Why is Boris Johnson defending the Winston Churchill statue against no serious threat?

The Prime Minister is diverting political attention from the serious issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests. 

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An experienced spinner for one of the main UK parties once told me a useful rule of thumb for politics, as for life: “everything before the ‘but’ is bullsh*t.” It came back to me today as I read Boris Johnson’s column for the Daily Telegraph.

The Prime Minister’s piece begins with a few lines condemning the violence of “far-right thugs” who demonstrated over the weekend. “There is nothing that can excuse their behaviour,” Johnson writes. “And yet it was also, frankly, absurd and deplorable that the statue of Winston Churchill should have been in any plausible danger of attack.” 

There is no “but” in the above, but there is an “and yet”. And indeed, the rest of the op-ed is a passionate declaration from the Prime Minister that he will defend the statue of Churchill on Parliament Square “with every breath in my body”, the same cause that the far-right thugs he condemns believed they were fighting for.

There are limits to the applicability of the spinner’s phrase, and I am not for a moment suggesting that when the Prime Minister condemns the violence, racism and thuggery of the far-right over the weekend, he doesn’t mean it. But I always find it helpful to note what comes before the “but” or “and yet”, and what comes after. 

It is notable that a defence of the Churchill statue should be the Prime Minister’s main response to the fractious weekend we have just witnessed. Yes, it is indeed the case that the statue was vandalised during recent Black Lives Matter protests (as it was during the 2010 student protests against tuition fees and in 2000, when anti-capitalist demonstrators gave the statue a green mohawk). 

Yes, it is also the case that the Churchill statue was boarded up for protection ahead of this weekend’s protests, along with other statues on Parliament Square, including one of Nelson Mandela. This, again, has also happened during past protests. 

But there are no serious calls for Churchill’s statue to be removed: neither from any of the main parties, nor the Black Lives Matter movement. I have not found any petition demanding its removal with more than a few thousand signatures, except for a joke petition, calling for the statue to be replaced by a Netflix anime character. In fact, the main petition related to the Churchill statue is one begun by the Daily Mail, calling for its defence. I can find only a single example of a Black Lives Matter activist calling for the statue’s removal – in this case, for its peaceful transfer into a museum – in an interview with BBC News after the fate of the statue became a matter of national debate. 

From his days debating at the Oxford Union, the Prime Minister will be familiar with what is known as the “straw man fallacy”: a misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument to make it easier to rebut. By defending the statue of Churchill against no serious threat, Johnson is putting forth a straw man (or, if you like, a straw statue). 

“We need to tackle the substance of the problem, not the symbols”, the Prime Minister also writes, announcing, in a brief aside, that he is to launch a new commission on racial inequalities. But, as I write here, this move itself is more symbolic than substantive, deferring action on this issue for at least another six months while the government sits on a plethora of “oven-ready” recommendations from previous reports into racial disparities in the UK. 

As the Prime Minister devotes a newspaper column to concern over the fate of a statue that is under no serious threat, he diverts the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests back to politically comfortable terrain: law and order, a beloved war hero, and, perhaps dangerously, a culture war in which there is the implicit suggestion that aspects of the Black Lives Matter discussions verge on the frivolous. But if there is anyone failing to address the serious issues at the expense of an absurd conversation about the statue of Churchill, it is the Prime Minister.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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