Kick over the statues
And the tyrants die
Wave bye bye with a hammer
To their heroes – ha! ha! ha!
The Redskins, ‘Kick Over the Statues’ (1985)
This, as the late David Bowie once remarked, is not America. Unfortunately, that’s never stopped people trying to conflate British and American politics. And so the conflicts this month over Confederate statues in the United States received extensive coverage here, accompanied by a desperate attempt to draw lessons for our own domestic concerns.
A daft proposal by Afua Hirsch in the Guardian, calling for the eviction of Nelson from his column, set the ball rolling. Every phone-in show gleefully seized the opportunity to fill up hours of broadcasting, and other commentators queued to join in: Stephen Bush suggested the statue of William Gladstone in Bow was a bit iffy, Iain Martin offered the hashtag #marxmustfall, and everyone from the Mayor of Great Yarmouth all the way down to Humble Daniel Hannan wanted their voice to be heard.
Well, it is silly season, and this was classic clickbait; at the very least, it made a change from the traditional August coverage of the Elgin Marbles.
But none of it was new.
Even the site of this battle was familiar, though the controversy has previously centred not on Nelson, but on two of those occupying the plinths in the corners of Trafalgar Square: Generals Sir Charles Napier and Sir Henry Havelock, both major military figures in the British occupation of India in the nineteenth century. Back in 2000, the newsreader Jon Snow called for both to be removed, because: ‘They send out the wrong message.’
Later that year, having been elected as the first Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone also spoke out against Napier and Havelock, but in his case on grounds of ignorance not ideology. ‘I haven’t got a clue who they are,’ he admitted, as he argued that ‘the people on the plinth should be identifiable to most of the population’. The idea that it might be worth learning a thing or two, and then using his office to educate the rest of us, didn’t appear to have occurred to him.
Which is a shame, because statuary was undergoing an intriguing change at the time.
In 1992 the Queen Mother unveiled a statue to Arthur Harris, outside the RAF church St Clement Danes in the Strand. The head of Bomber Command during the Second World War, Harris was an uncomfortable figure, largely because his relentless pursuit of area bombing was not how Britain wanted to remember its war. So controversial was the statue that when Robert Harris (no relation) wrote in defence of it, his piece was headlined: ‘The big difference between “Butcher” Harris and a Nazi’. At the unveiling, ten people were arrested when demonstrators interrupted the Queen Mother’s speech with cries of ‘Harris was a mass murderer’.
Harris was – by some margin – the last of the wartime commanders to have a statue, and quite possibly the last military leader who will be honoured in this way. It’s simply not how we see ourselves now. The wartime figure we really want to celebrate is Alan Turing, who has statues in Manchester (erected 2001), the University of Surrey (2004) and Bletchley Park (2007). And even then, the war work is put in its context: the plaque on the Manchester statue gives equal weight to his status as ‘Victim of Prejudice’.
What we really want is something lighter. By the end of the 1990s, the Queen was unveiling a statue to Eric Morecambe in his hometown. Tony Hancock already had his own statue, as did John Lennon, and they were soon joined by Max Miller, Bobby Moore and Billy Fury. Meanwhile, Dundee had Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx. Comedy, music, football: that’s the new Britain. None of that military or imperial baggage.
If there are weighty figures to be recognized, they’re mostly selected in a belated attempt to apologize for the imperial legacy. Nelson Mandela and Gandhi sprang up alongside Churchill, Lloyd George and the other prime ministers in Parliament Square. Next year they’ll be joined by Millicent Fawcett, the first woman to be admitted, which is part of another trend, to redress the lack of women in public statuary: there are forthcoming statues of Alice Hawkins and Victoria Wood in Leicester and Bury respectively, and Cilla Black is already in residence in Liverpool.
The point is that the subjects of statues are interesting not in themselves but in what they say of the society that erects them. That’s why it’s good to have them, and good to keep them. Attitudes change and statuary leaves a record of what we used to think.
