Anti-racism protests, the result of the murder of George Floyd and others, have been met with a cool, even hostile response from some governments who seem unwilling to go beyond the usual platitudes. 

Over the last ten years or so there has been a noticeable increase in the prevalence of leaders who seem intent on erecting borders, real and virtual, and who are quick to shun attempts at international cooperation and collaboration. 

In many instances, their narratives are calculated to further entrench a ‘them and us’ culture. The principles enshrined in the EU, the archetypal project in international collaboration, are under constant attack from the U.S. President and potentially, from Brexit and a British government that must convince everyone that leaving is a success, regardless of the eventual outcome. 

It’s worth asking why some world leaders are so keen to criticise and even sabotage any attempt at international political collaboration. Many of these are also vehemently opposed to any kind of critical analysis of their nations’ political histories.

Since the murder of George Floyd on the 25th May this year there have been numerous rallies and protests in many countries across the globe. Some of these resulted in the tearing down or damaging of historical statues and monuments.

According to a Financial News article, Lloyds of London, an insurance market known around the world, apologised for its involvement in the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries: ‘This was an appalling and shameful period in British history, as well as our own, and we condemn the indefensible wrongdoing that occurred during this period.’ The company, according to the article, supported the transatlantic slave trade by insuring the ships transporting those people.

This apology raises a challenge for some of today’s institutions who may have questions to answer from their history. Nonetheless, across many parts of society, one can almost feel the palpable if unspoken plea that we all should just “move on” and not rake over the past.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised that there will be a special commission set up in response to the recent protests by writing in the Telegraph on June 15. In the same article, he admonishes what he refers to as ‘far-right thugs’ who appointed themselves to protect the statue of Churchill from anti-racism protesters. Johnson refers to Winston Churchill as perhaps the United Kingdom’s greatest leader – ‘Why attack Churchill? 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?’.

This article doesn’t seek to challenge the Prime Minister’s view of Winston Churchill, or anyone else for that matter. On the other hand, it cannot be reasonable to refer to protesters, angry at decades and centuries of racism and abuse, as a mob. 

The Prime Minister himself has acknowledged that British history is complex. For many groups on the receiving end of British history, however, the issue may not be so complex. According to the Prime Minister, ‘We need to tackle the substance of the problem, not the symbols. We need to address the present, not attempt to rewrite the past – and that means we cannot and must not get sucked into a never-ending debate about which well-known historical figure is sufficiently pure or politically correct to remain in public view.’

Is it the case that the Prime Minister considers actions resulting in the deaths of up to three million people in Bengal in 1943 a credible example of great leadership? Or, perhaps it was the formation of the Black and Tans in Ireland, sent specifically to quell Ireland’s quest for independence? 

Or, maybe even Churchill’s apparent liking for chemical warfare against Kurds and Afghans in 1919? What does the Prime Minister mean, exactly, when he suggests that Churchill is perhaps Britain’s greatest leader? And, why, at this remove in history, is it neither possible nor permissible to properly critique history to inform the present? 

Perhaps Churchill is Britain’s greatest leader, but, unless other voices are heard who might dissent from that view, how can anyone hope to move forward? It possibly could be that there’s great fear in acknowledging how much of our present is founded on the sins of the past. Might there be a fear that our history threatens the very cornerstone of institutions built on the foundations of historical wrongdoings?

Much of what has passed in history has all the hallmarks of events shaped by men who seemed to think they had a right to determine the lives of others with little or no regard for the right to self-determination. 

Is this what the current Prime Minister regards as ‘great leadership’? One presumes not, but, unless that history is aired properly and made accessible to all, we are doomed to simply repeat it all over again.

The signs that this is happening are already there.

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