Just like the global fall-out a year ago from the MeToo scandals on sexual harassment in America, so the anger and riots following the killing of George Floyd, a black man arrested in Minnesota, have found a powerful echo across much of Europe – nowhere more so than in Britain.
Black Lives Matter, the slogan adopted by protesters in America, has become a movement also in Britain. It quickly led to huge protests in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London and the call for the removal of statues across the country that honoured men who once had made money from slavery. Police fought running battles with rioters who demanded an immediate improvement in the social conditions for Britain’s black minority. In Bristol, a city that grew rich on financing the slave trade to America two centuries ago, an angry crowd pulled down the statue of a man who made a fortune from providing ships for slave traders. The statue was dragged through the streets and thrown into the harbour. And in London government ministers promised immediate action to look into allegations of “institutional racism” and to do more to fight racism in education, the workplace and social life.
Just as in America, the riots and anger divided opinion. Many writers and commentators acknowledged that although overt racism was outlawed in Britain decades ago, and hate speech is now a crime, a more subtle form of racial discrimination – especially against black people – is still widespread. The political left quickly adopted the cause, and black writers, actors and sportsmen joined in public condemnation of inaction by the government and a refusal to take black demands seriously.
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Others, largely among the older generation and on the political right, said the BLM demands were overtly political, were the result of propaganda by activists and had become a general uprising of rebellious youth against capitalism and the political establishment. They accused the demonstrators of being manipulated by thugs and criminals. And they said that the result would be to divide British society and make race relations – until now relatively peaceful – a dangerously sensitive area.
The focal point of the protests came when a crowd in central London declared that Winston Churchill had himself been a racist and smeared red paint and slogans on his statue outside Parliament and threatened to pull it down. This brought a furious reaction. Young racists belonging to fringe far-right groups organised a counter-protest, claiming that they were going to protect the memory of Britain’s great wartime leader. They used the excuse to clash with black groups and violence broke out in the streets.
The police quickly suppressed the riots. But the government was left in a dilemma. While condemning violence, it accepted that many young black people came from poorer backgrounds, found it difficult to get work, were more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police, were the victims as well as perpetrators of crime and found it harder to get ahead in public life. At the same time ministers condemned all the demonstrations as they openly broke the rules about social distancing, which still do not allow any public gatherings.
The government’s reaction, however, only made many black leaders more angry. They said that a new inquiry into racism was a waste of time: there have already been at least 10 inquiries into the conditions of Britain’s ethnic minorities in the past 20 years, and very little action has followed as a result. High profile black sportsmen, especially footballers and the young motor racing champion Lewis Hamilton, have spoken out about a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice. They said that white society was still closed to many black achievers and Britain should change its school history books to give a more balanced view of black history and black society.
The row has also prompted a backlash from other ethnic groups, especially those of Indian and Chinese origin. Unlike many black families, these groups are generally doing well in Britain, are among the top achievers at universities and hold prestigious jobs. Second or third-generation Indians especially are often wealthy businessmen, doctors and pharmacists. Many have become Conservative local councillors or politicians. Britain’s current minister of finance, Rishi Sunak, is of Indian origin, went to a famous private school, married the daughter of a millionaire and is now one of the youngest and most high-profile ministers in the government. Another minister of Indian origin, Pritti Patel, is the right-wing interior minister and has been especially vocal in denouncing black demonstrators. Chinese and Indian Britons have no wish to be grouped together with black Britons under the general ethnic minority heading of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnicities).
The row has also sharply divided people living in big cities and those in the countryside. In general, almost all immigrants who came to Britain two generations ago from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jamaica and the Caribbean moved straight to the cities. Hardly any ethnic minorities now live in the countryside (For a long time there was only one black farmer in all of England). But although black communities in the big cities are often the victims of discrimination, attitudes towards them have changed hugely. Very few young white British people are racist. Schools make enormous efforts to teach equality and respect. In general, race relations on the surface are good – although relations between young blacks and the police are often poor, and young black men are often the victims of drug and gang cultures.
It is different in the countryside. Most people in villages have rarely met black people, do not know any as neighbours or friends and are much more prejudiced in their attitudes. They have more difficulty with the concept that Britain is now a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, and are more likely to vote for tough immigration policies and other measures to reduce the inflow of non-white immigrants.
The BLM movement has also itself split. Many of the most radical leaders come from an older generation, now middle-aged, which has suffered discrimination, is angry and supports direct action and violence, not only to radicalise all black people but to attack the institutions of capitalism. Younger black people tend to be more willing to work with the government and with white British society to improve conditions for other young blacks. Most are better educated than their parents’ generation and have no difficulty in identifying with general youth culture – music, clothes and socialising - that includes all white as well as black young people.
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Will the demonstrations change anything? Almost every institution in Britain – banks, schools, clubs, businesses and government departments – is now looking at ways it can raise the level of black participation and make itself more open to recruiting black people. But almost all are opposed to quotas. That system has been tried in America but was hugely divisive, and most black people say it is patronising and insulting.
In Britain, as well as in France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, racial tensions are lower than in America, largely because there is no historic memory among blacks of slavery and resentment of generations of discrimination. Nevertheless, general alarm – especially in Italy and France – at the high levels of immigration of ethnic minorities means that race relations remain difficult, prejudice is widespread and opportunities for black people are limited. The riots in Britain may die down soon. But the task of creating a more equal society with real equality of opportunity will take a long time.