The anger that felled Colston’s statue cannot be eased by Boris Johnson | Hugh Muir

Finally Colston has fallen. Would I have tugged the rope? I don’t think so. As attractive as it seems, as right as is the cause, that route seems ultimately problematic. What happens when far-right yahoos reflect their warped view of the world by yanking down a statue they don’t like? They’ll be wrong, of course, but they’ll happily and spuriously claim that a precedent has now been set for such actions.

But now that Colston statue has crashed to earth, few will shed many tears about it and Bristol would be foolish to even think of putting him back. Some landmarks we can argue about, but a statue whose inscription actively lauded Edward Colston, who made his riches in the 17th-century slave-trade, in the middle of modern-day Bristol became a daily insult to much of that city’s population and to those of us whose efforts and those of their descendants have made this country what it is. 

There is a valid argument to be had about how history is fairly represented, but we weren’t really having it. Dialogue only occurs when two sides are listening. In this case there was talking but not a great deal of listening. “There has been a lot of controversy about this statue for many years – so the question is why didn’t those in the local authority consider taking it down long before rather than waiting for these actions?” said John Apter, the chair of the Police Federation. As much as one abhors unlawful direct action, it is important to understand what can happen in a society when democracy seems shorn of good faith, goodwill and responsiveness. 

This will be a continuing problem for the Conservative government in coming weeks. It will be attempting to grapple with the multiple pockets of turbulence created by the killing of George Floyd – as evidenced by the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement – and the allied fear, confusion, and anger surrounding the Johnson administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are different issues, but they intersect. If you are black, they both speak to an extraordinary, and lethal, unfairness. 

And one also clearly feeds from the other, for the pandemic and the world’s reaction to it have already taught us that nothing is immutable. We have in just a few months reshaped our lives, reshaped our economy, emptied our public areas, cut ties we thought would always bind. It has been a revelation, and inevitably the proof that, with the will, we can act decisively to address things we judge vital prompting many to ask: “If we can move mountains to address a pandemic, how can we continue to say other problems are insoluble?”

How can we say that citizens with brown skins suffer longstanding and widespread discrimination – on the streets, in their schools, in the workplace and the jobs market, in the media, in the criminal justice system – but that it’s too difficult to do anything about it? How can we say there is no way to address the mindset that defines law enforcement as forcing a knee on to a stricken man’s neck? Our reaction to the pandemic has saved countless lives, but in so doing it has also shown that anything is possible. I believe that revelation did for Colston’s statue and it fuels much of the anger we now see on the streets around the world.

Boris Johnson must deal with that, but it is a task for which the prime minister and his government are spectacularly ill-suited. They don’t know how. They have no emotional capital. The Dominic Cummings affair robbed them of any moral authority in the matter of the pandemic, and in the case of the George Floyd reverberations, they were in deficit even before they took office. What can the prime minister say to black protesters? “Dear people; I feel your pain – I fret each day about the lives of your piccaninnies. I long to see again your watermelon smiles”? What does he say to protesters about the director of his No 10 policy unit, Munira Mirza? She who complained so bitterly about race equality initiatives on the basis that: “A lot of people in politics think it’s a good idea to exaggerate the problem of racism.” Can she craft a government policy to meet this moment? Don’t hold your breath. 

Johnson has no ability to respond constructively to the protests on our streets and no ability to show plausible empathy, and so he will respond negatively, framing the debate as a matter of public order, while playing down the iniquities that led people, at a time of widely acknowledged viral risk, on to the street. The marches were “subverted by thuggery”, he said yesterday.

“The police have our full support in tackling any violence, vandalism or disorderly behaviour,” added Priti Patel, his home secretary. This is a politician who runs the Home Office, the linchpin of administrative inequality in this country – it would have been valuable to hear her say something about that. But she won’t, and in any event it would be futile in terms of addressing the current turbulence. Patel backed the key planks of her party’s hostile environment that led to the Windrush scandal. Like Johnson, she has no emotional capital or interest in addressing these problems. 

Now, with Colston’s statue gone, we move into another phase. Protesters feel there is a moment to be seized, but we have a government that is unable to diagnose or constructively respond to it, and utterly ill-equipped to meet it. We should worry about what comes next.

• Hugh Muir is an editor at the Guardian

• On Tuesday 9 June at 7pm BST (2pm EDT) the Guardian is holding a live-streamed event about the meaning of George Floyd’s killing, featuring Guardian journalists including US southern bureau chief Oliver Laughland, reporter Kenya Evelyn, writer Chris McGreal and columnist Malaika Jabali. Book tickets here 

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