Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
In theory, police officers apply the law disinterestedly. In practice, they are as alert as anyone else to a prevailing mood. Sometimes, it works out for the best – as when, for example, East German border guards, seeing which way the wind was blowing, decided to let the crowds surge into West Berlin. More often, though, partisanship undermines respect for the law.
Over the weekend, we witnessed a serious failure of policing. In London, officers were pulled back from Parliament Square, to the delight of the jeering mob which then promptly fell upon Winston Churchill’s statue. Later, we saw footage of Met officers fleeing from the rioters, who pelted them with missiles shouting “Run, Piggy, run!”
In Bristol, the police didn’t even go through the motions. Instead, they looked on while a delirious mob pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, the controversial seventeenth-century businessman who endowed the city handsomely, but part of whose fortune came from the slave trade. Explaining his decision not to intervene, the superintendent said, “We know that it has been an historical figure that has caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years.”
Well, yes, but it’s hardly his call, is it? There may well be a case for removing Colston’s statue. Tastes change, values change, people change. Just as the lapidary Lenins were dismantled in the USSR, just as the Saddam Husseins were pulled down in Iraq leaving vast and trunkless legs of stone in the desert, so Bristolians have every right to remove Colston. When I say “Bristolians”, I mean their city council: that is how things work in a democracy. As it happens, Bristol’s Labour council had toyed with the idea of moving the statue or amending the plaque, but had not approved any change.
The council’s decision was, in effect, overturned by a middle-ranking policeman on the spur of the moment. If you can’t see why that is a problem, imagine other law enforcement decisions being determined by whether or not the coppers happened to agree with the perpetrators. Imagine other mobs taking it into their heads to tear down statues of, say, Gladstone (who derived income from slave-worked plantations) or Gandhi (who thought that black Africans were “troublesome and dirty”). Would we expect the police to stand by on grounds that the vandals felt strongly?
The protesters managed also to vandalise the statues of Robert Peel, who laid down the principles of consensual policing that have kept our police unarmed ever since; Abraham Lincoln, who freed America’s slaves; and Winston Churchill, who stood alone against actual fascism. Does the rage of a mob override all that?
Not that I want to pick on one police superintendent. He was simply reflecting the prevalent mood of Official Britain. Our cultural and intellectual elites, having spent ten weeks demanding a strict lockdown, decided to smile indulgently on gatherings of tens of thousands of protesters. The most extreme hypocrisy, naturally, came from Piers Morgan, who had been howling and screeching about people sitting in parks, but who declared himself “proud” that his son had been among the demonstrators. Others followed, only slightly less blatantly.
In the United States, the double-standard even sucked in public health professionals, a thousand of whom signed a letter saying that, although gatherings in general were a bad idea, Blacks Live Matter protests were laudable.
“As public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.”
Got that? Protesting about racism is fine, but protesting against the lockdowns is dangerous and a form of white nationalism.
With the specialists are taking that line, it was hardly surprising that commentators and politicians were reluctant to speak out. Fear of being thought insufficiently anti-racist outweighed considerations of public health, public order and intellectual consistency. Not until Priti Patel’s welcome intervention on Monday did any leading figure declare what in ordinary times should have been obvious, namely that property ought to be protected and criminality punished.
Worst of all were the broadcasters, especially the BBC. It wasn’t just their extraordinary swerve from obsessing about Dominic Cummings to applauding mass violations of the lockdown. It was the way in which they insisted on covering the riots as if they were 1960s civil rights protests – a linkage frequently made by presenters, as though modern Britain were a segregationist society where black people can’t vote.
Determined not to spoil that narrative, they averted their eyes from violence. The absurdity was encapsulated in a BBC online headline on Sunday: “27 police officers injured during largely peaceful anti-racism protests in London”. The Beeb went so far as to crop a photograph of these “largely peaceful” protests so as to remove the image of a demonstrator raising a club above his head with both hands.
All week, we have watched presenters report on these “largely peaceful” protests with approving smiles, before pursing their lips to tell us about school closures and the quarantining of inbound travellers. A large chunk of the country seems going along with this preposterous doublethink. One man driving to Durham imperils our health, but tens of thousands of protesters are fine, but we still need to stay at home. Sitting in a park is selfish, but organising a mass demonstration in a park is wonderful, but schools should still stay closed. Seriously? My masters, are you mad?