Before Edward Colston took a dip in Bristol harbour the prospect of problematic statues being removed in Britain was a mere glint in Afua Hirsch’s eye. Horatio Nelson, the one-armed, fornicating hero of Trafalgar, was her preferred target for his defence of slavery, but any old white man would probably have sufficed.
That at least seems to be the conclusion of other would-be iconoclasts, who are now compiling a map to “topple the racists”. Nelson features on it several times, naturally, along with Clive of India, Captain Cook, and Robert Peel. As well as removing statues the activists want to rename street names and buildings, including such oddities as the Horniman Museum round my way.
I’ve previously noted there is no obvious limiting principle for such activity. Almost every historic figure will have some past we don’t approve of. Winston Churchill was for example a racist, as the graffiti on his recently-obscured statue in Parliament Square noted. If helping to defeat Adolf Hitler doesn’t exculpate him, nothing will.
Ironically for a movement so concerned with symbolism, there’s a distinct lack of awareness that few of the statues being targeted actually “celebrate slavery and racism”, as the above map claims. Colston’s statue made no reference to the slave trade, for example, focusing on his charity. Statues usually commemorate specific achievements, not a person’s entire legacy.
Also lost amid the Colston hubbub is the fact that historians aren’t that sure how much of his income was taken from slavery, which seems an important detail. More widely credited is Colston’s political and religious intolerance in his business and charitable dealing: surely traits any right-thinking progressive would hope to emulate. Perhaps this was all a tad premature?
Looking equally premature are the decisions by some TV companies to pull classic British programmes newly discovered to have problematic content. Little Britain was first to go, followed by the Mighty Boosh and one episode of Fawlty Towers. The presenters Ant and Dec also requested that several sketches in which they had impersonated black people be pulled.
Sceptics of this trend are fighting an unconvincing rearguard action as they retreat, claiming that these things should be saved for ‘education’. The fact that the slave trader Robert Milligan was removed literally from outside a museum about the docklands he helped build is a sign such half-measures are unlikely to assuage the zealots.
Arguing for compromise with people who see life as an endless quest for justice is at best a stopgap, because they always come back for more. Like a self-improvement addict, a society can always become purer, atone more strenuously, denounce more severely the wrongs of the past.
The real reason such monuments should stay is not to provide fodder for whatever fashionable drivel the universities are pushing that week. They should stay because they are part of our history and heritage, much like the disused castles, harbours, and other old structures that decorate our landscape. They mark what mattered to the people who lived before us, agreeable or not.
There is of course a risk of fetishising the past or refusing any changes on the grounds of tradition, but adding to your forebears’ contribution is distinct from sanitising what’s come before. The point was made, albeit inadvertently, by the Guardian writer Owen Jones, a keen promoter of the anti-statue campaign:
You know what’s really “hating Britain”? Thinking the bits worth defending are colonialism, Empire and racism. Let’s celebrate instead the Levellers, the Chartists, the trade unionists, the suffragettes, the anti-racists, the LGBTQ activists. And let’s give them more statues!
Jones and his ilk cannot respect the past on its own terms, feeling obliged to condemn every misdeed that’s occurred within these islands and chastise historic figures for views that were avant-garde until yesterday. Genuine patriotism, like genuine love, is not conditional on such demands for improvement.
As the writer Ben Sixsmith said, “Imagining that you’re going to have a sensible debate about the rights and wrongs of British history with people like this is like imagining you’re going to have a sensible debate about the rights and wrongs of your best friend with people who are trying to kick him in the head.”