Iconoclasts against Edward Colston and democratic process

In a competitive field, few political topics are as unsexy as arguments about process. The rules over who speaks, in what order, and within what confines are often arcane, fusty, and dull. That Jacob Rees-Mogg, fairly derided as the parliamentarian for centuries past, is the posterboy for such wrangling only emphasises this.

But as the many reports on late-night parliamentary sessions over Brexit proved, such processes are the essence of democracy. The rules can give citizens a genuine input into how things are run, hamstring mighty administrations, or baffle the observer with technicalities. Sometimes all three.

The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a merchant involved in slave trading, over the weekend was the opposite of such rules. Campaigners’ removed the statue from Bristol’s town centre after years of being frustrated by local politicians, the historic listing process, and the Society of Merchant Venturers. (A lack of clear popular support for it is something we’ll come to.)

There is undoubtedly a thrill to watching the bronze hit the pavement. As the archaeologist Neil Faulkner put it on talkRADIO, the event was “a masterpiece of performance art”, though whether it took place in “a carnival of the oppressed” is more dubious.

But however exciting or justified the removal of the statue was, it is a violation of the democratic rules that govern our public lives. A group of mostly young men decided to physically impose their desires on everybody else. This is an abdication of process.

A laughable argument is now doing the rounds that removing the statue is justified because campaigners had not persuaded the authorities to do anything. The historian Kate Williams complained that Bristol had “been debating Edward Colston for years and wasn’t getting anywhere”. But that doesn’t mean democracy wasn’t working, just that it wasn’t giving one side the result it wanted. (Another is now equally disappointed, but at least had played by the rules.)

In politics people often think it is fine when their side does it. But as the conservative writer Mark Wallace pointed out, many – actually, most – people don’t share your intuitions about iconoclasm. It’s likely that every individual who inspires one group to put up a statue would inspire another to tear it down.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this case is that many leftwingers, whose central goal is arguably speaking for the weak against the strong, have endorsed an event where the able-bodied and strong can enforce their will, while the views of the physically weak are discounted. That this took place amid a demonstration against police brutality is even tastier.

A women’s lib organiser is an odd citation at this stage, but Jo Freeman’s essay on The Tyranny of Structurelessness makes a relevant point well. Freeman notes that feminist movements were often suspicious of structured political discussion, with many activists having suffered under the dominance of older structures.

The trouble, Freeman argues, is that informal structures inevitable emerge in groups because people have distinct talents, dispositions and backgrounds. “A ‘laissez faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez faire’ society,” she said. “The idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.”

The activists pulling down Colston’s statue are not free-spirited representatives of public will, but rivals to the more widely-accepted, transparent, pluralistic and egalitarian process that underpins Bristol City Council. The council is the proper representative of Bristolian will and it was wrong for a political faction to take matters into its own hands.

All this is redolent of the disappointing trend in British public life to hold processes in contempt when the result goes against you. The attempts to ignore the referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union is perhaps the most notable example, but Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s governments hardly decorated themselves on this count either. Parliament’s obtuse procedures – always easy targets for abuse – were exploited by all sides.

So while Colston’s statue will mark the climax of later documentaries on the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, it could just as well be a physical sign of how Britons are abandoning democratic process to blunt force. Even if you think the slaver deserved his new residence in Bristol Harbour, this is a dispiriting result.

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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