For generations in cities and towns all over the UK, serious-looking men (it is nearly always men) have looked down on shoppers and tourists going about their business. In most cases the exploits of these individuals have long been forgotten by most who see them. They are just big lumps of bronze or stone clad in eighteenth and nineteenth century outfits looming over our streets and harbours.
The killing of an ordinary man on the streets of an ordinary city in the United States has changed the way many now look at some of these monuments. They are no longer simple street furniture or convenient meeting places, but have become a stark reminder of some of our less than auspicious history. They now represent the dark side of empire and the far from great aspects of the history of Great Britain.
For a good number of years in the US statues from the dark side of their history have been under attack. Confederate generals and monuments to rebel victories in the American Civil War have been vandalised or removed by local authorities, many of these now reside in museums where appropriate historical facts can be given about what some of these men really stood for. Not a romantic lost cause, but a symbol of institutionalised brutality that turned millions of human beings into property for profit.
Now in the UK the statues of those who built and maintained the British Empire are coming under increased attack. It started with Cecil Rhodes whose statue adorns Oriel College Oxford, probably not so much for his imperialist exploits but for endowing the university with a scholarship fund. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign has been arguing for its removal for a number of years now and the campaign to remove monuments and statues similarly linked to the Empire is now intensifying.
Opinion polls on the subject of should they stay or should they go are remarkably balanced. For every one who wants them gone there is one who wants them to stay. While the reason behind removing them is virtually unanimous, the reason for wanting to keep them is more ambiguous. Not everyone who wants to keep them is an imperialist, a racist or a xenophobe, some just like them for what they are. A street decoration or just somewhere convenient to meet someone. So why should we get rid of them?
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol may very well be an act of vandalism, as described by several members of our present government. The removal of Robert Milligan’s statue was however nothing of the sort, but what is fundamentally of more importance than how the statues were removed is what on Earth were they doing there at all? How is it possible that well into the 21st century we are still displaying images and paying tribute to men who were brutal slave traders and by implication mass murderers. It may very well be the case that these long dead ‘merchants and adventurers’ were philanthropic, giving huge amounts of money to their towns and colleges — but that money was blood money.
How would the supporters of these statues react if the local council in Munich erected a statue to Heinrich Himmler, another mass murdering slave owner from a more recent period
in history? Is it the historical context that matters? Is it only the slave trading empire building characters from Britain’s imperialist past that we need to remove? Some are calling for a more radical approach, even demanding that Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell are removed from the environs of Parliament.
This is the problem with movements, a sound idea in the first instance nearly always overstretches its remit often to ridiculous extremes. In removing statues that cause offence, where will we draw the line?
On the 14th October 2016 in Berkhamsted a bronze bust was unveiled of William the Conqueror, one of the most important Kings in English history. William was a heroic champion undoubtedly, but like the others heroes of our colourful past, he was also a mass murderer and ruthless despot who placed virtually the whole of Saxon England into bond serfdom and massacred tens of thousands of people as an example to others. If Edward Colston was a monster, and he undoubtedly was even by the standards of his time, King William the 1st was no less so.
Sharing the environs of Parliament with Churchill and Cromwell we find another great English, well French actually, king. Richard the Lionheart stands triumphant, sword in hand in the Old Palace Yard. Generations of British school children were educated to believe he was one of the greats. We now of course know that he was a genocidal crusader, who delighted in slaughtering Muslims, with scant regard for the country that reveres him spending the vast majority of his reign on crusade or in France. Why do we celebrate such a man with a statue?
Standing on the wall of the BBC headquarters in Portland Place is another statue with horrific associations. Eric Gill, its sculptor, was a sexual pervert of astounding depravity and the BBC has an unfortunate recent history with people like that. Just as with mass murderers and slave owners, we have to ask what it says about our society that it remains where it is.
The anti-statue movement has its work cut out at this rate just deciding who we can keep and who should go. While it is clear that statues of Edward Colston and his ilk have no place on our streets, someone is going to have to come up with a more coherent strategy for determining which monuments and statues must go and which must stay.
What the statue debate has taught us is that we urgently need to revisit our history and to place in perspective the things we revere and celebrate as our heritage. We cannot preach to others about values when our own are so mixed up.