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Editorial: Colston's toppled statue links the anti-racist and anti-imperialist causes

KEIR STARMER’S description of the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol as “completely wrong,” like Priti Patel’s claim that it was “utterly disgraceful,” show their distance from what has become an international movement against racism.

Despite Patel’s nod to “the cause people are actually protesting about” (which she says is undermined by “acts of public disorder”) the position of her government is clear. Internationally it is aligned with Donald Trump and domestically it seeks to intensify the “hostile environment” for immigrants built up by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010-15. It is opposed to anti-racist movements.

Starmer’s position is different. While decrying the unauthorised assault on the statue, he argues that it should have been “brought down properly, with consent, and put, I would say, in a museum.”

The fact that campaigns to have the statue taken down or a plaque added referring to Colston’s tens of thousands of African victims had continued for years without success is not the only issue with this position.

Shutting Britain’s imperial past away in a museum is all too typical of the way liberals uncomfortable with glorifying empire treat it. Yet empire, the slave trade and their role in driving Britain’s industrial revolution and global mastery continue to cast a shadow over British politics. 

Widespread ignorance of this history fuels racism today – one reason why Labour’s commitment under Starmer’s predecessor to add it to the school curriculum was so important – and helps generate consent for pursuit of an imperialist foreign policy.

The police murder of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis has sparked a tremendous uprising, an explosion of anger at years of state killings as well as economic injustice.

An answering wave of protest has hit Britain, where the history of racism is different but no less insidious. As in the United States, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown structural inequalities into relief, and this is reflected in the disproportionate impact of the virus on black people.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry into “long-standing, structural race inequality” is the Establishment’s answer to this. Starmer has total faith in the EHRC, committing in advance for example to implementing whatever unknown recommendations it makes over anti-semitism in Labour despite conflicts of interest that undermine its probe, as revealed by the Morning Star last year.

Yet however thorough its inquiry its own description of race inequality as “structural” points to the need for a collective political answer to racism. No inquiry will end the oppression of black people. 

Trump denounces “thugs” in the streets and says they are an insult to Floyd’s memory – yet without protesters’ defiance of the authorities it is unlikely that killer police officer Derek Chauvin would be up on a murder charge. 

Johnson echoes the president’s language with his attack on “thuggery,” but direct action has put racism and the racist British empire in the political spotlight.

Gigantic anti-racist protests indicate a mood of revolt which parliamentary politics seems incapable of understanding. As in the United States, economic anxieties are not far below the surface and the pandemic is both exacerbating inequality and making it more intolerable.

Washington and Westminster hope that protesters will alienate public opinion and increase support for a “law and order” reaction that further erodes civil liberties and the right to protest.

Preventing such a reaction means building the broadest possible anti-racist alliance – one which connects racial oppression to capitalism. A movement that targets a system of which the whole working class are the victims and an imperialist global order based on exploitation and war.

Such a movement would develop a consistency the Labour leadership lacks, as it tries to square sympathy with anti-Trump protesters in the US with support for Washington’s aggression abroad.

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