Aside from all the other weirdness this year–political and epidemiological–the headlines barely registered, which is perhaps indicative of just how bizarre a place Britain has become in late 2020.
But step back, place yourself in the world as it stood in spring 2016, before the Brexit vote, before anybody knew what a coronavirus was, and think how odd it would seem that a Manchester United forward was fighting with government ministers over school meal provisions.
Marcus Rashford has emerged as one of the heroes of the crisis, not just because he has highlighted the issue of child poverty, but because he has had the wherewithal and the energy to put together programs to tackle it and, perhaps even more importantly, the political savvy to shame the government into acting. Rashford’s campaigning first came to prominence in June when he raised the issue of children who received free school meals going hungry over the summer holidays. Having initially rejected pleas to extend the free meals program, the government backed down in the face of the public outcry in support of Rashford.
His charity work goes back further than that. He grew up in a single-parent family in Manchester, an area where a third of all children now live in poverty. He has spoken movingly about his own experiences and his mother’s struggles to provide for her family. Last year, he worked with the department store Selfridges to provide essential items to the homeless over Christmas, raising awareness by delivering some boxes of provisions himself.
In March, when lockdown began, he worked with the charity FareShare to provide meals for impoverished children. He then set up a Child Food Poverty Task Force with various U.K. food suppliers and charities. Last week, in the Queen’s birthday honors, he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his charity work. If the plan was for the medal to cool his ardor, it has backfired. Rashford has criticized a “lack of empathy” on the part of government ministers and this week he launched a petition calling for free school meal provision to be extended over the Christmas holidays.
Any petition launched on the government website that receives 100,000 verified signatures must be considered for parliamentary debate. Rashford’s reached that figure within 10 hours and is now at well over 200,000. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already rejected his call, saying it was not for schools to feed their pupils, to which Rashford responded with a Tweet: “Merry Christmas kids… It’s also not for food banks to feed millions of British children but here we are. 250% increase in food poverty and rising… This is not going away anytime soon and neither am I…”
The government at the moment is struggling, floundering in its response to the pandemic while trying to negotiate a Brexit settlement before the U.K. formally leaves the European Union on Jan. 1. Every day brings more crises: increases in the infection rate, companies going out of business, a rising unemployment rate, huge truck stops being built in Kent to deal with expected queues with increased bureaucracy post-Brexit, allegations of cronyism and beyond.
Rashford’s work is ensuring that the practical impact of the chaos isn’t forgotten. He is making sure that the Johnson-led government cannot lose sight of the fact that children are starving. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is clearly concerned at mounting debts and has begun reducing the support government is giving businesses during the pandemic (something that has led various city mayors into open revolt over local lockdown proposals), and Johnson’s rejection of Rashford’s plea is of a part with that.
But he U-turned last time, and when a famous footballer is using his profile to highlight such a serious issue, and speaking with such awareness and sensitivity of it, it’s very hard for a government to ignore.
One of the unexpected effects of the past four years has been the increasing willingness of athletes and sportspeople in Europe to take political stands. For 30 years their instinct was to shy from anything potentially controversial (the 80s were different: Brian Clough and Jack Charlton, for instance, were both vocal in support of the miners during the 1984 Strike), but Pep Guardiola wore a yellow ribbon in support of jailed Catalan nationalists, Jadon Sancho defied Bundesliga regulations to express his support for Black Lives Matter and Jordan Henderson organized donations to the National Health Service.
Yet Rashford stands out, a determined and effective campaigner, a man of conscience who, even as social media critics tell him to stick to football, recognizes there are far bigger issues than scoring goals for Manchester United.