British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in an article on Monday an inquiry into racism following Black Lives Matter protests around the country, but the move drew criticism.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, his former employer, Johnson focused on the debate over removing certain statues from public places, including that of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“Why attack Churchill?” he asked. “What has the world come to when one of this country’s greatest ever leaders — perhaps our greatest — has to be shielded from the wrath of the mob?”
Johnson previously wrote a book about Britain’s leader during World War II. Monday’s article was, controversially, initially behind a paywall — but then copied in its entirety on the British government’s website, as well as Johnson’s own Facebook page.
Johnson said he understood the depth of feeling among Black Lives Matters protesters, adding: “It is no use just saying that we have made huge progress in tackling racism.”
“It is time for a cross-governmental commission to look at all aspects of inequality — in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life,” he said.
“We need to tackle the substance of the problem, not the symbols. We need to address the present, not attempt to re-write the past — and that means we cannot and must not get sucked into never-ending debate about which well-known historical figure is sufficiently pure or politically correct to remain in public view.”
Speaking specifically on Churchill, Johnson wrote: “He was a hero, and I expect I am not alone in saying that I will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square, and the sooner his protective shielding comes off the better.”
He sought to reframe the debate, and rather than argue for the removal of statues, he argued for putting up more statues of those who best reflect modern Britain, including those from black and minority ethnic communities.
“Rather than tear down the past, why not add some of the men and women — most often BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] — who helped to make our modern Commonwealth and our modern world? Isn’t that a more cheerful approach?” he said.
The article provoked criticism, not least from David Lammy, the shadow justice minister and one of Britain’s most high-profile black politicians and vocal anti-racism activists.
“Labour isn’t talking about Churchill’s statue,” he tweeted. “The only party talking about Churchill’s statue are the Conservatives. It’s bizarre. They want a culture war because they want to distract from the real issues.”
In a statement, Lammy called on the government to implement the recommendations from the previous government reviews on racism, rather than set up a new review.
David Isaac, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission — the UK’s human rights watchdog — echoed Lammy’s point.
“We know the scale of the problems we face to tackle the entrenched racial inequality in our country. It is not new. There have been countless reports and the data exists exposing all the issues,” Isaac said.
“Now is the time for urgent action. We need to see a clear and comprehensive race strategy with clear targets and timescales from government.”
Lammy’s statement added: “I don’t know why he’s announced a commission behind a paywall in the Telegraph, buried in yet another article about Churchill. If he was serious, why are there no details about how it will be staffed, its remit, its terms of reference, its timetable.
“That’s the question. It’s because this was written on the back of a fag (cigarette) packet yesterday, to assuage the Black Lives Matter protests. Get on with the action. Legislate. Move. You’re in government – do something.”
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