A new wave of anti-racism protests began on 26 May 2020 in Minneapolis after George Floyd, an African American man, died whilst in police custody the day before. By 6 June 2020, Black Lives Matter protests against his death and of the treatment of Black citizens by the police more generally had been held in all 50 states and Washington DC. Demonstrations spread around other parts of the world, including in the UK, Spain, Italy and Australia, to demand justice for George Floyd and to draw attention to racial injustice worldwide.

In the UK, hundreds of protestors gathered at the US embassy in Battersea, London on 31 May 2020, to protest the events in the US. Further anti-racism protests took place across the country in June and July and the first Million People March, a walk across London to protest racism in the UK, took place in August.

On 7 June 2020, protestors in Bristol pulled down a statue of Edward Colston and threw it into the harbour. On 10 June 2020, local authorities removed a statue of Robert Milligan from outside the Museum of London Docklands. Both Colston and Milligan had known links to the slave trade.

The protests received a mixed public reaction. They prompted some action from the Government, the Mayor of London, and some local authorities across the UK.

Public opinion

A YouGov survey, published on 23 December 2020, considered how British people felt about the protests that had taken place over the summer. When asked about their opinions of the Black Lives Matter movement, 47% of all respondents and 74% of respondents from a BAME background had a “favourable” view. 41% of all respondents and 15% of respondents from a BAME background had an “unfavourable” view.

Considering the impact of the protests in Britain, 32% of all respondents and 50% of respondents from a BAME background had a “generally positive view”, whilst 40% of all respondents and 14% of respondents from a BAME background had a “generally negative” view.

A study by research organisation Opinium also questioned UK adults on their perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement. A report of its findings, published in November 2020, showed that 95% of those asked were aware of the Black Lives Matter movement. It also showed that:

  • 66% of those aware of the movement believed it advocated that the lives of black people are of equal importance to other people’s lives.
  • 55% of all respondents thought the movement had increased racial tensions in the UK.
  • 32% of all respondents thought that the movement had created unity between different ethnic communities.

Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

In June 2020, in a Sunday Telegraph article subsequently published on the Government’s website, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, announced a new commission into racial inequality. He said:

It is time for a cross-governmental commission to look at all aspects of inequality—in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life.

The following day, the Telegraph reported some further details on the plan. It said that the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities would report directly to the Prime Minister and would be tasked with providing recommendations by the end of 2020.

Some have criticised the Government’s approach. For example, in an article, the Guardian reported that the Equality and Human Rights Commission said  the data that illustrated racial inequality in the UK already exists. In addition, David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham), who led a review into racial inequality in England and Wales’s judicial system, has argued that the Government should focus on implementing the recommendations from previous reviews into racial inequality first.

In June 2020, in answer to a written question on the commission, the Government stated:

The commission will drive forward work to understand why disparities exist, what works to address disparities and what does not, and will present recommendations for action across Government and other public bodies, bridging the gap between data and policy. It will report by the end of the year. The aim of the commission is to set out a new, positive agenda for change—balancing the needs of individuals, communities and society, maximising opportunities and ensuring fairness for all. The terms of reference, and names of the chair and commission members will be published in due course.

On 16 July 2020, the Government announced that the commission will be chaired by Dr Tony Sewell, the head of the charity Generating Genius. The Government also published a full list of commissioners, which includes representatives from the fields of science, education, broadcasting, economics, medicine, policing and community organising.

The terms of reference for the commission were also published on the same day. They explain that the commission will look into outcomes for the whole population in areas such as poverty, education, employment, health and the criminal justice system.

The commission held a public consultation between 26 October and 30 November 2020. The commission also took evidence from experts on 14 September 2020. On 26 November 2020, the chair of the commission wrote to the Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, to update the Government on the commission’s progress and to request an extension to its deadline to complete its work.

In response to an oral question on health inequality on 22 February 2021, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Health and Social Care, Jo Churchill, said that the commission intends to submit its report to the Prime Minister on 10 March 2021. At the time of writing, the report has not yet been published. Ms Badenoch has stated that once the report has been published the commission will “draw to a close”.

