Royal Commissions and Legacies of Colonialism

On 31st March, the UK government published the findings of the Commission on Race and Disparities in, what has been termed, the Sewell Report. In this 258-page report, the Commissioners outlines their key findings about the contexts of racial discrimination and inequality in UK. Despite recognising that the nation is not ‘yet a post-racial society’ (9), the Commission reflects positively on the steps that have been taken towards equality of opportunity within various sectors.

Indeed, it argues that the UK’s model for ethnic minority education should be ‘regarded as a model for other White-majority countries’ (9). Overall, the nine Commissioners and two Co-opted members argue that their inquiry has found no evidence of structural or systemic discrimination against racial or ethnic minorities in the UK. They insist that academics and activists shift beyond the ‘prism of White discrimination’ and instead explain minority disadvantage through the multiple other reasons for minority success and failure, ‘including those embedded in the cultures and attitudes of those minority communities themselves’ (11).

Ultimately the report abdicates the state from acknowledging the deep-seated and on-going colonial legacies and entrenchement of racial inequality in this country, focusing instead on individualising instances of disparity rather than connecting these instances to broader patterns of prejudice and white supremacy.

This 2021 Commission speaks to longer lineages of methodology and perspective in state-led inquiries. Our project examines the Mesopotamia Commission (1917) and highlights the efforts made to individualise blame, rather than focus on the structural cultures that influenced decision-making and military instinct. Commissions benefit the state in their temporal and individualising processes, reinforcing the idea of ‘a few bad apples’ and encouraging the public to ‘move on’ following the publication of findings. The technocratic and legal power of an inquiry empowers the Commissioners to provide a ‘truth-making’ function, drawing a line in the sand of a complex dispute and abdicating the state from any responsibility or self-reflection. State-led inquiries and commissions, therefore, sustain the same structural inequalities and systemic hierarchies that these institutions are trusted to scrunitise, uncover, and build a path to repair.

Below are some instances of commentators reacting to the Sewell report, drawing on the legacies of colonialism and structural prejudice that remain a source of controversy within the UK race debate despite extensive alternative reports, research, and experiences.