Boris Johnson does not believe that the UK is a racist country, his official spokesperson has said.
The comment came in the midst of ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country, with some protesters drawing parallels between the death of George Floyd in the US and instances of racism in the UK.
Mr Johnson last night said that people have the right to “protest peacefully and while observing social distancing” but warned that the demonstrations had been “subverted by thuggery”.
His official spokesperson made clear that the prime minister regards attacks on police officers during protests as “unacceptable” and sees the destruction of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and vandalism of a memorial to Churchill in London as acts of criminal damage that should be investigated by police.
Asked if Mr Johnson agreed with protesters who described the UK as a racist country, the PM’s spokesperson said: “No. The prime minister doesn’t doubt that there continues to be discrimination and racism, but he would not agree that this is a racist country.
“We have made significant progress on this issue but there remains more to do and we will not be complacent in our efforts to stamp out racism and discrimination where it happens.”
The spokesperson said that when Mr Johnson denounced “thuggery” in a tweet on Sunday evening, “he was talking about the attacks which have taken place against police officers and police officers suffering injuries, and also acts of criminal damage”.
He added: “People have a right to protest and make their feelings known about injustices, but people must protest peacefully and in accordance with the rules on social distancing.”
Asked whether further protests planned for this week should go ahead, the spokesperson said that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had made clear that any which did not comply with the ban of gatherings of over six people were “not lawful”.
However, he said it was a matter for the police to judge what action to take when confronted with large crowds, and said they always have to take into account issues such as the safety of officers.
On the issue of the toppling of the Colston statue, which was dumped into Bristol harbour by protesters who have long campaigned for its removal, the PM’s spokesperson said: “The prime minister’s view is that in this country, where there is strong opinion, there is a democratic process which should be followed.
“People can campaign for the removal of the statue but what happened yesterday was a criminal act and when the criminal law is broken, that is unacceptable and the police will want to hold to account those responsible.
“A crime was committed in removing the statue, an investigation is under way and the police will decide whether a prosecution is possible.”
The spokesperson declined to say whether Mr Johnson would like to see the Colston statue returned to its former place.
Speaking in the Commons, Ms Patel used a statement to condemn the “criminal minority” whom she claimed had subverted the Black Lives Matter protests across the country, adding: “Your behaviour is shameful and you will face justice."
Noting that 35 police officers had been injured during the protests in the capital and 135 people arrested, the home secretary said: “As the ugly tally of officer assaults shows, some protesters regrettably turned to violence and abusive behaviour at the weekend. This hooliganism is utterly indefensible. There is no justification for it.
“There is no excuse for pelting flares at brave officers, throwing bikes at police horses, attempting to disrespect the Cenotaph or vandalising the statue of Winston Churchill, one of the greatest protectors of our freedoms who has ever lived.
“It’s not for mobs to tear down statues and cause criminal damage in our streets, and it is not acceptable for thugs to racially abuse black police officers for doing their jobs.”
The home secretary was also repeatedly urged by MPs to support the removal of statues of individuals involved in the slave trade, with the Labour MP Zarah Sultana telling the Commons: “Statues of racist murderers like Colston can be found in cities across Britain.
“So, I ask the home secretary a simple question: does she believe it is right that black Britons have to walk in the shadows of statues glorifying people who enslaved and murdered their ancestors, yes or no?”
In response, Ms Patel, however, said: “I hope [Ms Sultana] will join me in lobbying Labour councils across the country – where they’ve been in charge for many, many years – to bring about the changes that black, Asian and ethnic minority people would like to see.”
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is himself UK-born of Indian heritage, said that the UK was now “far more inclusive and fairer than at any point in its history” and that the progress made in tackling racial discrimination was “permanent”.
“As a British Asian of course I know that racism exists in this country,” Mr Sunak said in a statement issued on Twitter.
“And I know people are angry and frustrated. They want to see, and feel, change. But a better society doesn’t happen overnight – like all great acts of creation, it happens slowly and depends on the cooperation of each of us toward that common goal.
“The truth is we have created a country far more inclusive and fairer than at any point in its history. Does this mean our story is over? No, but we shouldn’t ignore the hard work of the many generations who came before us.”
Addressing those who caused trouble, the chancellor said: “To the small minority who committed acts of violence and vandalism last weekend, not only were your actions criminal, but they also perpetuate a dangerous lie: that the temporary excitement of destruction is the same thing as change.
“You are, and always will be, wrong.”
He added: “But to the vast majority who seek only peaceful protest within the law and a better future for themselves and their children: whilst our progress feels slow, I promise you it is permanent.”
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