Some violent protest, or “largely peaceful protest” if you’re a BBC journalist, is more disturbing than others. The weekend’s #BLM demonstrations were among them. Not because they were particularly large scale or, in the great scheme of things, vicious in terms of violence or destruction. We have seen worse and we will see worse again.
What made them poignant was that what they demonstrated was something profound about the country’s lack of moral self-confidence, about the erosion of what the country is and what it stands for and how, as the tail continues to wag the dog, its wider population is fair game for a level of contempt in which its establishment is not just flaccid but complicit.
Watching a black protestor mount a failed attempt to torch the Union flag at the Cenotaph earlier this week one would be forgiven for concluding that, in Britain, everything comes back to the Empire and the War.
It’s understandable. They are the defining elements of our modern history and, of course, related. The country, the population, remain hewn, shaped and coloured by both, even as the war fades from living memory and Hong Kong, a last bastion of pink on the map, kow-tows before what has always seemed the inevitability of Chinese oppression.
Both war and empire called everybody to their service. Some suffered, some prospered. For some it was their greatest adventure and for others their lowest ebb. Life, love and all things rolled by the washing tide of history. And yet from those waters all of us crawled and evolved into today’s society and into today’s people.
Take me as an example. I’m an Anglo-Irish Londoner. My paternal grandfather was the son of a Bethnal Green cobbler. He joined the Army for, as he put it, “three square meals a day and a new pair of boots”. Stationed in Ireland, he met and married a Catholic girl from poverty-stricken Armagh, bringing her back to Hackney before the British Expeditionary Force whisked him away to Dunkirk and the Eighth Army away to the Western Desert.
Two of his sons rose from the Chatsworth Road to law at Trinity College, Cambridge and to medicine at King’s College Hospital and the RAF. “Pop” as he was known, stayed in the East End, took the Knowledge and, by virtue of association, did a nice line in swearing in fluent Yiddish.
On the other side, my mother’s father went from Ragged School to squirehood via India. There he met a woman whose own antecedents had arrived in the sub-continent as Hooghly River pilots navigating the tricky sands of the river between the Bay of Bengal and Calcutta. She was of sufficient Anglo-Indian heritage (chee chee to use the slur) to be denied the tennis club and her first sight of England, “blighty”, was settling, at the outbreak of war, in Warwickshire. Her brother was captured while serving with the Indian Army and worked on the Burma railway before becoming a Cambridge academic. Her sister, a Matron (Colonel) in QARANCS, ran forward field hospitals and held on to a slight Indian accent and a nightly dram of Haig until her death.
These tales of war and empire, rise and fall are revealed not as part of pointless competitive victimhood, ethnic virtue nor, indeed, vicarious heroism. They are just stories of the amalgam that makes the folk of this nation. They themselves would have recognised neither privilege, white or otherwise, nor detriment. Just life.
I remember them, however, and with some pride. They all had their odds to overcome and they made the best of it, largely uncomplainingly, and through some of the most trying times in history and, by implication, influenced my parents, me and therefore my own children. They would be appalled, surprised and then probably suitably dismissive of being woven into the tapestry of a racist nation which dismissed their achievements as “white privilege”.
And it is this that makes Sunday’s events so depressing. That people may feel strongly about the death in the US of George Floyd is reasonable. It takes no great moral compass to divine that it was wrong and unnecessary and the circumstances were symptomatic. That central point is unarguable. The subsequent criminality, the wisdom of protesting that black lives matter while simultaneously exposing BAME people to a virus that kills them disproportionately, less so.
But the extrapolation of a death in the US to burning a flag on the Cenotaph in London, to the vandalism of a statue of Churchill, to the suppression of cogent debate with the blunt tool of “white privilege” and demands to genuflect do a disservice to the trials and endeavours, triumphs and tribulations of those who went before. The “present ticking off the past” to use Hilary Mantel’s memorable phrase, oblivious to its experience or wisdom, blind to their times and ungrateful to their legacy.
Sunday may have been hijacked by left-wing middle class kids whose education has been sifted entirely through the filter of the privilege, bought for them by previous generations, but theirs is a search for purity in history. It will surely come for them in the same way as it does for the authors of any purge.
To un-invent the past, even when it manifests itself in controversial figures like the Bristol slaver – and philanthropist – Edward Colston, isn’t just intellectually vacuous, it’s un-inventing all of us, all the people who steered and brought us to today. There is no nuance allowed by the protestors rolling statues into harbours. For them history is an appropriately black and white affair.
The Orwellian undertow is, of course: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And the past is, for them, a proxy for the politics of today.
In this sinister drive, they appear to have recruited two allies. Firstly, the police, who, in their rush to “take the knee” and describe criminal damage and public disorder as “understandable” have simply decided that the signal they send to the majority in society is that their standards, expectations and, indeed, the law of the land, don’t matter.
Their second ally, of course, is our national broadcaster, the BBC, whose attempts to underplay the situation to the advantage of their own world view have involved qualified descriptions of violent protest.
They both represent so much of what Britain, and the weakened West, has become. It no longer knows what it stands for. And so it stands for nothing. Instead, it is seen running away while a rioter laughs and shouts “Run, Piggy, run!”.