Anti-Imperial Statues

Britain, being a complex country – and I don’t just mean the English-Scottish-Irish-Welsh-possibly Cornish thing – has many histories. Imperialism is one of them, and the most visible – all the red blotches on those old maps – but is by no means the only or the most important one. Other broad themes will occur to anyone who has studied British history in any depth, many of them arising out of Britain’s radical tradition, from the Peasant’s Revolt (at the latest) to the BLM movement of the present day. That tradition has contributed at least as much to our (British) identity as have the more ‘traditional’ traditions, like the Monarchy, the Navy, the House of Lords, Empire and forelock-tugging, that are usually the ones highlighted by present-day Conservatives, English Nationalists and neo-Fascists; and could be said to be represented by the public statuary that the Right is so keen on ‘protecting’ today.

One strand in that tradition is anti-imperialism. Britain didn’t invent imperialism; but she could be said to have invented anti-imperialism. By that I don’t mean merely opposition to an empire that is afflicting you, but opposition to ‘imperialism’ generally, and on principle. So American opposition to the British Empire at the time of the War of Independence doesn’t count, because most of the American rebels in 1776 weren’t at all adverse to their independent United States doing a bit of imperialising of their own: to the west and south, of course, at the expense of the Native Americans, French and Spanish; to the north, in the war against Canada of 1812; and then all over the place. (See my Empire and Superempire, 2006.) Britain, by contrast, was the country in which a general and genuine anti-imperialist movement was formed, sustained by a general and genuine anti-imperialist ideology. That ideology’s high priest was John Atkinson Hobson, about whom I wrote my first book, Critics of Empire (1968). Since him anti-imperialism has formed a crucial part of the British story, usually on the political Left, but also intruding in crucial ways into British imperial policy, and influencing the End of Empire, when it came. (You’ll have to read my other books to see how.)

Is there a statue to him? I’ve Googled ‘Hobson’ and ‘Statue’ but not found one. Perhaps there ought to be, to leaven the imperial bread. (Is that the right expression? I’m not into baking.) A good place for him would be Derby, where he was born and brought up. Other possible candidates – some of these may well be statued already – I’ve not checked – would be Richard Cobden (there must be one of him in Manchester), ED Morel, Palme Dutt, Emily Hobhouse, Leonard Woolf, and dozens of others; ending up, of course, with Jeremy Corbyn. All these, together with– this is Kajsa’s idea – group statues representing some of Britain’s imperial victims: gangs of black slaves, of course; Indian mutineers shot from guns; Cromwell’s Irish victims; Amritsar massacrees (?); even, perhaps, some Boers. A bit like Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. And – I would add – some of the victims of Britain’s brutal factory system in the 19thcentury: ‘wage slaves’, they were called; in order to emphasise that some of us (white British) suffered as well. They could model that one on my granddad.

Facing the kings and generals and slave-traders, and alongside the doctors, footballers, writers, artists and suffragists already memorialised, a city adorned with this mix of stone or copper characters might give a truly accurate and educational impression of our rather messy national history to anyone passing through it. If, that is, they could bother to look up from their mobile phones to notice them. Better, at any rate, than distorting our ‘mixed’ history by pulling down the slavers and imperialists. But you’d still need the baddies – suitably described as such on their plinths – too.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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3 Responses to Anti-Imperial Statues

  1. Tony says:

    It has to be said that the British are rather obsessed with statues, and memorials of all kinds, and adding to their number might increase the opportunities they provide for culture wars and identity politics. It’s the ‘winners’, or the wealthy, who put up statues to their causes and to commemorate their heroes, witness the plethora of statues of Richard Cobden in the 19th c. northern manufacturing cities paid for by rich Liberal businessmen and councillors for whom he was a free trade hero, although there is also one in Camden Town High Street!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joshua Thorpe says:

    I hail from Leicester, and although the city is dotted with statues – among them a suffragette, a seamstress, and even a spaceman – I cannot, unfortunately, recount seeing one of Hobson. I read a well-worn copy of his book, Imperialism, during my undergraduate studies, and would be very proud if he was a fellow ‘Rat Eye’. However, Michael Schnieder’s 1996 book about Hobson suggests that he was born and brought up in Derby. (pp.2-3)

    Liked by 2 people

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