It’s no surprise that reactions to protesters’ removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol have included liberals worrying about the rule of law. The outrage, not at the statue honouring a slave trader, but at its removal by a ‘mob’ rather than by democratic means without visible legal ramifications, has been notable.
What is vital is the equal application of fair laws.
The rule of law, after all, is central to liberalism. Right?
Not quite. What is vital is the equal application of fair laws. And these protests were born out of anger that the law and police treatment have not been equally and fairly applied to many black people and communities of colour.
Since 1990, there have been 1,741 deaths following contact with the police in the UK. This, of course, is a problem in itself. But when paired with the fact that black people are twice as likely as white people to die in police custody, the very unsettling reality of the unequal policing of black people is hard to ignore.
the very unsettling reality of the unequal policing of black people is hard to ignore
Of course, not all of these deaths will have involved wrongful or illegal behaviour by police officers. But even if you assume that a very low proportion of those 1,741 deaths were in some way caused by police misconduct, you would expect a fair number of cases to have resulted in the successful criminal prosecution of an officer.
So how many officers have been prosecuted following the investigation over 1,741 deaths?
Zero. Not a single prosecution, for the loss of 1,741 lives.
Where’s the rule of law in those situations? Why aren’t we, as liberals who believe in the fair and equal rule of law, up in arms about this?
This is why we need to care about the rule of law all the time. Not just some of the time, or when it matters to us, but as a critical, non-negotiable part of our beliefs. The contrast between shouting about the illegal removal of an offensive statue, and the silence about the unequal treatment of black people by police and in the legal system, has made that clear.
I’ve made a mistake in how little I talked about the unfair legal and penal issues facing people of colour.
We need to be honest with ourselves - about how easily we liberals can slip into only worrying about the rule of law some of the time. I’ll be the first to say that, scrolling back through my website and social media postings, I’ve made a mistake in how little I talked about the unfair legal and penal issues facing people of colour.
If that’s true for you, too, let this be the start of a learning curve. Across the globe, we’re seeing Black Lives Matter protests, the largest protests against police brutality and racism since the civil rights protests in the 1960s. This is a pivotal moment in history. There’s never been a more important time to reassess the connection between the rule of law and race.
We certainly need to get our history right. Many have claimed that the removal of Edward Colston’s statue is a whitewashing of history. In fact, Edward Colston's statue itself was an attempt to rewrite history long after the events, not being put up until over a century and a half after his death. Those who put it up knew full well the horrors of slavery. Yet they put on a plaque that he was, "one of the most virtuous and wise". They were not trying to preserve or explain history; they were airbrushing history.
a monument to the racism that unfortunately persists in British society
Campaigners have long tried to have the statue removed through democratic channels, with little success. Overwhelmingly white decision-makers may not have felt the urgency or desperation of those campaigners. For a white person, Edward Colston might just have been a statue. For a black Bristolian, it might be a daily reminder of the suffering generations before them faced, a monument to the racism that unfortunately persists in British society.
A key part of reassessing our relationship with the rule of law is acknowledging the lack of diversity in those who make, change, and uphold the law.
In all areas of society, we need to foster diversity. The Edward Colston statue debate is a prime example of why this is so important. Outside of the specific democratic bodies that should have allowed for the statue to be removed legally and safely, a debate has been sparked about whose voice is heard in the retelling of Britain’s history. Many institutions are now reassessing the historical figures they choose to honour with statues and other commemorations.
It’s vital that we have those conversations, but what’s even more important is that we make a range of voices heard in them. We need to ensure that our museums and public spaces properly record and explain all the parts of our history, not just those in power in the past would like us to know.
Whatever mix of new statues, removals of old or relabelling of remaining statutes that may mean, in making those decisions, the voices of those - such as the chair of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Racial Equality Roderick Lynch, whose ancestors were enslaved people from the Caribbean paradise island of Saint Lucia - must be clearly heard.
Every one of us needs to evaluate what the equal and fair rule of law means to us.
Cast your mind back to those shocking police figures. 1,741 dead. Black people being twice as likely to die in police custody. Every one of us needs to evaluate what the equal and fair rule of law means to us. Think about what those protesters who removed the Edward Colston statue were aiming to achieve; action on disproportionate policing of black people, to take a stand against global systemic racism, to raise awareness of the persistence of the scourge of racism in British history and its lingering effects in today’s society.
I hope that all of you, like I do, want to be more voluble about the laws protecting the lives of black people and communities of colour than the laws protecting inanimate stone.
So yes, as a liberal I believe in the rule of law.
But no, that’s not the thing to focus on about events in Bristol.