Tear them down? Reconciling the dark past with a modern Britain


In the wake of the death of George Floyd, and the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement on a global scale, Britain is in the midst of its greatest reckoning with race in a number of decades. While initially reacting to Floyd’s death, the movement has since turned a mirror on British society, and the picture isn’t pretty. Britain’s public space is dominated with statues and memorials to an almost exclusively white imperial past. The question of how to reconcile this with any ideal of a deracialised modern Britain is a vital one, and one that is too complex for simple solutions from either side of the political spectrum.

The tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, June 7th, is one of the seemingly more simple cases in this now national debate. Colston is not one of the more complex figures in British history; while an avid philanthropist, significantly more importantly he was a slave trader. His raison d’être was the enslavement of Africans for personal economic gain. Such a man has no place for public commemoration, as ultimately commemoration is the most permanent form of celebration. To bring these statues down is not to “edit”, “censor”, or “lie” about our past, as Boris Johnson claims, but rather to address not just Bristol’s, but Britain’s dark past. This is something we have been doing for far too long.

[blockquote author=”” ]Churchill was not simply a product of his time[/blockquote]

Unfortunately much of the history, and much of the commemorative debate, in this country is significantly more complex, more ambiguous. In few other places is the tension in British history more acute than in the figure of Winston Churchill. In the past twenty years Churchill has both been voted the ‘Greatest Ever Briton’, in a poll with over one million respondents (BBC 2002), and publicly accused of being a racist through a spray painted message on the foot of his statue in Parliament Square.

In parts, he can be interpreted as both. This is why history and the statue debate is so complex. To be clear, despite living in a time of relatively widespread racist attitudes, Churchill was not simply a product of his time. His views, most notably on the Indian population, were and are exceptional, abhorrent, inexcusable, and fundamentally racist. Both Johnson’s and the public’s unambiguous description of him as a “hero” is telling of a clear, unaddressed, white privilege. Yet, for a time, Churchill was a great unifying force within this country and played an important role in the defeat of The Third Reich.

[blockquote author=”” ]Britain, especially white Britain, must shed its ignorance of our dark past, understand its complexities, and realise its legacies today[/blockquote]

It is this complex historical tension that creates the need for British society to properly understand its statues. Rather than blindly defending them, or calling for all historically difficult statues to be pulled down, society must engage with them. A nuanced understanding is required, not because the racists deserve historical redemption but rather because racial history is so fundamentally embedded in the furniture of British public space that the only true choice is to reconcile our history with our future. As pointed out by Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies as Birmingham City University, to criticise and question the legacy of Colston is to question the foundations of Bristol, and to question Churchill is to question Britain. These are questions that must be asked; these are questions that must be answered.

The unfortunate fact remains, however, that much of Britain was built on the back of imperialism and racism. Whether it be the wealth of Bristol and Liverpool, or The Mall in London, with both the Victoria Memorial and Admiralty Arch constructed to make London a place more fit for imperial ceremony (in the eyes of the Queen and her advisors), Britain’s troubled history is all around us. In all likelihood the statues of slave traders must go, and Britain will be a more inclusive country for it. It is estimated that there are only fifteen outdoor statues of named black figures in the whole of the UK, by comparison there are fifteen statues of white men who ‘directly profited’ or ‘personally invested’ in the slave trade. The same number of slave traders are memorialised as all black Britons combined. This must change (BBC Article 13 June). But the most important legacy of the removal of the Edward Colston statue should not simply be a nationwide removal of statues but rather a catalyst for the opening up of a crucial and long overdue public dialogue, and education, on the history of race and empire within our own borders. Banksy’s concept art for the Colston statue, re-erected in the very act of being torn down, seems the perfect metaphor for how we must now grapple with our history, not to necessarily to destroy it, but to create it, to understand it. Beyond the statues and the memorials, structural change is required today. But to create change, Britain, especially white Britain, must shed its ignorance of our dark past, understand its complexities, and realise its legacies today.

Image: Tony Webster. Available via Flickr.

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