Boris Johnson has announced a “cross-governmental commission” to look at all aspects of racial inequality in the UK as he admitted there is “much more that we need to do” to combat racism.
The prime minister said “no one who cares about this country” could ignore the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept Britain following the police killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, in Minneapolis last month.
However, he criticised attempts to “rewrite the past” by removing statues of well-known historical figures.
Mr Johnson on Friday condemned the defacing of statues during the Black Lives Matter protests. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan ordered protective hoarding be put up around monuments on Whitehall and in Parliament Square after the statue of Winston Churchill was vandalised in earlier rallies.
Last week Mr Johnson denounced the “criminal act” that saw Bristol protesters throw a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston into the harbour of the west of England city.
On Sunday the prime minister also hit out at rightwing protesters who pelted police officers in central London on Saturday. That protest was called in response to the damage to the statues the previous weekend.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, Mr Johnson said: “No one who cares about this country can ignore the many thousands of people who have joined the Black Lives Matter movement to protest peacefully, as most of them have, in the last few days. It is no use just saying that we have made huge progress in tackling racism.
“There is much more that we need to do; and we will. It is time for a cross-governmental commission to look at all aspects of inequality — in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life.”
Mr Johnson also said he wanted to “change the narrative” and “stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination”.
Marsha de Cordova, the shadow women and equalities secretary, described the language as “condescending” and said it was “designed to let himself and his government off the hook”.
Mr Johnson called for the UK’s heritage to be left “broadly in peace”, adding: “We need to tackle the substance of the problem, not the symbols.
“We need to address the present, not attempt to rewrite the past — and that means we cannot and must not get sucked into never-ending debate about which well-known historical figure is sufficiently pure or politically correct to remain in public view.
“Let’s fight racism, but leave our heritage broadly in peace. If we really want to change it, there are democratic means available in this country — thanks, by the way, to Winston Churchill”.
The Conservative government has come under criticism in recent years for the Windrush scandal over the treatment of Commonwealth immigrants to the UK, the Grenfell Tower fire, which disproportionately killed people from ethnic communities, and the high number of black and Asian victims of coronavirus.