A few days ago I received an email from the New York Times – yes, the NYT!! – asking me to contribute an ‘op-ed’ about this statue-toppling business, based on one of my recent posts on this blog. I’d be flattered if I thought the Times followed my blog, but they probably just got it by Googling ‘History Wars’. ‘Of course!’ I wrote back; and composed the following for them.
Sadly they rejected it. They gave me a reason, which I don’t quite understand; but clearly the article was not what they were looking for. Fair enough. Listening to the report from Trumpland this morning on the radio, I wondered whether my plea to keep some statues standing might be thought to be too close to the Donald’s recent objection on the US’s Confederate-statue-toppling movement as an attack on ‘our history’; although I took pains to emphasise how different our two situations are, and how my argument for keeping the old rogues in public view is the precise opposite of his. Anyhow, I’m not boverred by the rejection; but so as not to entirely waste my Thursday morning’s work, I’m reproducing the original ‘op-ed’ . Much of it repeats what I’ve written in previous posts. Here goes.
I must say I felt a visceral thrill when the statue of the 17th-century slave-trader Edward Colston was unplinthed and unceremoniously tipped into a dock in Bristol (UK) the other day. And I won’t shed a tear if the effigy of that dreadful old capitalist-imperialist Cecil Rhodes is eventually removed from the front of Oriel College, Oxford, as the Master and Fellows have now apparently, if tardily, agreed. But these ‘history wars’ leave me uneasy nonetheless. That’s for a number of reasons, none of which should imply any sympathy, let alone admiration, for the men (it’s always men) who were originally honoured in this way.
Of course the situation is different in Britain from what it is in the USA. We don’t have your tradition of slavery on our soil, and its only-too-visible inheritance of racism, quite properly highlighted by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The ‘blacks’ who migrated to Britain from the 1950s onwards did so voluntarily, insofar as one can regard flight from starvation or political oppression as ‘voluntary’. The ordinary Britons’ involvement in slavery was at arm’s length, through the African slave trade, and the profits they made from that and from the cheap imported consumer goods that slave conditions in the colonies and post-colonial America produced. Still, the historical scars for present-day African-Americans are clearly deeper and fresher than they are for Britain’s non-‘white’ community, and exacerbated by the way statues of Confederate leaders are used as focuses for white racists today. It’s this that must explain – and, to my mind, justify – the stronger feelings that motivate those who want to pull them down in the USA.
I have three reasons for objecting to the same course of action in Britain. The first is that it can be a distraction. The Colston de-plinthing is an example: a debate in Parliament the next day which was supposed to be about ‘Black Lives Matter’ was turned instead into one on ‘hooliganism’, which of course suited our right-wing government’s ‘law and order’ agenda far better. Backwoods Tories, whose instincts were probably racist but couldn’t admit it, were rubbing their hands in glee.
Second, the protest quickly moved on from slavery and the more oppressive kinds of imperialism to target anyone who had ever expressed racist or ‘imperialist’ opinions, or had – for example – held stocks in an imperial enterprise, perhaps unbeknownst to them. This is what is behind the movement in Britain to dethrone Churchill; who, yes, did have some pretty awful views of ‘natives’, flirted with eugenics, and could be said to bear some of the responsibility for the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 – but of course had other achievements too. That’s why he is commemorated in bronze in Parliament Square. Indeed, scratch the surface of almost any of these effigies and you’ll find something dodgy about most of them. Even Gandhi, whose statue lies very close to Churchill’s (who was very rude about him) held racist opinions about black South Africans early in his career. Many of the first suffragettes were not too sound on race. In Sweden there’s a movement to topple the statue of the great botanical scientist Linnaeus, on the grounds that he had invested in the Swedish East India Company. Where will it end? Soon there’ll be no public statuary left.
In Britain we have a particular problem with ‘imperialists’, who are often bundled into the same category as slavers, racists, Fascists and even Nazis, though the word should by rights cover a much wider range of opinions and deeds. One interesting case is that of the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who was certainly an imperialist, and a pretty fierce one, but one of whose leading motives was to eradicate the cruel Moslem Arab slave trade from central Africa: the one that captured many of the Africans who were then sold on to the European slave-traders on the west coast. His statue in St Asaph is under threat too. Should it be?
As an ‘imperial historian’, what I object to most is the over-simplification of our (British) history that this encourages. History is complex, and if it’s to be at all enlightening, let alone useful, it needs to be studied more subtly than in terms of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ alone. We can disagree about Churchill, or Stanley, or Gandhi; but let them be there and visible for us to argue over. If the ‘worst’ racist and imperialist statues were removed from Britain’s streets – and, to tell the truth, there aren’t all that many of them – the impression given to passers-by would be of a country noted only for its philosophers, artists, novelists, doctors, nurses and suffragettes. Oliver Cromwell (another target) famously instructed his portraitist to paint him ‘warts and all’. The streets of our cities should do the same.
This is my third objection to the statue-toppling movement: that, however much it may be raising awareness temporarily, it would leave behind it a sanitised view of Britain’s national history that would fool everyone, and enlighten no-one. Better, surely, to leave the old villains standing, but more honestly labelled, with accounts of their crimes as well as of their achievements; and supplemented by statues of more admirable figures. Some of those could be anti-imperialists – who represent as important a tradition in British history as does imperialism. We already have an amazing one of Boudicca near Westminster Bridge; several of Richard Cobden, who was regarded as an anti-imperialist in his time; and one in Hull of the great anti-slaver – but still a Christian imperialist – William Wilberforce. We could add JA Hobson, who more or less invented modern anti-imperialism; ED Morel; R Palme Dutt; Emily Hobhouse; Wilfred Scawen Blunt; Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia), and several Labourites; ending up with Jeremy Corbyn. We might add to them some collective sculptures of the victims of imperialism: a gang of black slaves in chains, for example; Indian rebels being shot from guns; starving Bengalis. Leaving the empire aside for the moment, but concentrating still on giving a representative picture of British history through its public statuary: how about some poor oppressed domestic miners, peasants and factory workers, who could be regarded as just as much victims of the time as – at any rate – ‘free’ colonials? All that would place the racist and imperialist statues in a proper context. I’d prefer this to hiding them away in museums. Whoever goes there?