From Black Lives Matter to the death of the Queen, the fierce arguments generated by minute silences in football reflect how the game has become a battleground where fans contest their political and cultural identities.

Liverpool and Brentford players and fans observe a minute of silence in honour of Armistice Day. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

POne of my first thoughts after hearing about the death of the Queen in September 2022 was: ‘Fuck, they’re going to cancel the match’. I am a Liverpool fan, and we were due to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that weekend. I knew that at least that one game would be cancelled (as it was, the entire set of fixtures was postponed), because any minute’s silence would most certainly not have been ‘impeccably observed’ by the away fans.

Especially since it was at Chelsea. If the match was at Anfield, maybe things would have been different. Quite possibly, if it was at Anfield, it might have been impeccably observed, just to stick two fingers up to the media and other fans.

But given that the match was due to be played at Chelsea’s Stanford Bridge ground, and given that Chelsea are seen by Scouse football fans as the embodiment of the knees-up-Mother-Brown, oi-oi-saveloy, Cockney Toryism that modern Liverpudlian identity is constructed partially in opposition to (however ignorant this assumption may be of London geography, politics, and culture), there was no way that the silence would have been greeted with respectful reverence.

There has been controversy around minutes’ silences — and the more recent innovation, a minute’s applause — for at least 20 years. At the intersection of football, politics, and culture, they generate fierce arguments over how frequently and for what reason they should be held. Some complain about their proliferation and claim they should be reserved for the most significant deaths and sombre occasions; others complain about the absence of a tribute after a particular death or tragedy.

When a minute’s silence was held at Anfield in 2004 after the execution of the hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq, the then-Spectator editor Boris Johnson penned an infamous editorial complaining about Liverpudlian ‘mawkish sentimentality’ and proclivity to ‘wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood’. At the same time, once the postponement of the fixtures for the weekend after the Queen’s death had been announced, Twitter was awash with complaints about ‘Scousers’ getting football cancelled because they could not be trusted to respect Her Maj

This ‘policing of silence’, over whether and for whom silences are held, and whether or not they are respectfully observed, reflects broader conflicts over what exactly comprises a tragedy worth remembering. As football is now so visible, pervasive and ‘important’, silences before matches have become increasingly contentious. Today, the discourse around professional football encompasses not just sports but class, politics, and the state of the nation, with high-profile games one of the few occasions when live television is watched in huge numbers by different groups of Britons.

And the expansion of football broadcasting and the feedback mechanism of social media means that these minutes of silence or applause are no longer witnessed merely by the spectators in the ground but by millions in the UK and around the world.

The academics Richard Giulianotti and Roland Robertson have written of the ‘glocalization’ of football, whereby the ‘transnational circulation of labour, information, capital, and commodities’ has buttressed ‘non-national forms of cultural particularity’ and identities built around what team you support compete with and supplant national identities.

This, Giulianotti and Robertson argue, has resulted in an increased need to denote local football identity, as fans try to shape how their club and area are perceived by national and international audiences. Hence the proliferation at Anfield of songs and flags emphasising Liverpool’s cosmopolitan history, ‘Scouse not English’ banners, and chants about the Tories and Thatcher.

The sociologists Liam Foster and Kate Woodthorpe argue that as well as more ‘traditional’ mechanisms such as banners and chants, minute’s silences (or applauses) are now increasingly used ‘to consolidate and (re)confirm the community identity associated with a football club’.

This is why, while there was no chance that the Liverpool away fans would have respected a minute’s silence at Stanford Bridge after the death of the Queen, and why the brief ‘moment’s silence’ at Anfield was hastily concluded at the next Liverpool home game, Liverpool fans unanimously observed the minute’s applause for murdered schoolchildren Ava White and Oliva Pratt Korbel, and gave a standing ovation to the then-Manchester United player Cristiano Ronaldo — who wore the number 7 shirt — during the seventh minute of a match after the loss of his baby son in April 2022.

Interestingly, if the Queen had died 30 years earlier, it would have been a different story. Look at photographs of Liverpool fans overseas or European nights at Anfield from the ‘60s and ‘70s and you will see plenty of St. George’s Crosses and Union flags.

The reinvention of Scousers as internationalist, anti-English, anti-monarchist and anti-racist is a recent creation, born of the late ‘80s. (A similar process has taken a hundred miles or so to the West as Ireland — or at least the public image of Ireland — has transformed from one of the most conservative societies in Europe to ostensibly one of the most liberal).

