism, fascism and the far right. I was okay with Lineker’s tweet, the comparison he was making, and in solidarity with him. I chose this approach because of the way Jewish identity and experience was being used in ways that deflected from and justified what I feel are racist and fascistic policies, but also because this was coming from a representative of the HET and thus carried their legitimacy as an influential educational organisation with it. While my identity and community history is also linked to my decision to research these issues and become an educator, as well as an anti-racist and anti-fascist, it is not limited to this. My concern with the article and such arguments is the limitation of Nazism and the Holocaust to one event and experience, and even only one targeted group, and its implications for both education, and anti-racism and anti-fascism.

If we cannot evoke the Nazi period or Holocaust, and it is ‘unimaginable’, how can we learn from it? What is Holocaust education for and what can it possibly say and teach about the event, experiences and lessons, and to what end? I imagine that the author, and others, may believe that they are protecting the memory of the Holocaust and defending it against minimisation, but they are actually perpetuating a problem by doing so in the service of government policy and preventing any lessons from the Holocaust to be learned and applied and minimising other people’s experiences, horrors and harms. We often here the proclamation ‘Never Again!’, but if it is unimaginable and untouchable, how would we recognise the signs? Surely, rendering it as such undermines ‘never again’ and the work of Holocaust educators and education, as well as those opposing racism and fascism today? Moreover, the policing of comparisons and language takes the focus away from those at the sharp end of such treatment and harm.

To quote from the HET’s ‘about us’ section of their website: ‘At the Holocaust Educational Trust, we work to ensure that people from every background are educated about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today’, and the work they do ‘Motivates future generations to speak out against intolerance’ and ‘Inspires individuals to consider their responsibilities to their communities’. If this is not about being aware of the signs, speaking out and defending others, I do not know what is. They also provide resources, training, workshops and outreach.

In one notable, and football related, example, on 11 October 2018, it was reported that Chelsea Football Club was considering sending supporters accused of anti-Semitism and racism to Auschwitz-Birkenau as an alternative to banning orders, which I wrote about with Aurelien Mondon at the time. The Chelsea plan was proposed by team owner Roman Abramovich as part of the club’s ‘Say No to Antisemitism’ initiative, in partnership with the HET, which runs the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ programme. The question I have at this point and in response to recent developments is two-fold. The first is how a link can be made between Nazism and the Holocaust as opposed to 1930s Germany and the behaviour of a group of football fans of one individual team in Britain as opposed to authoritarian state racism? Why is this acceptable and Lineker’s tweet and wider attempts to compare the anti-immigration bill and rhetoric, as well as concrete examples of authoritarian stat e racism, unhelpful and even offensive and minimising, including to a representative of the HET? While I understand that it can be a response to the specific Holocaust referencing antisemitism by some Chelsea fans when they play Tottenham Hotspurs, a team with a historically large Jewish fan base, I sincerely hope it is not because antisemitism is what determines this.

It is worth noting as well that sending antisemites on a free trip to what the HET must see as sacred ground and a graveyard, but at the same time criticise Lineker, seems misguided to say the least. It is not as if football and Britain more broadly do not have a long, troubling and continuing legacy of racism, including antisemitism. Why, if the problem is at Chelsea and in Britain today, is the focus not on British racism and antisemitism, as this is what those in need of such education were raised on and draw from? Why not teach them about British slavery and colonialism, fascism and the far right, or state and institutional racism, including that related to immigration, and what about antisemitism in Britain? It is telling that the government downplayed institutional and systemic racism in their 2021 report, which came in the wake of the 2020 racial justice reckoning following the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, and oppose ‘wokeness’ in schools, but recommend HET’s lessons from Auschwitz course for schools and students. For Britain, racism is another country. It is worth noting that antisemitism is acknowledged, but often only on the left and far right, and often in ways that also deny mainstream right antisemitism and minimise other racisms.

It is on these examples and points that the exceptionalism of Nazism and the Holocaust seen in the backlash to Lineker’s tweet pivots to its mirror image: one in which it is evoked in ways that can also serve to distract from, deny and minimise, by intention or effect, other manifestations and experiences of racism. This is because the same assumptions that feed the argument that nothing else can be compared to Nazism and the Holocaust is itself a comparison in which almost anything else or affecting others will inevitably fall short.

For Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2006), historical, individual, extreme and explicit manifestations of racism can serve the minimisation of racism as a system, structure and experience in contemporary societies that see or represent themselves as colourblind or post-racial. According to David Theo Goldberg, by focusing on Nazism and Auschwitz in particular, ‘the very histories of racial power and privilege are erased, burying them alive but out of recognisable reach, thus wiping away the very conditions out of which guilt could arise’ (2013, 29). The Holocaust and Nazism function as what Alana Lentin refers to as ‘frozen racism’. According to Lentin, racism ‘becomes debatable, not because the racisms of the past are called into question, but precisely because by fixing “real” racism solely in historical events, the continuities between racisms past and present are made undecideable’ (2016, 3). In this case, it is not only a historical event, but a foreign one in which Britain sees itself as a victim of and victory over (as innumerable speeches, tributes, documentaries and films attest to and consolidate). We saw this play out in the response to the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol, when President-elect Joe Biden claimed: ‘The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America. This is not who we are.  What we are seeing is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness’, adding America is about ‘honor, decency, respect, and tolerance. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been’. He seemed to forget the history of American racism, violence and far right activism. It was so ‘un-American’ that others compared it to Nazi-occupied Europe and Kristallnacht, including former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the case of Britain, this rendering of racism as foreign forecloses on connections and comparisons that could implicate Britain or draw in even its racist history, much less present and ongoing iterations and the continuities between them. Even if we focus on the historical and only Nazism, the Holocaust and antisemitism, this is also why the debate becomes about how we could compare 1930s Germany with today. As opposed to the panic here around Jewish refugees escaping Germany and the Nazis in 1938, including this headline from the same Daily Mail that stokes fear and scapegoating today: ‘German Jews Pouring into this Country’. This would solidify the link between 1930s Germany and not only 1930s Britain, but migration, asylum and refugee policy and treatment today.

For Mondon and me (2020), Nazism and the Holocaust serve as a form of ‘Illiberal Racism’. These are historical, extreme and exceptional forms of racism evoked to represent ‘real racism’ that is in the past, defeated and unacceptable or out of step with our ‘values’ in our contemporary, tolerant, pluralistic and progressive liberal democracies. Their function is as a way of denying and minimising systemic, structural, mainstream and liberal racisms, which they thus enable to go on unchallenged, if not encouraged. They are not though locked in the past and totally unimaginable in the present. Certain forms and acts are afforded this status of ‘real racism’ if they celebrate that past or can be represented as remnants of it, exceptionalised and individualised, such as Holocaust revisionism, the far right, hate crime and acts of terror. I would put colonialism in that, but as we know, as much as the denial of British racism may be predicated on claims that ‘it was in the past’ (an example of illiberal racism), it also denies it was bad and even celebrates it (see Nigel Bigger’s defence of colonialism and the Tory government’s post-Brexit Empire 2.0 plans as examples).

The Chelsea case is a perfect example of an illiberal racism that can be hived off from the mainstream and channelled away from any understanding and analysis of its place in British racism due to the references to the Holocaust. In addition to this, much as the white working class has served as a justification and scapegoat for racist anti-immigrant scapegoating and policies by the government and opposition in recent years, the fact that racism amongst football fans is also problematically associated with the white working class by many allows the same thing to occur here. Although in this case, it is just scapegoating and not votes and support the government and parties want. When they do want it, it is difficult to link them to Nazis and the Holocaust for obvious reasons. Hence Gullis’s anger at what he assumed or wanted to assert was the meaning of Lineker’s tweet.

