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Boris Johnson has said tearing down statues amounts to “lying about our history” and that it is “absurd and shameful” for a monument to Winston Churchill to be boarded up ahead of expected protests this weekend.
The prime minister said the wartime leader’s statue in London’s Parliament Square is “a permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country – and the whole of Europe – from a fascist and racist tyranny”.
“We cannot now try to edit or censor our past,” he wrote in a string of tweets. “We cannot pretend to have a different history.”
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Mr Johnson added that the “only responsible action” was to stay away from planned anti-racism protests this weekend, which he claimed had been “hijacked by extremists” and would “end in deliberate and calculated violence”.
In later comments, the prime minister said there had not been enough focus on the “positive stuff” in terms of the progress being made in racial equality in the UK.
Speaking to broadcasters, he said: “What I would say to everyone thinking about this issue is that I totally understand why people feel outraged, certainly about what happened in Minnesota and the death of George Floyd.
“Everybody understands the legitimate right to protest against discrimination, against racism, in our society.
“I think this is a country that has made huge progress in tackling racism.
“We should look sometimes at the positive stuff – we’ve got more young black and minority ethnic kids going to university than ever before, more black kids doing the tougher subjects at school, doing better than ever before in school. We don’t hear enough of this positive stuff.”
But, he acknowledged, there is still “much more work to do” in fighting racism in the UK.
A protective box was placed around the tribute to Churchill in Parliament Square after it was targeted during Black Lives Matter protests last weekend.
The statue was vandalised with the words “Was a racist”, while the Cenotaph, which has also now been protected, was also targeted.
The protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the US, saw clashes between protesters and police in London, while in Bristol a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and dumped in the harbour.
Asked about the fate of other monuments, such as those of slave trader Robert Milligan in London and Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell in Dorset, a spokesman for the prime minister said Mr Johnson referred to the “statues in our cities and towns”.
The spokesman said: “As he said earlier this week, there are democratic processes for this sort of thing and that’s what should be followed.”
Pressed on whether the prime minister would apologise for his own controversial comments on ethnic minorities, the spokesman said Mr Johnson’s past remarks were “addressed during the election campaign”.
The spokesman would not be drawn on whether streaming services were right to withdraw controversial TV programmes from their platforms, after UKTV removed an episode of the classic 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers.
Additional reporting by PA