Britain’s statues – what is the historical reality?

Britain’s statues have long-since been controversial since what exactly they represent is ill-defined. Are they celebratory monuments, or historical relics? An educational tool, or offensive, exclusionary celebration?

Well, the reality is both.

This site has previously referenced the cultural difficulty enshrouding statues – interpretations are as diverse as Britain’s population.

Taking Cecil Rhodes, for example, he might be the philanthropic benefactor to Oxford’s Oriel College, or the brutal coloniser responsible for the subjugation of Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe. As with many historic figures, his legacy is counter-intuitively both convoluted, and simple, depending on how you choose to frame it.

Either way, language can become polarising.

Statue of historic figure Cecil Rhodes
Cecil Rhodes’ statue looking down from Oriel College

Debate over statues was renewed with additional vigour during the BLM protests this summer. Amongst many examples, wealthy merchant and enslaved people-trader Edward Colton was targeted, dramatically toppled and cast into Bristol harbour.

A statue of Civil Rights activist Jen Reid was subsequently and briefly erected onto the empty pedestal. In December, four protestors pled guilty to charges of public property destruction.

More recently, Conservative Secretary for Communities Robert Jenrick has perpetuated this vein of debate, in calling for additional protections against statue’s removal “on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob”.

“We cannot — and should not — now try to edit or censor our past… We live in a country that believes in the rule of law, but when it comes to protecting our heritage, due process has been overridden. That can’t be right. … What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not removed on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob.”

Robert Jenrick

His deliberately explosive language has been criticised by several outlets, accusing him of inciting a “contrived culture war”.

Dr. Halima Begum quoted by The Guardian on this latest statue row

Breaking from historical focus

Anger, and especially slander, is not conducive to rational, history-based debate. Discussing Britain’s statues too often fragments into this form of culture war, warping the reality of our relationship with the past.

In response to Dr. Halima Begum, CEO of racial think-tank Runnymede Trust, a further provocation was unleashed by Andrew Roberts in the Sunday Telegraph. Seemingly intent on inflaming the situation, he claimed:

“Plans to give the public a say over monuments are a blow to the woke Left’s censorship of our history”

Now, I would not identify myself as a militant ‘woke Left activist’. I like to believe I can be an impartial, historical judge. But I found the article frustratingly problematic.

Fundamentally, it just felt… wrong. It entirely missed the reality of new legislation proposed around statues. Around 20,000 structures would be provided a blanket of unilateral and arbitrary immunity from being subject to change, the precise opposite of inviting public input.

Additionally, if the ‘Left’ wanted this change, openness to public suggestions would surely be in their favour? I mean, they are the public too, much as Roberts tried to alienate them.

Official portrait of Robert Jenrick, part of latest statue controversy
Robert Jenrick, igniting the latest statue debate

Instead, leaping to feign dignified victimhood, suggesting “Tories didn’t start the culture war, but they have found a way to win it”, ensures what could be an actual discussion will be continually clouded by misrepresentation.

There appears to be a basic confusion over the challenge presented by statues. They are, at least in some sense, unavoidably an implicit celebration of whomever is displayed. Modifying statues doesn’t represent an altering of our rich historical tapestry, but an acknowledgement that certain figures are not universally celebrated.

Why are statues important?

Needless to say, representation is important. As is maintaining historical openness. Of course, I agree with Jenrick, that statues symbolise a collective heritage. Identifying as British means membership into the ‘British history club’. Examining our past makes for a scintillating tale, whilst censoring any facet of it would be an objectively bad thing.

It would also not be achieved by removing monuments to enslaved people-holders from public spaces. That said, there is some value towards national memory in erecting statues.

Using Winston Churchill as a case study, his statue was vandalised during protests this summer. The word ‘Racist’ was spray-painted over his name. Obviously, such actions are objectionable.

Statue of historic figure Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill’s image in statue, cause for controversy

Was Winston Churchill a racist? In short, yes. A more complex response is to appreciate the contextual values of his society, and to mediate an understanding of his attitudes against contemporaries. Fundamentally, however, he believed in a racial hierarchy favouring white superiority. He did, therefore, possess racial bias which informed some decisions.

It’s still an important statue. To commemorate him does seem to inescapably endorse his values. Though they might have been a product of his time, failing to openly acknowledge that they would no longer be acceptable is historical censorship by omission. It’s rewriting history, by willingly polishing his image.

We alter history every time we study it. Depicting any figure or group inherently promotes their narrative. In analysing WWII or WWI, we typically under-appreciate the value of soldiers from commonwealth nations fighting for Britain. Our tendency is to remember Churchill.

