Exclusive: 'Anti-woke hero' Courtney Lawes on marriage, politics, racism – and rugby

'People would rather call me names than engage with my arguments'

Courtney Lawes - Courtney Lawes exclusive: 'People would rather call me names than engage with my arguments'
Lawes has become a hero of the anti-woke, but says he makes no attempt to align himself with any particular movement Credit: Roberto Payne

Courtney Lawes has spent the best part of the last decade inflicting tackles on his opponents with such ferocity that former England manager Martin Johnson once said he could identify them by the distinct noise made by his victims.

Tackling social justice issues however, particularly given the toxic nature of social media, has proven much more of a challenge to the Northampton and England forward.

It has not been due to a lack of intent. Most professional sportspeople choose to avoid any semblance of controversy on social media; in stark contrast, Lawes seems to suggest it is his duty to stand up for his beliefs on areas such as marriage and racism.

When Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford successfully campaigned for free school meals to be extended over the summer holiday, Lawes was targeted for posting a reply espousing the importance of being financially secure and married before having children.

What has frustrated the 31-year-old was not the personal abuse that followed – he was called everything from a snob to a moron while others urged his sponsors to drop him – but the fact that there was no opportunity for reasoned debate to ensue.

“I was called all sorts, everything,” the father-of-four says, with a chuckle. “I find it interesting that people resort to slurs and name-calling rather than engaging in an argument.

“That says all it needs to say. It shows maybe the way our culture is going. Everything is so polarised that someone who doesn’t agree with you is now your enemy, they are not just someone who disagrees with you. 

"I prefer for people to engage in discourse and discuss why they have differences in opinions and find common ground. But I am fine at sticking my neck out and taking some criticism. If people want to call me names, then crack on. It goes straight over my head. I know who I am and know where I come from. I am perfectly comfortable in my skin."

Lawes believes there are many who would share his views on when to have children.

“I am not trying to say that people who have kids should get married, I am trying to say that it is not a bad idea to wait until you are before you have children," he explains. "If you wait until you have got married to have children, then you are much more likely to be in a good position to raise your children.

“That is the argument I am trying to make. I think it makes sense to a lot of people.

Lawes and his wife Jessica. They were married in 2015 Credit: Twitter

"If you want to keep your head down and not take any criticism then I understand why people want to do that. But I am in a position, having come from not a lot, to be able to express why I was able to get where I am today and hope that my experience, and what I think has given me the opportunity, will help other people get that same opportunity.

"I am just trying to do what I can and use the reach I have got to hopefully help people or improve their lives.”

There has been no contact with Rashford since, but Lawes revealed that he had volunteered to deliver free school meals around Northampton only for complications around Covid-19 to cause a delay.

“We haven’t been in touch. I am not super well-versed on what he is doing and both sides of the argument,” Lawes adds. “I understand his side of the argument and why he is doing it, but I haven’t had a good look into people who are opposing it and why they are opposing it so I don’t have a well-rounded perspective on exactly what is happening.

“But from what I can see, if children are struggling to be fed, then the country certainly has an obligation to help out there.

“I was going to help distribute the school meals over the holidays but that was pushed back because of Covid-19. But I am keen to do anything – from visiting schools, helping young people from poor backgrounds, talking and being there for people who haven’t got any role models or people to look up to.”

His stance has led some to see him as an ‘anti-woke’ hero, not afraid to raise concerns about the actions of organisations such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion and as an unlikely champion of freedom of speech. That he comes from a mixed- race family and from a working-class background has made his voice more impactful.   

“Their arguments are not my thought process,” Lawes adds. “I do not have a revolutionary mindset. I am not a top-down thinker, I am a bottom-up thinker. I believe in personal and individual responsibility and if you want collective change, that means individual change on a massive level.

“You do your part as an individual for the collective. That is my thought process in most things. That means that I don’t align with movements who group everybody together and say ‘Everyone’s experiences are the same and we need change from the top’.”

Last December Lawes provoked a reaction on social media by tweeting that "England is not a racist country", while he recently argued that players who did not take the knee before matches should not be seen as racist or used as a divisive issue. He has experienced racism but insists he believes attitudes in the country have improved significantly since his father Linford arrived from Jamaica as a 12 year-old.

Lawes is supportive of anti-racism movements but is not afraid to highlight weaknesses in the prevailing argument Credit: PA

“Everyone has very different experiences,” he adds. “I have had negative experiences but I have had mostly positive ones. My experience of Britain – and that of my father – is that it is getting a lot better. It is improving and that is the main thing. Things take time. Nothing happens overnight.  I understand why people get impatient but sometimes you have to be patient and keep on doing your part and asking others to do theirs.

“My dad is very thankful for the opportunity that living in Britain has given to him and also to me. I think that is what a lot of people are missing – the opportunities that are here if you are fortunate to be born here and a lot of places on the planet just do not have.

“My dad had a good mum and dad who brought him up to work hard, graft and not worry about what other people were saying or thinking about you. They said: ‘Just do your job and you will get where you want to be’ and he has been able to do that.”

At 31, and with 85 England caps to his name, Lawes, who revealed he set a personal best for speed during the pre-season, has set his sights on making a fourth World Cup if he is selected in Eddie Jones’ squad for the tournament in France in 2023.

But given his strong community spirit, one wonders if a career in politics might follow rugby. He is already doing some work with the Centre for Social Justice thinktank and has also been contacted by the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch to share his opinions. Interestingly, he is not quick to quash the idea.

 “We will see,” he adds. “I honestly don’t know if I want to go into politics, even if that is a possibility.

“At the minute I am a guy with an opinion who tries to be as best informed as I can.

“I read a lot and am in touch with some influential people in terms of politics. It is wicked to be able to help and maybe give a different perspective on things.

“I am interested in politics but not really interested in debating, like being Conservative or Labour, I am just interested in helping push a different perspective and maybe a different way of people improving their lives. So while that is I guess political, I don’t think it really should be. Helping people in a certain way shouldn’t really be politicised but it just happens that it is at the minute.

“I will do whatever I can to help. Some days I wonder if we are getting anywhere but ultimately I am always going to be a positive person — an optimist — and I won’t be defeated easily.”

Lawes pictured wIth his four children Credit: Twitter

His immediate focus however is on Northampton’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park on Sunday. A dreadful run of results since the restart last month – including a defeat at Franklin’s Gardens against a second-string Exeter side – has left them as Lawes describes, “serious underdogs”.

“We haven’t been able to hit the ground running as we hoped,” he added. “We are quite a free-flowing team and don’t have a massively structured game so we need our players to be in good form and due to lockdown and not playing together for a long time, it has taken us a lot longer to get back on to the same page to fulfil our potential.

 “We have got a tough game ahead of us and we are serious underdogs but that is fine. We know that if we do play to our full potential – and no team is ever far from that – that we can cause an upset.”