The events of last weekend were something of a turning point for many. Images and videos of neo-Nazis attacking police officers and journalists while doing Nazi salutes in front of the Cenotaph made my blood boil. They said that they were there to “defend statues”, of course, but in reality they were just there to defend racism and cause trouble.
What disturbed me was seeing some on the centre-right making excuses for them, or not being as enraged by them as they were with the Black Lives Matter protesters. My Twitter feed was awash with “but what about the violence last weekend?”. The fact is that the Black Lives Matter protesters were there to express their exhaustion at the racism they still face today, and the protests were largely peaceful. The far-right, however, were there because they oppose that desire to end racism, and rather than violence being the exception, with the far-right it was the norm.
Any non-peaceful protest, such as tearing down the statue of Edward Colston during the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, came from a place of deep-rooted, long-term oppression. Violence from hooligans was entirely intended to “put people in their place”. They are not the same, and those who try to compare them come across as apologists for racism.
A home truth: if we are not already in a culture war, then we are on the verge of one. Whether people like it or not, we are having a much-needed conversation about Britain’s past, our culture, and more – and we will all be forced to pick a side in some regard.
For quite some time now, liberals have accepted, perhaps reluctantly, shaky ideological coalitions that mean we often let many regressions – on LGBT+ rights, treatment of refugees, action on homelessness, and more – slip past us because we get thrown the odd scrap on free markets, tax reform, or free trade. I know ideological “purity” is so rare in partisan politics, and I know I am also guilty of failures of it, but we have reached a point where silence is complicit. To fail to speak up and debate those key issues is to be complicit in them.
Much of the response to the Black Lives Matter protests and recent activism in the UK has been nuanced. There is a genuine conversation being had on Britain’s history, how we can do more to have honest conversations about the empire and tackle the deep wounds it left behind, but the protests have also dredged up a response which has unveiled disgusting racist attitudes and apologism for those racist attitudes.
Of course, the government is not out there on the frontline, but their attempts to walk on a tightrope have come across as feeble at a time when a strong, anti-racist response from central government would have been not only appropriate, but overdue.
Instead, the strongest line from the government has been in staunch defence of Winston Churchill’s statue – something that nobody serious is suggesting gets torn down. In a discussion about institutional racism, police brutality, the lack of equality of opportunity on our doorstep, and more, it is quite frankly pathetic that the government’s response has been most focused on an inanimate object.
In a party political system, there is of course space for coalitions – even unlikely ones – as vehicles for change and compromise. But for liberals, that does not mean that we can allow bigoted attitudes or even a desire to stand still go unchallenged.