Even attitudes to statues change. Among the demonstrators against ‘Bomber’ Harris were members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose spokesman, Nigel Lewis, explained: ‘Our plan was to highlight the fact that it is wrong to commemorate a person who terrorised so many millions of people.’ The RCP’s successor organ, Spiked, on the other hand, has taken a slightly different stance in recent times, with columnist Patrick West describing the so-dubbed ‘alt-left’ as being ‘peopled by intolerant, toy-smashing tosspots’ who display a ‘Khmer Rougesque desire to erase the past’. On the same site, Courtney Hamilton was more forthright: ‘the campaign to smash these statues is not morally right, it’s morally degenerate.’
The positive side to the statuary debate is that it draws attention to pieces of public art that have been around so long they’ve blended in with the street furniture. The fact that a statue was erected to celebrate an individual does not mean that we have to continue to celebrate, but we should at least be conscious of those who were honoured.
And, if we disagree with what they did or said, then we should take the opportunity to say so. More people became aware of Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign of 2015–16 than for many years previously, judging by the number of times he got mentioned in the press; the statue, however, remains in situ:
The problem with the arguments this summer has been that they’ve been neither historical nor democratic, but just another skirmish in a culture war between right-wing pundits and leftist activists.
Small but loud pockets of the Left (particularly on social media) now want statues pulled down, rather than turned into opportunities for public education and debate. That’s a woeful misunderstanding of how to pursue cultural change. From an anti-imperialist perspective, appropriating ready-made Establishment icons in order to exhume the victims of the Empire is surely a better strategy to make Britons consider their colonial history and legacy than removing those monuments.
Meanwhile commentators on the Right have propounded a static view of history that comes perilously close to a passive acceptance of the past.
In both cases, it’s a whitewashing.
The argument that a leftist politics of emotion and identity is threatening to erase British history not only confuses monuments with truth, it also rests on an implicit claim to objectivity on the part of the (largely white) Right. According to this view, we may abhor chapters of Britain’s story, but they are mere facts from another age; the proper attitude toward them is sober and studious. History is no place for feeling or ideology.
That statue-smashing is itself not entirely unBritish – vide the Reformation, the Roundheads – appears not to have troubled this side of the argument. Nor does the idea that a more racially and culturally diverse Britain should seek to re-cast the national pantheon in its own image, just as previous ages have done. Anyway, the heat of this debate belies the notion that only one side is treating history dispassionately.
On the Left the whitewash is the conceit that our current society and morals are a break with the past, and that we can now sit in absolute judgement on our ancestors. It’s the perennial human arrogance: the assumption that we’ve pretty much got our values right this time. Just as the Right is boorish to scoff at an emotional engagement with history – especially on the part of those whose forebears were on that history’s receiving end – so the Left is naïve to apply the moral calculus of now to its understanding of yesterday, and to believe that the same monument must mean the same thing to different times.
At Lion & Unicorn, we like statues. We like the fact that they can challenge as well as celebrate. Though we also feel that, along with new works, we need new and diverse forms too. We ought to be looking at mosaic, murals, cobblestones, gardens, mazes, performance, virtual realities, lightshows and much else. The privatisation of public space ought to be contested with aesthetically and historically provocative new monuments.
And if we’re unhappy with the monuments that we’ve inherited, we could always follow the idea in Edinburgh of adding a charge-sheet to statues: the memorial to Viscount Melville is to have a plaque attached denouncing him for his crimes of imperialism and for delaying the abolition of slavery. Perhaps, though, a plaque is overegging the pudding; perhaps a single, scarlet letter painted on his chest might suffice.
The alternative, of course, is for locally denigrated subjects to be relocated to places where they still cut the mustard. In 2015 a law was passed in Ukraine requiring the removal of all statues from the days of the Soviet Union; only last month a statue of Friedrich Engels, imported from that country, was erected in Manchester instead.
‘Public space is limited,’ wrote Stephen Bush. ‘There are only so many statues in a park.’ But we don’t agree. There’s plenty of room. Statues are good. We should have more of them. Up and down the nation the cry should go out: ‘A statue on every street corner!’