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The inherent value of statues is providing a canvas for our personal projections. Looking at Churchill, I don’t admire a problematic figure operating in the political fringes for much of his career. Instead, he is a central reminder of London, and Great Britain, persevering through the turbulence of WWII. It’s proud, the unity of our nation during the Blitz (even if the myth has been overstated), and the power to overcome fascism in Europe.

Speaking of which, what about other nations? I’d struggle to believe anyone in Germany, school-aged or above, is unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler, or the symbolic resonance of the Swastika. Yet both are banned across almost all forms of media. Hitler’s bunker is unmarked.

Statues are not a precise historical reality.

What to do about statues?

This latest argument promoted by Jenrick seems to revolve primarily around the main controversy central to this entire debate, which is less about historical relevance and more about cultural significance.

If displaying these monuments was truly about education, each would be accompanied by a detailed plaque. The inscription would read, ‘Here stands ‘Important figure’, recognised for various achievements. We acknowledge their lasting impact, and appreciate the damage their may have inflicted. We try to remember *these* other figures.’

Jen Reid statue, to replace historic figure of Edward Colton
Statue of Jen Reid briefly erected in place of Edward Colton

History is all about open, rational, calculated debate. Of course, we each grapple with internal bias, but strive to both overcome and reflect it in our work. There is no space for the anger of modern culture wars.

Someone like Roberts exemplifies the core problem in his article – the focus is rejective a progressive movement, regardless of the impact, and wallowing in some fantasised imagining of ‘Glorious Britain’. This new legislation, granting immunity to statues, pretends they inherently contribute to our understanding of the past.

Should he be genuinely concerned regarding the integrity of our history, Jenrick might instead consider educational amendments to statues, informed by academic, not political, panels.

Throwing statues in the sea is bad, but so is ensuring they remain, unchallenged, for all posterity.


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14 thoughts on “Britain’s statues – what is the historical reality?

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    1. Yes, the difficulty is that statues can offer a window into the past, but a warped and unbalanced one. Preserving that perspective needs to be done with more care. Thanks for reading, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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  1. A truly outstanding post! Statues are erected of people we are supposed to honor, respect and look up to. They are part of the brainwashing of society that those in power deem beneficial. If Britain comes up with a good answer, let us know in the U.S.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and agree. Anytime I think on this topic, I’m reminded as well of Obama’s comments on the Confederate flag – it belongs in museum. It’s a sentiment of rationality more people could afford to have. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting topic!

    How many of us pay attention to the statues we come across?

    How many of us would recognise the name erected on the statue’s plaque we take notice of?

    And when we do, how many of us would be aware of that person’s history? The good, the not so good?

    And when we are aware of both sides of the coin, the intricate matrices, tearing down of the statue / vandalising public property achieves what?

    They History is told by those who had the power to tell it—highlighting what suits and leaving out what doesn’t.

    Let’s hope we can find a way to integrate all we know so that all concerned can have their side of the story told.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s all exactly right – it’s a difficult balance to strike, and will require patience to ensure every story is as fairly told as possible. I do enjoy the statues I see whenever I visit a new town or city, but can’t truly say I fully research their significance. Thanks for reading!

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  3. A very thoughtful post, Tom. I, too, agree that we should acknowledge our history, yet perhaps a plaque would be a better alternative with our ‘history’ being displayed in museums along with other historical pieces?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you agree! My idea for a plaque was to compliment statues being in the public – history can be more engaging when in the open, whilst museums seem to partially remove remembrance of our past from everyday life. Plus, the specific curation of museum material is its own topic. To compromise, our history can still be displayed, but it should be alongside factual reminders. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. We don’t have many statues of important figures here, and perhaps, what’s going on in Britain and the US with regard to statues is the reason why. In fact, the only statue that comes to mind is that of Sir Stamford Raffles, the man who represented the EIC when my country became a British colony. Thanks for sharing your take on the matter, and it is very interesting to read an opinion piece about the legacy of statues beyond what’s covered in the mainstream.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You could well be right. In general, both the UK and US like to be proud of their history, and some do seem to feel threatened when confronted with the uncomfortable reality associated with many of the figures they otherwise cherish. To be honest, I’ve not heard of Sir Stamford Raffles before, but I wish I had – from a quick read, he sounds incredibly significant. Thanks for reading and sharing your interesting thoughts!

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  5. Very informative! I could understand the anger of some persons with the statues that are erected but it doesn’t erase what happened in the past when the statues are taken down. It’s a very interesting discussion, so this was a nice read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found this valuable, thanks for reading! You’re right, in that altering statues doesn’t change history, only our perceptions of it, to the extent that focussing on statues seems to be missing the point a bit

      Like

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