Britain is going through an extremely conservative era in politics where nothing is off the table. And Gary Lineker grew increasingly outspoken about progressive issues as he became a target, James Montague told Euronews.
A 7 March tweet by England's former striker turned football pundit Gary Lineker criticising the UK government's new Illegal Migration bill turned into a heated public dispute that is still ongoing.
In his Twitter post aimed at Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Lineker said the language used to launch the policy was "not dissimilar to that used in Germany in the 30s," prompting a storm of outrage from the country's conservatives.
This prompted the BBC to pull Lineker off air from its flagship Match of the Day show on Friday, sparking a further outcry over the weekend, which eventually resulted in him being reinstated by Monday.
Amidst the continued debate, Euronews View spoke with James Montague, football journalist and the author of 1312: Among the Ultras, A Journey With the World’s Most Extreme Fans, about how Lineker grew from a football icon to a key public figure advocating for human rights in Britain, the growing far-right sentiments in the country, and the role of the current government in fuelling the animosities towards migrants.
Euronews View: Why do you think events surrounding what Gary Lineker said had such staying power in the UK over the past week or so? Why are people so disturbed and/or bolstered by it?
James Montague: Gary Lineker, very strangely, has gone from being a national hero, as you know, a striker for England, scoring a hat-trick in the World Cup in '86 against Poland, to a mild-mannered presenter of the Match of the Day, which is the big highlights package for the Premier League.
He's one of the most famous men in the country — and he's gone from that in the past couple of years to be a kind of avatar of the culture war that is being waged essentially by a kind of very right-wing Conservative party and their acolytes in the media.
So for a while now, it's been building because he has, through his very popular Twitter account, frequently shown support for progressive causes: being against Brexit, support for refugees, support for migrants.
This has just absolutely infuriated the right-wing press in Britain, which is extremely powerful and which is very connected to all the power centres in the conservative government as well.
And this has been also mixed in with the BBC being one of the bête noires of the right wing of the Conservative party.
As much as they hate the European Union, they also hate the BBC. They see is it as a kind of home of "left-wing agitation" and "cultural Marxism".
Since they've been in power for 13 years, they have been slowly degrading it and destroying it and putting people in charge of it editorially, and also its chairman currently, and there's been a slew of conservative donors who have a long track record of wanting to destroy the BBC.
Claiming asylum in the United Kingdom is impossible — literally, it's one of the most far-right immigration policies you could imagine.
And coming up against that has triggered these culture war fanatics whilst at the same time mixing it in with this hatred of the BBC.
And all these things have come together, with Gary Lineker somehow being the cherry on top of this pie.
Euronews View: How would you describe the rhetoric around refugees and migrants in the UK over the past couple of months?
James Montague: I mean, we're getting close to the far right now. The Conservative party is now in its last days. It's so far behind in the polls.
What happens when you have a government that's been in charge for so long is that it becomes tired, it becomes inefficient.
The rhetoric has been building for years against asylum seekers and now migrants, but because there is nothing else apart from culture war stuff, this issue of small boat arrivals — you know, small boats coming over from France, 45,000 people came over the last year — yet it's still far less than Germany and France, and as a proportion of the population it's very small.
But for them, it's a gift that they can use to try and somehow win the next elections.
So it's all politics thinking that going hard and frightening on refugees and asylum seekers in an election win for them because they're not really fighting the Labour party, which is quite interesting.
Who they're really fighting is the even further right of the Conservative party, which is what dragged us towards Brexit, and also people like Nigel Farage, the Reform party, which has been set up, and which could win the conservative vote in the next election.
It's a lot of navel-gazing within the conservative right wing of the Conservative party that ends up in a nervous breakdown, and that means basically the rest of the countries is dragged through the mud as it was with Brexit and as it is with this asylum crisis.
Euronews View: To some, it might seem highly unusual that a former football player, now a pundit, turned out to be the loudest in defending both migrants and also the UK as a hospitable, friendly nation. How would you comment on this?
James Montague: I suppose every era, every moment has the hero they deserve, right? And ours is Gary Lineker.
It's so difficult to get traction as somebody who has progressive viewpoints because if you look at the media landscape and the people that are the dominant voices within the UK, even though the Conservative party have been in power for 13 years, they complain that the cultural space is still dominated by leftists, by these "cultural Marxists," but it's not.
It's dominated by Rupert Murdoch-owned media. It's dominated by the Daily Mails of this world.
All the kinds of progressive publications are small. I mean, The Guardian's actual leadership in terms of sold newspapers is extremely low. There are very few places apart from social media that cut through.
And Gary Lineker — yes, he's a former football player — but I would say even before this, he was probably one of the most famous people in Britain.
That's the kind of cache that he has, and what he says is going to resonate in a way that can't be controlled by the mainstream tabloid press and by politicians.
The kind of unique set of circumstances that have developed over the years means that social media has the potential to put somebody up on a pedestal like this.
It just happens to be a figure that was previously pretty benign, but as he's become a target in this culture war, he has become a lot more vocal about all these issues.
Eventually, it shows how popular he is, that this all blew up in the BBC's face, and he effectively was allowed back after being suspended. And that it was a complete own goal for the BBC.
Euronews View: As someone who has followed the far right within football globally, how important is what Lineker said? Can he change perceptions of the very people the sport appeals to, or has he drawn a target on his own back?
James Montague: Whatever far-right football space there is and whatever political space there is, the two are virtually merging at the moment in terms of political platform.
We're moving into an era now — and it's going to get worse until there's an election next year — where nothing is off the table.
Things that would have been impossible to imagine 15 years ago, or 20 or 30 years ago, that would have been on the [UK fascist party] National Front's manifesto: a complete end to immigration, end of the NHS, getting rid of the BBC, getting out of the European Union...
These were insane minority issues on the far right, and they are now coming to pass.
And it's definitely not quite the same for Lineker. We didn't see tifos or chants supporting him at the games or anything like that.
In a way, he's almost transcended football in this respect; he's become a kind of political figure.
And whether it's on the progressive left or whether it's on the right and far right, he either embodies everything that you love or despise or believe is appropriate.