Seven months into the world created by Covid-19, and the responses to it, and Britain is not in good shape. Economically, the statistical data is dire—unemployment is rising, and the economic contraction three times greater than during the global financial crisis of 2008-9. Many Britons have been insulated from the impending disaster by a generous furlough scheme that allows employees to be laid off, but with the government paying 80% of their salaries up to £2,500. This has created a rather unreal summer for 9.3 million workers who have enjoyed a life of leisure, with the government ensuring their bills can still be paid. It cannot last—the scheme winds down between August and October, and the hangover from this summer’s party, is likely to be severe. Britons will be paying furlough bills for years to come.
A Protest Generation?
Perhaps because the country was in a sense of suspended animation, drugged with subsidy, there was little protest against the extraordinary restrictions of lockdown—the ban on gatherings, the closure of social venues, and instructions to stay at home. An anti-lockdown demonstration on 16 May at Speakers Corner in London was tiny, and roughly treated by police. Few objected. Hardly anyone noticed however, that the kettle was beginning to boil. When government advisor Dominic Cummings was accused of breaching lockdown regulations he kept his job, but found his house regularly besieged by angry protestors.
The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May saw violent protests erupt in the US. Here in Britain, public gatherings remained banned. It was soon clear that many of those on the left who had argued in favour of the lockdown, and wanted Cummings prosecuted for breaching it, saw the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests as more important than their previous statements on public health. Labour MP Barry Gardiner was just one of many to join demonstrations, most of which ignored social distancing rules. Teachers’ unions managed to simultaneously oppose the reopening of schools, with support for BLM rallies.
Some police officers joined in and “took a knee” prostrating themselves in front of protestors to show solidarity. It did not work—the kettle was now ready to boil over. Police were attacked by mobs in London, and war memorials vandalised. In Bristol, the statue of a former slave trader, Edward Colston, was pulled down by activists whilst officers stood and watched. A hit list was developed by a dedicated website, Topple the Racists and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced the formation of a Committee for Diversity in the Public Realm, to examine which statues should be allowed to remain.
THINGS GET COMPLICATED
In a few short weeks, the UK seemed to go from politically passive, to angry divided and aggressive. When it was suggested a statue to the founder of the Boy Scouts, Baden Powell, be removed, angry crowds gathered to defend it. As footage of police officers retreating at BLM protests multiplied, groups of men emerged from the shadows to guard statues and war memorials. Britain was fighting a full-blown culture war over its past, and its present. Conflict, however, is rarely simple. In Britain’s most multicultural city, Leicester, there was shock and anger that some protestors wished to remove the statue of Gandhi, who is accused of making disparaging comments about Africans. Leicester East MP, Claudia Webb, an enthusiastic supporter of the BLM movement, was forced to apply the brakes, and declare that Leicester would not be “divided”.
She did not seem to notice that the country was divided, between those who expected the police to uphold the law and those who took a more selective approach, especially when arguments against racism were being made. Whilst few will mourn the fall of Edward Colston in Bristol, statues such as those of war time leader Winston Churchill, attract far stronger emotion. British workers once took a rounded view of Churchill, who they often saw as an opponent or an enemy on the industrial front (he was hated by the miners for sending the military into the coalfields) but was resolutely admired for fighting Hitler. We appear to have lost that nuance of thought.
LEICESTER IN LIMBO
At the time of writing, Leicester is the only British city to be returned to lockdown, after a spike in Covid-19 transmissions. Whilst this may be due to an accelerated testing regime, media speculation has centred on the role of Leicester’s factories.
Here the garment trade brings together large numbers of workers from the Indian subcontinent, in factories which generate significant profits for their owners, but are characterised by cramped working conditions and low pay. Leicester’s politicians, of all parties, have long known about these buildings, and largely ignored them.
It is easy to say that history is catching up with Britain. But it is the present that is catching up with Leicester, and the Covid-19 lockdown has been a motor for a whole series of disputes that have been in the background but rarely boiled over. As the economy stutters further, our culture wars may get worse before they get better.
Dr Paul Stott is a writer and commentator based in the UK. He tweets @MrPaulStott.