Issues with police brutality being nowhere near as pervasive or dangerous in the UK as they are in America, the BLM debate here has turned towards Britain’s always complex and often horrifying racial history, and how we remember those who were involved, however distantly, with it. This moment of national self-contemplation has manifested itself in a sort of neo-iconoclasm, with many demanding the removal of certain statues and the renaming of certain places.
When the first statue was toppled earlier this week, my first reaction was: “Edward who?”
Like most, I had no clue whatsoever who Edward Colston was, beyond the BBC’s coverage of him being a slave trader. Turns out he was; a slave trader (both privately and commercially), questionable “philanthropist” and Tory MP. I had no objection to the statue’s removal, there seems to have been little to celebrate and much to abhor about Mr Colston (beyond his backhanded works of philanthropy).
I did, however, hold some qualms over the manner in which it was done, questions about the end goal of the movement and the motivations behind this decision. In the week since we have seen vandalisation and attempts of removal on statues commemorating Churchill, Baden-Powell, Peel, Gladstone and many more.
The debate on each of these individuals usually comes down to this; they played important and usually positive roles in British history, but concurrently held opinions and took actions that we would describe as horrific today. Baden-Powell founded the Scouts but allegedly held Nazi sympathies. Winston Churchill was central to the defeat of fascism but took racially motivated decisions that cost the lives of millions in India and Africa.
Many on the conservative side of the argument believe these men to be paragons of Britishness; great men of history and defenders of the idea of our great nation. Which they were.
Many on the left tend to focus on the fact that that these individuals held problematic opinions and often supported abhorrent actions.
History is complex, and human beings even more so. With modernity comes a temptation to see those confined to history as being two dimensional. Because we are taught about them, because we meet them through a sepia lens, we tend to see those who lived in the past as being a different breed. Human and yet somehow not. Of course, this is not helped by the way we are taught about history but the fault is largely our own.
The point of a statue is to remember an individual, their achievements and their sacrifices. Holding certain prejudices or taking certain actions should not necessarily preclude someone from having their finer qualities recognised. What it should do, is change how we recognise them.
And the last way that should happen is tearing it down, covering it in spray paint, and chucking it in the Avon.
Many have suggested putting these statues in museums, which is a better idea and which should happen to some, but has its own issue in that, very few people actually go to museums. How can we remember and remonstrate without an audience?
Instead, it would be much better to rewrite or to change different plaques, to provide a more holistic perspective on a person’s life; a sort of asterisk attached. In the case of street signs, change the colour to identify it as being named after a person who had mixed qualities.
Ultimately, the idea should be to both commemorate the finer and condemn the worse qualities of the greats of history. Not to blindly ignore, nor to blindly support, but to accurately represent the entirety of an individual; to consume the character, with the context. Neo-iconoclasm will not do that, but neither will staunch defence. We must be truly moderate in our understanding of history.
Read another Backbencher contributor’s thoughts on the trashing of historic statues here.