The government is back to its well-tried Inspector Clouseau mode with a public inquiry intended to discredit accusations of institutional racism that has done the exact opposite. This bit of self-inflicted foot-shooting came soon after half-baked efforts to suppress a protest on Clapham Common that guaranteed it worldwide publicity.
The twin debacles have significant features in common. Governments easily persuade themselves that they are dealing with a small group of opponents who can easily be intimidated or marginalised. Frustrated when this fails to happen, the state overreacts, relies increasingly on abusive rhetoric or the threat or use of force, and thereby acts as the unwitting recruiting sergeant for whatever cause it is trying to undermine or eliminate.
Official inquiries in Britain have long been successfully used as a tranquilising dart fired at public opinion when it is outraged over some piece of injustice or failure of government. To be credible, the inquiry needs to be led by high-quality people who often produce critical reports – thus avoiding accusations of a stitch-up – but they do this long after the news agenda has moved on. Political pressure on the government will have ebbed, so reports that urge action in practice replace such action. Remember, if you can, the magisterial Chilcot report on the Iraq war that was finally published in 2016 and was soon forgotten?
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, published this week, broke all these rules and proved ludicrously counterproductive, fuelling the controversy it was supposed to lay to rest. Its partisan membership was so extreme that their report has a crackpot feel to it – even having a good word for Caribbean slavery as a progressive institution – and it has appeared in the middle of the trial of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
From the government’s point of view, this may be a minor blip as its benefits from the vaccine rollout, but it may also be indicative of the toxic direction of British politics. In its anti-woke enthusiasm, the report has enraged and energised campaigners against racism. It is filled with absurdities such as the belief that high education achievement by minorities shows that they do not face discrimination. Yet the history of anti-black racism and antisemitism in the US and Europe shows that those who are discriminated against know that they must acquire a high level of expertise in order to overcome discrimination. Their very success may fuel greater ethnic and sectarian hostility among those they compete against for jobs.
The paradox of the race report is that it may have done more to make racism in Britain a live political issue than any number of much superior inquiries in the past whose recommendations were praised for a day or two and then ignored and forgotten. Racism is back on the news agenda to a degree that Black Lives Matter campaigners could never have hoped to achieve.
The same warped thinking inspires home secretary Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that drastically increases police powers to control or ban demonstrations and punish organisers and participants. This misses a fundamental point about the impact or lack of impact of protests anywhere in the world.
They have some influence as a show of strength by people holding common beliefs, such as the gigantic marches in London by Remainers opposed to Brexit between 2016 and 2019. These marches showed that there were millions of people who wanted the UK to stay in the EU, but we knew that already from the outcome of the referendum.
At the end of the day, all those marches and the organisation that went into it had little positive effect. In my experience, marches that go off without incident are boring to participate in, boring to watch and boring for the media, so they get limited news coverage.
Yet protest marches and demonstrations are one of the propulsion units of history, destroying governments and bringing down regimes that believed they had a firm grip on power. The common feature in the protesters’ success is that they provoke, intentionally or unintentionally, a violent overreaction by the authorities. The most striking example of this in the UK was the civil rights march in Derry in Northern Ireland on 5 October 1968, which was attacked by the Protestant-dominated police in front of the television cameras and thus began the unravelling of the Northern Ireland state.
The lesson from this should have been fairly obvious, but in 1972 the authorities had the imbecilic idea of policing an anti-internment march, again in Derry, with paratroopers who shot dead 13 civilians on Bloody Sunday and permanently delegitimised the British state in the eyes of the Catholic population.
I have always been mystified by why governments overreact, using violence against peaceful protesters that do not seriously threaten them, when it is so obviously in their interests not to do so. Two contradictory motives are usually at work. One is an underestimation of the protesters as an atypical minority who can be safely quashed without the wider community objecting. The other – and authoritarian regimes are particularly prone to this – is an overestimation of the danger posed to the leadership by mass protests on the streets, which they try to suppress with extreme violence
I witnessed a grotesque example of overreaction by the security forces generating just such a powerful protest movement in Baghdad in October 2019. I had talked to the organisers of some scantily attended protests demanding jobs and opposing government corruption who were gloomy about their prospects of achieving anything. But as I sat in my hotel room near the protest site in the city centre, I heard the pop-pop of gunfire that turned out to be the security forces opening fire on a peaceful crowd and killing 18 people. Within days, protests were convulsing the whole of Iraq.
Sometimes repression succeeds and the government kills or frightens enough people to drive them off the streets, as the army is trying to do in Myanmar. But once a government goes down this road, there is no retreat and its very existence is in play.
In Britain there have always been effective mechanisms for reducing the political temperature and deflating criticism of the government through prestigious inquiries and mass protests, neither of which achieve very much.
The Boris Johnson government may regret devaluing these well-established instruments of control. If the new law on protests is enforced, it will spark frequent confrontations between protesters and the police. If it is not, then the government will feel that it is being challenged and made to look weak, provoking a self-destructive overreaction.