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Statues, plaques and painful history

August 18, 2020

Statues have been moved and removed, defaced and smashed since ancient times.  As ruling dynasties are supplanted and once powerful states are vanquished their replacements were often keen to sweep away the physical memories of their predecessors.  During the last two centuries archaeologists the world over have found in rubbish heaps or river beds the busts or decapitated statue heads of former kings and emperors.

So while I was initially shocked that some protestors in my home city of Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston and dunked it in the harbour, when I reflected on it I thought it was an appropriate action.  While it was the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota that triggered the Black Lives Matter demonstration, the Bristol context was years of civic foot dragging and burying heads in the historical sands of the city’s involvement in African slavery.

Since the toppling of Colston we’ve seen the defacing of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the toppling of Columbus in Baltimore, the decision of Oxford University to remove a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes and Liverpool University caving in to pressure to remove Gladstone as the name of a hall of residence.

Colston was a wealthy man from the time of Queen Anne, who made much of his fortune from lending money to slave traders.  He was also an official of the Royal African Company. His link to slavery and its 21st century descendant of racism is pretty clear.  The case against explorers is quite weak, they didn’t decide the colonial policies that came later.  The case against Rhodes seems to rest on a belief that imperialism was entirely bad, rather than him being the British equivalent of the Belgian monster Leopold II.

But the case against Gladstone is at the opposite end of the spectrum of 2020 judgement to Colston, it seems to me to be more to do with a left wing score settling against anyone (especially current Liberals) who doesn’t embrace the entirety of their world view.  In their world, there is no room for balance or nuance. A historical life should be viewed in its entirety.  Gladstone was clearly what we would now call a man on a journey.  In his early years he was indeed the “rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories” but by the mid-point of his extraordinary political life he was the “People’s William.”  In his career he achieved far more to improve Britain than the people’s Jeremy.

Statues and place names are physical reminders of particular points in our past.  They are not in themselves history and by moving or changing them we are not erasing the past.  If that past is uncomfortable for contemporary society then liberals have a duty to find a way to reconcile the need to understand history with a desire for a cohesive and inclusive society.  Sometimes the balance will tip in favour of removal of the painful reminder – what could be more of an insult to a 21st century Bristolian of Afro-Caribbean origin than the statue of a slave trader in the centre of the city?  It’s right that Colston will now go to the city museum, as part of the displays on the history of Bristol and slavery.

I’m reminded of a similar situation in Estonia, which I visited on a Liberal Democrat delegation in 2007.  The liberal government had moved a statue of a Soviet soldier from the centre of Tallinn to a cemetery that contained war graves. The Estonians saw the Russians as occupiers and oppressors, not liberators.  This caused consternation in Moscow and Putin responded with a cyber-attack on the Estonian economy.  Most central and east European capital cities have statue parks of communist era politicians.  Statues are indeed powerful symbols from the past.  While on another delegation, to Australia, I saw Dublin’s statue of Queen Victoria which had been shipped off to a Sydney shopping centre, probably the world’s longest journey by a statue.

In most circumstances I believe the balance tips in favour of keeping the statue or place name but with an accompanying plaque or information panel telling the full warts and all story of the person who is commemorated.  As liberals we believe in rational debate, a sifting of the evidence leading to an understanding of a situation, from which we can decide whether and how to change that situation or be content with how things stand.

A totally illiberal way to respond to our past is to demand a complete rearrangement of the facts of history so that they can be judged by or made to conform to contemporary values or opinions.  I recently gave a brief talk to the Friends of a local library on the political language of George Orwell.  We don’t live in an Orwellian society but much of his language and the tactics of the characters of 1984 has seeped into our current politics.  I’m thinking in the context of this article about Winston Smith’s explanation of the work of the Ministry of Truth, “Do you realise that the past, starting from yesterday, has actually been abolished?…Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered….History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”  Some of the more extreme demands to sweep away all the statues and place names that commemorate dead white men come straight out of this Orwellian attitude, perhaps unwittingly.  Yes there is an imbalance of representation in our public art. The answer is not to remove what we have but to put up more statues, busts, murals and paintings to women, people of colour and gay people.  My nomination for the empty plinth vacated by Colston is Hannah More, a Bristolian author, educationalist and campaigner with Wilberforce for the ending of slavery.

To build a modern society that is cohesive and where everyone is valued and enabled to make a contribution, one of things we must do is understand why society is in its current state.  That is the role of history and the job of historians is to give us all the complete and unvarnished facts about our journey from whatever point in the past to our present situation.  That history must be inclusive, not because liberals want a current society that is inclusive but because if the story isn’t inclusive then it isn’t complete.

I’m a Welshman from a working class family.  My favourite subject at school was history and I now live on the English side of the Severn as I studied history at the University of Bristol. I’m also gay, regard myself as a feminist and have campaigned against racism. While I don’t judge a book by its cover I do judge a history book by its contents.  Churchill is supposed to have said that “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” He did, won a Nobel Prize for his efforts and history has indeed been overly kind to him.

Until quite recently most of the history books studied at school or found in bookshops to enjoy for your own learning were written by white, male, straight, English, public school, Oxbridge (or Sandhurst) types.  The stories they told were about men like them.  All things good and indeed bad were done by people like them.  Women were ancillary characters, with a few queenly exceptions.  Poor people and slaves were mentioned in the context of the rights taken away or given to them by the ruling elite.  The homosexuality of some of the ruling elite was swept under the carpet.  One of the most popular articles on my blog is about the historic sites in Britain and their LGBT associations that almost always go unmentioned in their guide books.

Fortunately, schools policy in Wales is now in the hands of a female working class Liberal Democrat Minister.  Kirsty Williams has just launched the first post devolution reform of the curriculum.  I was delighted to see her say that history in Welsh schools will be “taught in a pluralistic way, which challenges both the amazing contributions of Welsh people in our own nation and across the world and sometimes things that should make us feel a bit uncomfortable.”

The young beneficiaries of Kirsty’s new curriculum will be shaping Welsh and maybe British society in the middle decades of this century.  Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own school years to make us better informed. History isn’t nuclear physics, aspects of it can be learned throughout life by people of all abilities.  Those of us who are campaigning to change society in a more liberal direction have a duty to study our past and act to make sure that our contemporary fellow citizens are able to live their lives without being trapped by their past and to look about them and feel that people like them are valued and celebrated in our public space.


This article was written in June 2020 for publication in Liberator Magazine’s July edition

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