Boris Johnson criticised over 'victimisation' comment as he sets up racism inquiry

PM’s remark about the sense of victimisation felt in BAME communities described as condescending

Boris Johnson has responded to the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests by announcing a government commission to look into racial inequalities. But he immediately prompted criticism by saying he wanted to end “the sense of victimisation”.

The prime minister said what he described as “a cross-governmental commission” would look into discrimination against black, Asian and minority ethnic people in education, health and the criminal justice system.

“We have to acknowledge that when thousands of people march peacefully for Black Lives Matter, you can’t ignore that. I, as a leader, as someone in government, I can’t ignore the strength of feeling,” he said.

Johnson gave no further details of the commission, who would staff it, or its remit or timetable. Rather than make the announcement publicly, No 10 initially restricted the news to an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph, his former employer, and some pre-recorded comments.

Johnson said he wanted to “change the narrative” on race, saying that “what I think’s been slightly lost in all this is the story of success”, with people from BAME backgrounds performing increasingly well at school and university.

Johnson went on to say he wanted to “stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination”, the former word somewhat echoing a controversial article about Liverpool written when he edited the Spectator magazine, which accused the city of wallowing in a sense of victimhood.

Marsha de Cordova, the shadow women and equalities secretary, said the phrase was “condescending”. Lord Woolley, the founder of Operation Black Vote and chair of the government’s Race Disparity Unit, said he was “pleased that our PM has clearly acknowledged the deep-seated and persistent racial inequality in education, health and the criminal justice system”.

But he added: “The use of the word victimisation is an unnecessary distraction and to some will be seen as unhelpful. To be honest, I am sure Boris doesn’t think that, so I hope he and his Whitehall team focus on the challenge of understanding the deep-seated pain that BAME communities have felt over the past weeks and months.”

Repeating his condemnation of violence at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London last weekend, Johnson added: “What we can’t accept is people hijacking peaceful demonstrations and turning them into very ugly attacks on police or public monuments and people who do that will feel the full force of the law.”

According to the Telegraph, the new body will be called the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Johnson’s article for the paper mentions the report only in passing and is mainly devoted to a repetition of his opposition to removing statues of controversial historical figures.

Saying he is “extremely dubious about the growing campaign to edit or Photoshop the entire cultural landscape”, Johnson writes that he would “resist with every breath in my body” any moves to remove Churchill’s statue from Parliament Square, an idea that has not been seriously mooted anywhere.

It will be the latest in a series of reports or inquiries set up by Johnson and his predecessors, which have thus far seen little response in the way of policy.

David Cameron commissioned the Labour MP and now shadow justice secretary David Lammy to put together a report on racial inequalities in the justice system. Another report, about lessons from the Windrush scandal, was begun under Theresa May, who also set up a “race disparity audit”.

Under Johnson, Public Health England produced a report about the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME communities, which was criticised for not making any recommendations.

Labour said Johnson needed to do more. De Cordova said: “We are in the midst of a global health pandemic that has sharply exposed deep structural inequalities which have long since needed urgently addressing. That the prime minister now says he wants to ‘change the narrative’ ... so we ‘stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’ is condescending and designed to let himself and his government off the hook.

“Boris Johnson’s government must acknowledge and act on the racial injustices and should now move to deliver a race equality strategy that sets out plans to reduce the structural inequalities and institutional racism faced by ethnic minorities in Britain.”

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats’ equalities spokeswoman, said the commission was “a welcome first step”, showing the influence of the Black Lives Matter movements in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

But she warned: “Its findings must not become simply another report on a shelf in Whitehall – the government must implement them without delay.

“Conservative ministers must not use this commission to avoid tackling racism and injustice right now. There are measures they could take tomorrow, such as scrapping their hostile environment policies or suspicion-less stop and search, that would begin to heal the divides and achieve true justice for BAME communities.”


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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