Statues, monuments, and the history they represent have found themselves at the epicentre of a culture war, that started with the callous killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and which rapidly spread around the world in the form of mass protest and civil unrest. In the United Kingdom, the spectacle of Edward Colston’s statue being thrown into Bristol Harbour, the defacement of Winston Churchill’s statue with the words “is a racist” in Parliament Square, and the threats of damage to other statues such as that of Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell in Poole, was enough to ignite fierce debate on both sides on how, and indeed if, these statues should be displayed. Beyond this, it has also raised wider questions about whether statues constitute history, and whether the moral standards of today can be used to judge the actions and values of the past.
Whilst browsing Facebook, I came across a lengthy post on this topic from a history teacher that was receiving a lot of attention and which had amassed a lot of likes, shares and comments. It was an interesting read, and it made a welcome change from the anger and toxicity that we have witnessed over the past few days and weeks. I agree with a few of his points, but disagree with most of them, and I thought that I would elaborate on the areas of disagreement below.
Statues are not history. History can be found in museums, books and history departments. Statues are an attempt to celebrate someone. We do not learn history from statues and we do not forget history when there isn’t a statue. We have not forgotten Hitler because statues commemorating him as a great leader have been ripped down and similarly we have not forgotten Jimmy Savile because statues celebrating him as a philanthropist no longer exist.
Statues are history, for better or worse. The fact that they were originally created and placed in public to celebrate and commemorate people, at least by the people who commissioned them, doesn’t declassify them as such. They are a freeze frame of the past, and not just the superficial historical aspects of names, dates, and places. More specifically they are a freeze frame of society’s attitude towards these people and the way that they conducted themselves both morally and practically, which is itself a part of our history for better or worse. Plenty of people do learn history from statues, and it’s usually the same people who do not have the luxury of having the time, or access to, museums, books and history departments. Statues can also inspire people to learn more about these historical figures, including the very worst parts of their past, and on this point I can agree that more needs to be done within education to present the whole picture of the lives and works of these historical figures, and not just their successes and achievements.
The United Kingdom should not have statues of slave traders to celebrate their philanthropy. Regarding Edward Colston, the council should have removed that statue long ago, several petitions on this were made. The act of ripping it down is as much an act of history as the act of putting it up.
On the removal of Edward Colston’s statue specifically, there was a lengthy debate involving Bristol City Council and the local residents about its removal that remained unresolved for years, and I don’t take any issue with its removal. However, whilst the act of ripping it down is now an act of history, as was the case with the Berlin Wall, I would hope that you would agree that statues, if they are to be removed, should be done so by democratic and peaceful means, and not by mob rule which has the unwanted effect of exacerbating tensions and divisions, as we have seen for ourselves.
Removing these statues is not rewriting history, putting the statues up was an attempt to rewrite history, it was part of Britain’s attempt to gloss over its barbaric past with fake conceptions of civility and charity. Judging by people’s lack of knowledge of empire, it worked. Moving such statues into museums with notes explaining their awful deeds would be remembering history, both the act as it happened and the Victorian attempt to rewrite it.
Removing statues is not rewriting history, of course, but I am fascinated by this now popular idea that moving them into museums will somehow solve the problems that have led to this whole debate in the first place. Given the choice between keeping these statues where they are in view of the public, where their history, both good and bad, can be openly and honestly confronted, and reducing their visibility in museums where visit numbers have stagnated over the past few years, I know which option I would prefer. I also reject this idea that the public has a common perception of these statues, which is one of celebration and commemoration. If, as you say, people have a lack of knowledge of empire, and other aspects of Britain’s barbaric past, then I think it’s probably less to do with the presence of commemorative statues and more to do with the quality of history education, both in schools and also in history books and online resources.
That said, slave traders are an easy target. Most of us can agree slave traders shouldn’t have statues celebrating their philanthropy. When others like Peel and Gladstone come into view, problems emerge. These people were problematic, they did have some abhorrent views, but they also did some good. The good they did needs to be balanced up with the bad and an adult conversation should be held between councils, citizens and interest groups on these more complex cases. Most historical characters will have been racist or homophobic to some degree, there is a difference between this and making personal wealth from enslaving people. Some of these more complex cases will need to come down and some won’t, however, if activists push too hard on statues like Gladstone, support for any kind of movement to better remember history as it was by removing statues of abhorrent people will disappear.
Whilst I agree that slave traders make a decision about the removal of their statues a much easier one, for statues of other historical figures, this is a dangerous slippery slope to go down. It doesn’t matter how many individuals or groups are part of the consultation process, at the end of it all, a line has to be drawn to demarcate which statues stay and which statues are removed, and on what criteria do you base that decision? It also raises the larger question of whether the moral standards of today can be used to judge the actions and values of the past. Is this a slippery slope that we want to go down? If our end goal is to fight and eradicate racism and bigotry, then I think that the removal of selected statues is putting the cart before the horse, and will in fact have the opposite effect. As I have previously stated, a much better use of our time and energy would be to improve our history education and resources, so we can instead improve the lens through which we see and perceive these statues.
There are two final things I would say in closing. The first is that I am happy that we are having a culture war right now. It’s uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing. It should be uncomfortable, as it means that we are finally having to confront difficult and all-too-often casually dismissed aspects of our lives, both past and present, that we have, until now, given very little thought to. The second is that despite what Facebook and Twitter show us, the vast majority of people are fundamentally good people. Social media, as we all know, is comprised of many echo chambers, but it is also itself one big echo chamber, and it is rarely an accurate reflection of the world around us. Walk outside your home, see how people who occupy the ordinary and everyday aspects of daily life behave. It is regrettable that there are a small minority of people who benefit from sowing division into the public, often through the media, and we should reject this at every turn.