I can hardly contain my anger at these Leftists – or are they Right-wing agents provocateurs? – who are distracting attention away from the serious issues of the present day by directing their anger against statues of past ‘imperialists’ who are too old and, frankly, too dead, to be of much relevance to these issues. This Facebook entry – from a Left-wing source – puts the case well: https://www.facebook.com/TRTP4/photos/a.1060700227436420/1494853380687767/.
As it happens I know something about ‘imperialists’. Many of them had pretty dodgy views, but conventional for their day, about the ‘races’ of humankind, and also – by the way – about gender. Yes, Baden Powell admired the work the Hitler Youth were doing for young people in Germany, imparting the kind of discipline, patriotism and outdoor exercise his own Scouting movement was offering British youth – though without the ‘race superiority’ ideology that came with it in the German case. The wide attraction of that to other ‘races’ was illustrated when many of them – Indians, for example – took up ‘Scouting’ too; maybe against BP’s instincts at first, but he was soon won over. In fact today Scouting is one of the great ‘international’, and internationalist, movements. I was a Boy Scout for a short time, with the hat, the scarf, the woggle and everything; I left because I didn’t like the Church Parades and marching generally, but I can’t remember anything particularly ‘Fascist’ about it, even in retrospect. And yes, Churchill certainly shared the racial prejudices of his day and class; and insulted Gandhi; and bore some responsibility for the great Bengal Famine of 1943. But he changed his mind on a lot of things. Even bad people are not necessarily bad about everything, and all their lives.
And these men (Drake is another), and most of the other historical figures whose statues are apparently coming under threat today, were memorialised for their other achievements, quite unconnected with racism or even ‘imperialism’. There are a few exceptions. I accept that the slaver Edward Colston was one. The Belgian king Leopold II is another. He was a real monster, responsible for probably the most brutal example of 19th-century colonial exploitation, in the Congo. There’s a movement going on in Belgium just now to bring down all his statues, too. I must say I won’t shed any tears over him. But even in these cases I still think it would be better, as I suggested in my last post, to let them stand (or sit) on their plinths, with suitable non-laudatory inscriptions, in order to remind us of the darker sides of our respective national histories. I’d even be in favour of a statue in Grantham of Margaret Thatcher, for the same reason. (I’d be happy to provide an inscription for her.)
And there aren’t, after all, all that many of these sorts of statue around in Britain – or England, at any rate. This is a point I made in my The Absent-Minded Imperialists: that imperial or military statuary is far less common in public places in England than in many other countries , like France and the USA; which means that people walking around our towns and cities are hardly likely to be swamped by the propaganda of it – or even in most cases to notice it. ‘Imperial’ monuments are hugely outnumbered by representations of doctors, lawyers, reformers, churchmen, politicians, suffragettes and Gandhi. I know; I made a count of the London ones.
Besides, if you want to rid the scene of racists and imperialists, where do you draw the line? I sometimes fear that my beloved Edward Elgar – generally reputed to be an ‘imperialist’: ‘Wider still and wider, shall thy bounds be set…’ – will be marched to the guillotine next. And – a particular problem here – what about the explorer Henry Stanley, who was just about as ‘imperialist’ as you can get, but one of whose leading motives was to stop the cruel Arab slave trade in central Africa: the one that by and large supplied the Africans to the traders on the west coast who then shipped them over the Atlantic as slaves. (We don’t hear much today about Moslem slavers.) ‘Imperialism’ and ‘racism’ are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, they can sometimes be direct opposites. (To see how, you’ll need – again – to read my British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t.) By saying that, however, I could well be ostracised as an ‘imperial apologist’ myself. Luckily there are no statues of me around.
‘Political correctness gone mad’? Or the work of provocateurs? In either case it’s unlikely to help the cause of ‘Black Lives Matter’. I can already see the gleam in today’s closet racists’ eyes.
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One problem is that memorialising the past, in whatever form, can lead to a maudlin concern with past glories or tragedies that can serve nostalgic nationalism. The English have this tendency to wrap the past, or selective mythical versions, around them in a comfort blanket, as the popularity of the heritage ‘industry’ shows. Are the plethora of military memorials and statues of generals around the country about the mourning casualties, lamenting war or glorifying ‘victories, and certainly the lessons about the dangers of an isolation (1939-40,1945,1960s) have not been learnt. But myths about the empire are perpetuated, including by politicians (Gove) leading to a sense of exceptionalism, while statues and memorials play their part in all this, and leave me very uneasy.
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Doubtless you are correct here in focusing on the statuaries’ plaque messaging. An immeasurable advance in public understanding of history itself, national identity and the meaning of commemoration would be possible, if perhaps not likely. Those that are down are down, Let those left stand, with emendations. As for new commemorative statuary, those with authority to commission it need to do so under advisement from historians in particular.
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