David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
For 34 years, beginning in 1946, John Arlott was the BBC’s principal cricket commentator. At that time, cricket had a very prominent place in our national life (as it should) and, in his early years, radio (which consisted of two or three stations) was more important than television. Arlott was a national institution – the “voice of cricket”, even the “voice of summer” – and one of the most famous and best-loved broadcasters in the country.
Arlott was also an intensely political man. He appeared frequently as a forthright panellist on Any Questions? and stood unsuccessfully for the Liberals in the 1955 and 1959 general elections. During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was an outspoken critic of tours to and tours from South Africa. This was very much a minority view within English cricket at the time.
Many disagreed with him, but for decades he continued to be a prominent BBC sports broadcaster and a passionate advocate for the liberal centre left without Conservative MPs or the newspapers particularly questioning whether he could do both.
Times, it appears, have changed. “Gary Lineker does need to decide though, is he a footie presenter or a candidate for the Labour Party?” asked television presenter and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries.
In contrast to the days of Arlott, our national conversation has been dominated for nearly a week about the compatibility of a sports broadcaster expressing political views, whether he has breached the BBC’s editorial guidelines, how the BBC has responded to the furore and its general approach to impartiality, and what should happen next. I want to focus, however, on the attitude of the right to Lineker and his tweets.
It is not surprising that there are plenty on the right who want to stop Lineker broadcasting for the BBC or stop opining on politics. He is an outstanding broadcaster, in part because he comes across as both likeable and thoughtful. This makes him a dangerous opponent.
His success as a footballer and broadcaster gives him a high profile, with 9 million twitter followers, many of whom may not read political tweets very frequently. Lineker is frequently critical of the Government, which is obviously aggravating if one is defending the Government. And, in all honesty, his comparison this week between the Government’s rhetoric on refugees and 1930s Germany was unwise.
It was unwise because comparisons with the Nazis are generally over-the-top, as was the case here. It was also unwise because it enabled his critics to attempt to take the moral high ground.
Inevitably, many on the right saw an opportunity and turned his tweet into the row of the week and, at least for the moment, Lineker is off air.
At first, some saw this as a victory for the right. In fact, by trying to remove a popular presenter from his job for speaking out on a political issue, the right is unnecessarily weakening itself in an argument it needs to win.
There are broadly two options for the conservative-minded when it comes to issues such as this. The first, the approach which has prevailed in this case, is to consider that we are engaged in a battle between two opposing sets of values and culture. There is a left/liberal viewpoint versus a conservative “common sense” viewpoint.
If one accepts this view, one also believes that the left is too powerful in our institutions, particularly the BBC, the universities and the law, and they need to be taken on. Every time a left/liberal voice is removed from our screens or silenced, for example, or every time a supporter is placed in a position of influence, this is a victory. It is a zero sum game – a victory for the right weakens the left and vice versa.
The alternative view is less confrontational. This often results from having positions that are less culturally conservative in the first place. But it is also often combined with a view that politics does not have to be dragged into every issue. Sometimes a fight is necessary (such as maintaining impartiality in BBC news coverage), but fights should be picked carefully. There is a case – a persuasive one in my opinion – for “quiet Government”.
It is one of the least attractive attributes of the left (especially the far-left) that everything is about politics. Once upon a time, it was about class warfare. Now it is likely to be white privilege or the patriarchy. In any event, everything is political, the argument runs. Fail to sign up to the cause and you are not only wrong but morally inferior – and so beyond the pale that your voice should be silenced and, where relevant, your employment terminated. Cancel culture is not as strong in the UK as in the US but the mind-set is present. Just look at Twitter.
The right should try to rise above a;; this, and argue the case for our politics to be less intense and more tolerant. The desire to turn every matter into one of political dispute excites the partisan but, for normal people, is simply wearisome. For a long time, part of the appeal of the Conservative Party was that it rather disdained political obsessiveness, that it recognised that for most people there is more to life than politics and more to people than their politics. Tories would not say “never kissed a socialist” because, well, politics was not the most important or relevant consideration in the circumstances.
The centre right should eschew the shrill, priggish and quick-to-condemn tendencies of the left. Instead, it should make the case for an environment in which diverse views can be articulated, groupthink challenged and political purity tests discouraged. There should be space to disagree agreeably (to use a phrase popular with one well-known, Lineker-owned podcast), not by engaging in competitive cancellation culture, as we have seen in the past week.
By the way, at a time when younger voters are increasingly liberal, winning this argument seems to me more important than stopping the Lineker tweets. Ultimately, it will be conservative views that will come out worse from a narrowing of the debate.
Clearly, some on the right do care deeply about Lineker’s opinions and ability to express them whilst continuing to present Match of the Day. Those enthused by Suella Braverman’s rhetoric on refugees, who take a close interest in the details and enforcement of BBC editorial guidelines, and who wish the BBC ill, for example.
Such people can be found on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons and in the editorial offices of some of our newspapers. They are, I suspect, outnumbered by those who want to end their Saturday evenings watching Premier League highlights presented by an amiable and familiar figure. The right has got itself on the wrong side of the argument.
There are lessons here for the Conservatives. Ignore the anti-BBC culture warriors, leave Lineker alone, make the case for a more tolerant, less condemnatory culture and remember – above all – that for most people there is more to life than politics.