PM says George Floyd protests have been ’hijacked by extremists intent on violence’
Boris Johnson has said removing statues of controversial figures is “to lie about our history”, as he argued that national protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the US had been taken over by extremists.
In a lengthy Twitter thread in response to to the boarding up of the Cenotaph in Whitehall and Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the prime minister expressed anger at the targeting of monuments.
Scaffolding was erected around the Churchill statue, the Cenotaph, and statues of George Washington and King James II on Trafalgar Square late on Thursday evening on the order of the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, amid concerns they could be targeted by protesters and become a focal point for unrest.
Black Lives Matters organisers have called off a planned protest in Hyde Park on Saturday, warning that “many hate groups” from the far right were threatening the safety of those planning to attend.
Johnson claimed the Black Lives Matters protests “have been sadly hijacked by extremists intent on violence”, and he called attacks on police last weekend “intolerable” and “abhorrent”.
He said: “We all understand the legitimate feelings of outrage at what happened in Minnesota and the legitimate desire to protest against discrimination. Whatever progress this country has made in fighting racism – and it has been huge – we all recognise that there is much more work to do.”
But on the campaigns to remove statues and other monuments honouring slave-owners and imperialist figures following the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol on Sunday, Johnson made it clear he opposed such moves.
“We cannot now try to edit or censor our past,” he said. “We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”
Johnson said it was “absurd and shameful” that Churchill’s statue had to be protected, calling it “a permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country – and the whole of Europe – from a fascist and racist tyranny.”
The prime minister, who has written a biography of Churchill, added: “Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial.”
Questioned about Johnson’s comments, his spokesman was ambiguous as to whether he believed no statues should be removed under any circumstances.
Asked if this was the case, the spokesman said: “I think the PM’s tweets speak for themselves,” and referred the media to the tweet saying removing statues would be to “lie about history”.
But then asked whether statues could be removed by local consent, the spokesman said: “As he said earlier this week, there are democratic processes for this sort of thing, and that’s what should be followed.”
The spokesman also made plain that while Johnson had referred to Churchill’s “unacceptable” opinions, the PM had no plans to apologise for his own previous racially charged comments, such as describing veiled Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bankrobbers”, and writing about African people’s “watermelon smiles”.
Asked if Johnson would apologise, the spokesman said: “These issues were all addressed during the election campaign last year.” Asked if the prime minister still believed it was correct to “speak frankly” in such ways, the spokesman said: “Yes”.