One of the issues underpinning and informing the government and wider Tory backlash to Lineker’s tweet may have been the February 2023 attack on a hotel temporarily housing asylum seekers in Knowsley, Merseyside by a mob that included far right activists. While Braverman did ‘condemn’ the attack, she also did so by claiming that the ‘alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence’, thus victim blaming and reiterating the far right narrative about migrants, refugees and asylum seekers targeting white British girls. She also continued to refer to events as a ‘protest’ and expressed sympathy for the affected public and police, but not those targeted by the mob. She stated that ‘[v]iolence is not the way to resolve this’, with ‘this’ being the problems allegedly caused by asylum seekers. This was an attempt to hive off and cast the far right as ‘illiberal racists’ (in our terms), in a way that would not impact government politics and policy except to affirm its legitimacy, if not also justify increasing tough measures to see off and even appease more violent and illiberal elements. This ultimately is the function of illiberal racism. It not only denies racism by off-setting it to individuals, extremes, history and other countries, but often justifies and mainstreams more moderate versions by appealing to the more dangerous threat posed by the politics of the far right, as well as ‘the will of the people’.

In fact, in the aftermath of the attack, many were arguing that the way to prevent further ones was to solve the immigration ‘crisis’ and ‘small boats’. Yet, this government barely conceals the blurry lines between illiberal and liberal racism or the far right and the mainstream. The attack was clearly the product of the increasing legitimisation, mainstreaming and emboldening of the far right by government policy and rhetoric, including Braverman referring to asylum seekers using fascist terms such as ‘swarm’ and ‘invasion’. In State of Hate 2023, Hope Not Hate report on the increase in ‘migrant hunting’, which the hotel attack is an example of, that has accompanied and corresponded to increasingly extreme government anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy.  In the wake of the hotel attack, on 5 March, the leaders of 13 main unions including Unison, the National Education Union and my own, the University and College Union (UCU) issued a joint statement, arguing that ‘[i]n recent weeks, we have seen an alarming rise in violence and intimidation organised by the far right against refugees and refugee accommodation. The government is complicit in these attacks’.

​In this sense, it becomes increasingly difficult for the government to disentangle itself from those who would otherwise get the Nazi or fascist label. As the government and British state thinks what it is doing is legitimate and cannot accept being compared to 1930s Germany or Nazis, this requires the comparison to be out of bounds. The HET helped with that. At the same time, we do not need to go to the Nazis and Holocaust to understand such rhetoric, policies and actions as they are rooted in British colonialism, racism and fascism. It is not that we cannot or should not evoke or compare it as if it is unimaginable or sacred, nor that we should not respond critically to such attempts to police it and delegitimise those who do, but that we should not limit the test of racism and human rights horrors to it. There is another, more urgent task at hand though: to tackle the racism and fascism we see and places the most vulnerable people at risk and centre them. It is not those offended by the comparison or criticised and suspended for making it, who are at the sharp end in the current context. That is important if we consider how much energy and oxygen this sucked up and how it channelled the discussion and attention away from migrants, asylum seeker and refugees. Now that Lineker’s suspension was lifted and he is allowed to continue to use social media as he wishes, there is also a danger that with the controversy dissipating, and so too could the attention on the issue and people at risk. Even if Lineker continues to tweet about it, he and his tweets could become a proxy for opposition and resistance. We have already seen Lineker championed as a potential Prime Minister or him and his MOTD presenters in memes as the official opposition. We need to remember that the bill is only just working its way through the legislative process and will likely be challenged in the courts. Although, this has not stopped the government’s Rwanda deportation plan and detention centre building from progressing, and there is not enough of a challenge coming from within the political system and process. The bill not only passed a second reading vote on 13 March, which Starmer abstained from, but Labour seem to be committed to campaigning for votes as the more liberal, moderate voice of racist anti-immigration politics. As such, widespread solidarity, opposition and resistance is needed beyond Lineker and MOTD.

Works Cited
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Goldberg, David Theo. 2013. ‘The Post-racial Contemporary’. The State of Race, edited by Nisha Kapoor, Virinder Kalra and James Rhodes. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

Hope Not Hate. 2023. State of Hate 2023: Rhetoric, Racism and Resentment

Lentin, Alana. 2016. ‘Racism in public or public racism: doing anti-racism in “post-racial” times. Ethnic and Racial Studies 39:1.

Mondon, Aurelien and Aaron Winter. 2019. ‘Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States’. Identities, 26:5. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1552440

Mondon, Aurelien and Aaron Winter. 2020. Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream. London: Verso.

Image credit: ​Photo by ev on Unsplash

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