The echoes of George Floyd’s words “I can’t breathe” continue to haunt the world. Whatever may have been the particular sequence of events that transformed the death of an unarmed black man at the hands, or knee, of police in the US into a global cry of anguish may never be repeated. The act, the filming, the impact on a world locked down and itching for something beyond itself — who knows when this will come again, because such killings preceded the death in Minneapolis and have already happened elsewhere since.
The most significant consequence has been the appropriation of this act of injustice by others, thousands of miles away, who are suffering similar or associated hurt. It has not seemed artificial or forced. Protesters in Melbourne and Sydney have raised the unfair policing of indigenous Australians; in Nairobi it has been about the poor being deliberately targeted by police. That law enforcement officers seem to kill with impunity is not new and will outlast the present outcry, not least because a number of the countries that have the worst statistics on such deaths are far from the Western liberal states where protest is safe and attention can be focused easily. In such tables, the US has a medium ranking, and the UK barely has an entry.
But there has been a deeper consequence that should not be masked by security issues — and that is the challenge to history, which has emerged in a number of countries over colonialism in general and the slave trade in particular. I cannot speak with confidence about elsewhere, but I can relate how these issues have settled upon me, a former British lawmaker of 32 years’ standing, who must look at his country with fresh eyes.
A British Foreign Office minister has an advantage in this. You aren’t a tourist when you go abroad. You cannot be minister for the Middle East and North Africa and risk being ignorant of your country’s history. And you learn early that it is, as we are comfortable saying, “mixed.” There are some in the UK who find it easy only to remember the more convenient parts of our history abroad, forgetting that, for those on the other end of “events,” their memory is sharper. I rarely found it difficult to acknowledge this, relying mostly correctly and occasionally humbly on the grace of those I dealt with. You cannot live in the past, and to hold a fresh generation responsible for it can make moving forward impossible. But at least pay states and peoples the respect of remembering your own history, and therefore your contribution to both the good and bad of the present.
The concept of Black Lives Matter is ensuring that rather more people in the UK face up to their past in the same way. Not only are they making a case for the lived experience of black people in the UK today — of disproportionately poor health, education and opportunity — but asking questions of the rest of us as to how we see our past and to be aware that they see it differently to us, and it matters to them.
The UK’s role in the slave trade — notwithstanding the country’s role in its abolition — in particular, and colonial oppression in general, is being forensically examined. The nature of British society, wealth and commerce at this time meant that many industrial benefactors and political figures are tainted by their association with the slave trade. Edward Colston was heavily involved in it in the late 1600s, but was commemorated with a statue more than 150 years later due to his philanthropic benefaction, with no mention of where the money came from. This month’s toppling of that statue into the harbor in Bristol from which his ships sailed with their shameful cargoes was laced with grim irony, and has become one of the key images of the current protests. While there was little public disquiet about that target, the branding of Winston Churchill as a racist and the defacement of his statue in London brought a stronger reaction. Churchill, who is regularly voted the greatest Briton in UK polls, is the classic example of a flawed politician, whose greatest hour and gift of saving his country from the wicked ideology of the Nazis outweigh his faults. Meanwhile, Cecil Rhodes’ actions in Southern Africa would be condemned today, but his philanthropic legacy of education was accepted by Nelson Mandela as part of his country moving on. The future of his statue at Oriel College in Oxford remains under consideration.
A focus on statues should not be unusual: They have been toppled in uprisings ever since they were first put up. They are the street architecture of history. But which statues are targeted, why, and what process is used to deal with whether they should remain is where the need for wisdom is now greatest. The UK should not be afraid to confront its history. It cannot be changed, but that all British people, of all colors, of a hundred generations or one, have the right to examine the same events, say why they feel differently about them, and decide whether the praise previously heaped upon an individual is justified does not seem inappropriate to me.
Pay states and peoples the respect of remembering your own history, and therefore your contribution to both the good and bad of the present.
It is what comes next that has worldwide ramifications. To seek to erase history ideologically, as with the architectural atrocities of the destruction at Palmyra or the Buddha statues in Bamiyan, is deranged. Disallowing the rest of a society from having a valid opinion on their history as some form of revenge is unjust, and is no foundation for tolerance or moving on. The more diverse societies of what were once European colonizers will be keenly watched as to what better example they now give to the world.
And their fate is a warning, as few states can look back on their past and feel completely exonerated from foolish wars or the transporting of enemies following them. For history is not dead. Every day now, and not far away, wars and conflict produce victims of injustice or oppression. Every day now, and not far away, greed ensures that modern slavery and trafficking still stalks the world.
They can’t breathe either. Who’s listening?
- Alistair Burt