Inquiries into racial inequality since 2017

The following are examples of inquiries held on racial inequality from the last three years:

  • The Windrush Lessons Learned Review, published in March 2020, looked into the events leading up to the Windrush scandal in 2018 in order to identify key lessons for the Home Office. The report’s author, Wendy Williams, made 30 recommendations for improvement.
  • During a debate on the Windrush compensation scheme on 23 June 2020, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said that the Government fully accepted the recommendations. On 30 September 2020, the Home Office published a comprehensive improvement plan which outlined how the Department would implement the recommendations.
  • The Race Disparity Audit was published in October 2017 under then Prime Minister Theresa May. The audit published data on disparities between ethnic groups in educational attainment, health, employment and treatment by the police and courts.
  • The Lammy Review, led by David Lammy, was published in September 2017. It reviewed the treatment and outcomes of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system in England and Wales. It made 35 recommendations for improvement. On 23 June 2020, in response to a written question, the Government stated it had implemented 16 recommendations from the review. During an urgent question in the House of Commons on 30 June 2020, Mr Lammy and the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, agreed that 11 recommendations had been implemented, but there was disagreement about the other five.
  • The McGregor-Smith review into the experience of BAME individuals in the workplace was published in February 2017. The review made 26 recommendations, including that the Government should create a free online training resource on unconscious bias, and that businesses should have to publish a breakdown of their employees by race and pay band. In its response to the McGregor-Smith review, the Government encouraged individual businesses to implement changes.

Statues controversy

In June 2020, in support of Black Lives Matter, the Stop Trump Coalition activist group published a map highlighting statues and monuments with links to colonial history across the UK. According to its website, the group wants to promote debate about “the adoration of colonial icons and symbols”.

The actions of the group have prompted debate about the role that statues have in the UK today.

Pippa Catterall, professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster, has argued that statues do not represent history but instead have “most typically been used to represent power and authority”. Therefore, she says they should be kept “in pace with the times”.

Writing for the Atlantic, journalist Yasmeen Serhan has suggested that cities and towns democratically review their statues every 50 years.

Emma Webb, director of the forum on integration, democracy, and extremism at Civitas, has said that removing statues is “straightforward cultural erasure” and “is hugely disrespectful to generations past”.

The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has also become a subject of debate. The statue was boarded up on 12 June 2020 after it was vandalised during the Black Lives Matter protest on 7 June 2020. Speaking to the Guardian about Churchill’s legacy, historian Jacob F Field said:

On one hand, he proved himself to be an indefatigable war leader and inspirational orator who held together a national and international alliance that was under considerable strain […] as well as playing a major role in the Liberal social reforms that helped lay the foundations of the welfare state. On the other hand, he was at times self-centred, made strategic errors and costly mistakes throughout his career […] and held prejudiced attitudes, particularly on race.

In his Sunday Telegraph article, Boris Johnson expressed concern that “if we start purging the record and removing the images of all but those whose attitudes conform to our own, we are engaged in a great lie, a distortion of our history”. Mr Johnson also discussed the protestors’ activities over the last few weeks and spoke about the role of statues and memorials across the country in reflecting Britain’s past, and the need for a commission on racial inequality in the UK.

Statue review announced

The actions of the protestors resulted in some moves to reconsider statues and other memorials. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, established a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm in June 2020. Mr Khan said that London’s current statues, plaques, and street names “reflect a bygone era” and that he would like to see landmarks reflect the diversity of the city.

On 9 February 2021, Mr Khan announced the 15 members of the new commission, who are from the arts, architecture, community engagement and business sectors. Further information about the role of the commission was also announced. It will “advise on better ways to raise public understanding behind existing statues, street names, building names and memorials” but the commission will not “preside over the removal of statues”.

The Local Government Association Labour Group announced on 9 June 2020 that Labour-led councils across the country had agreed to “listen to and work with their local communities to review the appropriateness of local monuments and statues on public land and council property”.

Writing in his June 2020 Sunday Telegraph article, Boris Johnson said that the UK should “celebrate the people who we in this generation believe are worthy of memorial” by creating new statues, rather than removing older ones. He went on to say that the issue of statues “is a total distraction from the matter at hand”.

This sentiment was supported to some extent by David Olusoga, a historian and broadcaster, who said that “allowing the statues issue to get in the way of the anti-racism debate would be a mistake”. He argued that society does “need to rethink who is memorialised in public spaces” but that, most of the time, statues are “objects that we mostly ignore”. He said that ultimately “statues are a symptom of the problem” and the real conversation should be about racism and how to confront it.

Following public debate about statues, the process for changing street names has recently been considered by Policy Exchange, a think-tank based in London. In a report published in March 2021, it said that, under current legislation, councils in England and Wales can change the name of a street without first consulting the residents who live there. The report called for a democratic right to a say on proposed changes to the name of a place, and that a 2/3 majority of ratepayers on a street should agree to any changes before they are implemented.

This article was updated on 20 July 2020 to include details about the composition and terms of reference of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which were announced on 16 July 2020. This article was further updated on 18 March 2021 to give additional information about the work of the Commission on Race and Ethnicity and the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm.

Cover image by James Eades on Unsplash.