Like the United States, Britain finds itself facing anti-racism demonstrations, in the middle of a culture war, amid a pandemic and an economic meltdown.
The hashtag #worldsgonemad was trending on British Twitter on Friday, as the prime minister posted a tweetstorm defending the heroism of Churchill, a debate raged over an old episode of the sitcom “Fawlty Towers,” and the government released historically brutal economic news.
Britain’s gross domestic product shrank by 20.4 percent in April, compared with March, according to government figures. That’s the largest dip since monthly record keeping began in 1997. Economists say the picture hasn’t been this bad since the free fall that occurred in the Great Frost of 1709, when crops withered, wine barrels burst and people froze to death in their homes.
Of course, the economic pain now is the result of the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lockdown. Britain faces the highest death toll in Europe and has only recently begun to lift restrictions designed to get the virus under control.
Although large public gatherings remain banned, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked mass protests in Britain and prompted a reckoning with how its role in the slave trade and its history of colonialism and empire relate to discrimination today.
The demonstrations have been mostly peaceful but in some places have included attacks on statues and bottles hurled at police. In Liverpool, the road signs for Penny Lane, immortalized in the 1967 Beatles tune, were spray-painted by someone who linked the name to the 18th-century slave merchant James Penny.
On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, author of a Churchill biography, said it was “absurd and shameful” that the wartime leader had to be sheltered in a box.
“Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial,” Johnson wrote. “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past.”
He added that while he understood “legitimate feelings of outrage” over Floyd’s death, the “only responsible course of action” was to “stay away from these protests” because of the government insists that the people must still avoid crowds.
The demonstrations, Johnson also asserted, had been “hijacked by extremists intent on violence.”
Along with Churchill, the Cenotaph war memorial and a statue of President George Washington, a slave owner, were boarded up for protection here on Friday.
Black Lives Matter organizers said they were calling off a protest scheduled for Saturday in London to avoid a clash with far-right groups planning a “defend our memorials” event.
One of the loudest voices on the right has been Nigel Farage. An arch-Brexiteer, political provocateur and President Trump ally, Farage lost his popular radio show on Thursday — with “immediate effect,” his employer stated.
Farage quit his LBC radio slot — or was unceremoniously shoved — following a string of incendiary comments and tweets, including his assertion that Black Lives Matter protesters were acting like the Taliban in their attacks on police and statues.
He warned, “Full-on race riots are now possible.”
Farage has served as gadfly and lightening rod for decades. In a remarkable arc, he keeps losing jobs as he keeps advancing his causes.
“It’s no exaggeration to say Farage has completely altered the course of British political, economic and diplomatic history. You can’t take that away from him,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Farage never won election to the British Parliament, but was a relentless campaigner for Britain to leave the European Union, which won passage in a June 2016 Brexit referendum.
Farage served 20 years in the European Parliament, an institution he disparaged and mocked. He lost his seat there — and another major media platform — when Britain formally left the European Union earlier this year and all its legislators came home from Brussels.
A Farage ally, who campaigned alongside him for Brexit, Andy Wigmore, said, “I don’t think Nigel was that bothered” to lose his radio show.
“He says these outrageous things, these incendiary things, but he has a knack of knowing what people think. He taps into their feelings,” Wigmore said.
With no political post, no political party and no radio show, what next for Farage?
“I think Nigel’s thinking more about America these days,” Wigmore said.
“He certainly won’t disappear,” Bale said. “He’s box office gold. For public affairs shows looking for a right-wing populist, Nigel is your man.”
On Friday, though, British entertainment news was focused on a decision by the BBC-owned streaming service UKTV to pull a rerun of a 45-year-old episode of the sitcom “Fawlty Towers.”
The episode is most famous for phrase “Don’t mention the war!” repeated by the goose-stepping former Monty Python actor John Cleese, as German tourists stay at his shambles of a hotel.
The German joke isn’t the controversial bit; it is another character on the show, an aging guest named Major Gowen, using racial slurs to describe cricket players.
Cleese told the Sydney Morning Herald he wasn’t happy to see the episode temporarily pulled “for review.” “If you put nonsense words into the mouth of someone you want to make fun of you’re not broadcasting their views, you’re making fun of them,” he said.
“If they can’t see that, if people are too stupid to see that, what can one say?” Cleese told the newspaper.
Adam Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.