In April, when Matt Hancock suggested that Premier League footballers should “play their part” in helping ease the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, what he meant was that they should accept sweeping cuts to their salaries. You know, just like MPs didn’t. What the health secretary could not have imagined was that one footballer would “play his part” by launching a snowballing campaign to prevent children in England from going hungry. Or that in doing so he would highlight underlying inequality and the plight of England’s poorest families.
At the beginning of 2020, the most urgent task facing the England star Marcus Rashford was recovering from a double stress fracture in his back so that he would be match fit for his Manchester United games. But that turned out to be a minor detail in his extraordinary year (his vertebrae got none of the media attention they were due). Instead, in the spring, with the pandemic having brought the 2019-20 season to a halt, the 23-year-old centre-forward used his free time and growing influence to become a formidable voice for social justice. He took on the UK government – and, crucially, won over the public, too. So now, at the end of this bleak year, Marcus Rashford MBE is a fully fledged national hero, recognised here and abroad for his poverty activism as much as for his footballing talent.
While many of us were staying at home, afraid of catching coronavirus – which we then knew so little about – Rashford spent the early part of lockdown helping to deliver food to families who relied on free school meals. When the government announced the free meals programme would not be extended over the summer holidays, he wrote an emotive and persuasive open letter to MPs, imploring them to reverse that decision and help feed the 1.3 million families whose children risked going hungry as a result of it. “This is about humanity,” he wrote. “Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves.”
Rashford has often cited his own early experiences as motivation for his work to end child hunger. “I came from little,” he tweeted in November, while in his open letter he wrote: “Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits … to collect our Christmas dinners every year.”
Boris Johnson claimed to have been unaware of Rashford’s campaign even when, under immense pressure from the campaign, his government announced a £120m Covid summer food fund. When the summer was over, the government seemed convinced that the storm had passed – or perhaps it thought the public wanting to see hungry children fed was another lockdown oddity, like listening to birdsong or drinking too much – because Conservative MPs were whipped to vote against Labour’s motion to extend the provision into the October half-term.
In response, Rashford again took to social media to whip up support and make sure that the most vulnerable in society were not forgotten. Businesses across the country, despite many of them struggling financially after months of social distancing, lockdowns, partial lockdowns and tiered systems, responded with offers of free food to children who needed it to help them get through the holiday.
The outpouring of compassion and generosity that unfolded, and was tracked donation by donation on social media, was astonishing to witness. This enormous and spontaneous burst of unity and compassion stood out – even in a year in which communities have delivered food and supplies to medically vulnerable people and millions stood on their doorsteps to clap for health workers. Rashford’s petition to end child food poverty, launched in October, quickly gained over a million signatures. It forced a second government U-turn with the announcement of the Covid winter grant scheme.
Unquestionably, Rashford should be celebrated for using his voice and his platform to help some of the most vulnerable people in the country. But he should also be admired and lauded for the calm grace with which he has dealt with those who attempted to undermine his character. In November, the Daily Mail published a story announcing that the “campaigning football star bought five luxury homes worth more than £2m”. Rashford responded by saying on Twitter: “Please don’t run stories like this alongside refs to ‘campaigning’.” But equally he could have asked the newspaper: is that all you’ve got? That a young man who has fed hungry children derives some income from property – something 2.7 million people do in Britain every year?
Because, despite everything that has happened because of Rashford in 2020, and all the plaudits that have been laid at his feet, we should not lose sight of the simple fact that he should not have had to do any of this. It is not the responsibility of a footballer, especially one in his early 20s, to ensure that the poorest children in England do not go hungry during the school holidays. Rashford’s job is to score goals for Manchester United, not to force a government to care about poor children. That he has done it says a lot about him – and much about the Britain of 2020.