The government is back to its well-tried Inspector Clouseau mode with a public inquiry intended to discredit accusations of institutional racism that has done the exact opposite. This bit of self-inflicted foot-shooting came soon after half-baked efforts to suppress a protest on Clapham Common that guaranteed it worldwide publicity.
The twin debacles have significant features in common. Governments easily persuade themselves that they are dealing with a small group of opponents who can easily be intimidated or marginalised. Frustrated when this fails to happen, the state overreacts, relies increasingly on abusive rhetoric or the threat or use of force, and thereby acts as the unwitting recruiting sergeant for whatever cause it is trying to undermine or eliminate.
Official inquiries in Britain have long been successfully used as a tranquilising dart fired at public opinion when it is outraged over some piece of injustice or failure of government. To be credible, the inquiry needs to be led by high-quality people who often produce critical reports – thus avoiding accusations of a stitch-up – but they do this long after the news agenda has moved on. Political pressure on the government will have ebbed, so reports that urge action in practice replace such action. Remember, if you can, the magisterial Chilcot report on the Iraq war that was finally published in 2016 and was soon forgotten?
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, published this week, broke all these rules and proved ludicrously counterproductive, fuelling the controversy it was supposed to lay to rest. Its partisan membership was so extreme that their report has a crackpot feel to it – even having a good word for Caribbean slavery as a progressive institution – and it has appeared in the middle of the trial of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
The paradox of the race report is that it may have done more to make racism in Britain a live political issue than any number of much superior inquiries in the past whose recommendations were praised for a day or two and then ignored and forgotten. Racism is back on the news agenda to a degree that Black Lives Matter campaigners could never have hoped to achieve.
The same warped thinking inspires home secretary Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that drastically increases police powers to control or ban demonstrations and punish organisers and participants. This misses a fundamental point about the impact or lack of impact of protests anywhere in the world.