Back in the 1980s, The Sun was the best-selling paper on Merseyside, shifting at least 50,000 copies a day, and easily outselling its rival Daily Mirror. The authoritarianism, racism and bigotry of the former found a welcome audience in Liverpool as recently as the morning of 15 April 1989.

There was a reason that Liverpool FC had not signed a black player before John Barnes in 1987 — many years after clubs such as Manchester United, West Ham, Chelsea, and even Millwall had signed black players. The abuse and bananas that greeted Barnes at Goodison were hurled by people who went to the same schools, lived in the same neighbourhoods, and worked alongside the Liverpool fans. And the only reason the roles weren’t reversed is that Barnes was playing in red, not blue.

It was only during the 1980s that the city truly became solidly Labour. While the city elected its first Labour MP in 1923 (a former policeman and Irish nationalist named Jack Hayes), and the party won eight of the eleven Liverpool seats in its 1945 general election landslide, it slipped back to three out of nine by the mid-‘50s.

Labour took control of the city council for the first time in 1955, but the Tories regained control from 1961 to 1963 and between 1967 and 1972. For much of the next thirty-eight years the Liberals/Liberal Democrats held control, often with Tory support, and there was a Conservative MP from a Liverpool constituency as recently as 1983.

Even today, although the city’s current political allegiances are not in doubt — of the ten safest Labour seats in the country, half are on Merseyside, including all of the top five — the extent of progressive liberalism internationalism in the city is easily (and frequently) overstated. While those five constituencies are in the bottom quarter nationwide for pro-monarchy sentiment, they are still more pro- than anti-monarchy, with an average level of support of +15. The political scientist David Jeffrey has found that just 18 percent of Liverpudlians feel ‘only Scouse’, just 5 percentage points higher than the 13 percent who feel ‘only English’, with the rest feeling some mixture of Scouse and English.

Unlike other Labour strongholds, which typically have large numbers of graduates and recent immigrants, the Merseyside constituencies usually have very different demographics: Sefton Central, for example, has relatively few young people, is 98 percent white, and has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the country. Yet since 2010, in stark contrast to ‘Red Wall’ seats with similar demographics, Labour’s Bill Esterton MP has increased from a marginal 3,862 then to a comfortable 15,122 today.

In Liverpool, unlike the rest of the UK, overwhelming support for Labour can coincide with social or cultural conservatism: hence the three safest Labour seats in the whole country — Liverpool Walton , Knowsley and Bootle — all likely voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

It’s important that we keep all this in mind when we talk about Liverpudlian politics. All too often, for some on the Left, Scousers can function as a kind of ‘magic proles’; proof that the causes and issues which the Right says are exclusively the concerns of middle-class Guardian readers and postgraduate students can actually find purchase amongst the so-called ‘white working class’. If anything, that Liverpool in reality is more socially and culturally conservative than the self-image projected by Liverpool fans at Anfield shows that Labour can in fact prosper in areas that are older and less ethnically diverse.

We should therefore understand Liverpool fans’ booing of the national anthem or reluctance to endorse a minute’s silence for dead royalty as a projection of a desired image, rather than a reflection of politico-cultural reality.

As Millwall fans made sure to boo their players ‘taking the knee’, the same gesture was inevitably greeted with respectful reverence at Anfield. And yet, in reality, there is probably not as great a chasm in political opinions between the working-class people of Liverpool and Bermondsey (or Kent, or wherever most match-going Millwall fans live nowadays), as either set of fans would like to think. But there certainly is in the self-image of the fans, and this self-image must be performed to be maintained.

This is ultimately what the policing of silences is about: when right-wingers complain about the mawkishness and sentimentality of the increasing frequency of minute’s silences and applauses, of the national anthem not being duly respected, or of player’s taking the knee, it is a vain protest against a changing world they cannot control. Reactionaries cannot stop ‘wokery’ and the gradual liberal drift of society on issues from race to LGBT rights to vegan sausage rolls, so they rail about Scousers disrupting the silence for Her Maj.

So too for Liverpool fans: there is little chance of the abolition of the Monarchy, or of any serious changes to wealth and income inequality, so they chant about how Thatcher is still dead.

If football is a new religion, then the policing of silence is, if not the sigh of an oppressed creature, then the lament of people with little real agency over their lives.

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