Russia and Brexit

The ‘Russia Report’ – on Russian interference in British politics – is apparently to be published next week. It was supposed to come out before the 2019 General Election, but has been sat on by the Prime Minister, for various flimsy reasons, until now.

One of the reasons was that the cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee, which was supposed to vet it first, hadn’t done so. That’s because the new government hadn’t yet set the Committee up. Then it at last did so (my local MP, by the way, is a member: I must write to her); with Boris Johnson planning to make one of his trusties – the notoriously incompetent Chris Grayling, universally known as ‘Failing Grayling’ – the Chair. You can guess why. Then – yesterday – the newly-convened Committee instead elected Julian Lewis, another Tory, but one who knows something about security issues, as its Chair; as it was entitled to do. He was immediately expelled from the Conservative Party by Johnson, in what looks like an almost Trumpian fit of pique. So it appears that the Committee now will be issuing the ‘Russia Report’, at least in some form; how heavily ‘redacted’ we can’t know.

The main questions we all hope the Report will answer concern Russian interference – official or otherwise – in the Brexit Referendum of 2016, and in the General Election of December 2019. In both cases the interference is supposed to have been designed to favour the Brexit side of the argument, and the party that was seen to be pushing to break up the European Union, which of course has been a Russian – and before that a Soviet – ambition for years. We already know that both the Conservative Party and the Brexit movement have received large donations from rich Russians. Beyond that, it’s mainly speculation at present.

The very prospect of the Report’s publication, however, seems to have put the wind up the government. Hence the play it made yesterday, reported in the papers this morning, of (a) Russians trying to steal coronavirus research from us; and (b) Labour’s evidence of American designs against our NHS having been secured originally by Russian hackers (but then published more widely). All this is supposed to imply that it’s Labour who are conspiring with the Russians, thus taking us back to an old Cold War trope. Will it work? We’ll see.

With regard to the research hacking: personally I can’t see what is terribly wrong with that, so long as Russia doesn’t intend to use a newly-discovered Covid-19 vaccine for the exclusive benefit of its own people alone. (That’s what Trump is planning, if America gets there first.) The more openness there is in this area, the better.

On a personal note: I’ve at last found a way to escape from my coronavirus confinement back to Sweden at the end of next week. It involves a 200-mile ride by taxi and then Ryanair, which I’ve avoided in the past out of preference and principle; but as Kajsa says, this is an emergency. If things in Britain (or England, rather) deteriorate any further, I may not come back.

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Unplinthing: the UK and the USA

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?

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I’ve just had a letter – yes, a proper letter, in an envelope – from ‘HM Government’, telling me that my doctor (sic) has told them that I’m ‘no longer considered to be at the highest risk of severe illness from Coronavirus’, and am therefore no longer in the ‘shielding’ category: unable to step outside my house, etc. I was little disappointed – took it as a demotion; and like most people apparently who have received this letter I don’t altogether trust the government – this government – to know what’s good for me. With regard to ‘self-isolation’ and ‘shielding’ I’ve used my own judgment up to now, which luckily has coincided with the Government’s; but peeking out from my curtains today, and reading the papers, I can’t see what has really changed. So I shall continue being careful, sneaking out for my pint of milk from the corner shop, or to visit neighbours in their gardens; until I see the Hull Council waste disposal vans clearing all the dead bodies away.

I plan to risk travelling to Stockholm as soon as Humberside Airport renews its flights to Schipol for a connection to Arlanda. (At present the only flights out of there are to Aberdeen and to the North Sea Oil rigs – nearer, but not quite near enough.) I may stay there for good – in our sommarhus. I’m not sure that Sweden’s response to the virus has been much better than Britain’s, but at least it hasn’t got an Old Etonian in charge. I’m done with England.

For the time being I have work to do, preparing two books for publication. Don’t be too impressed: one is a new edition of an old book, the other a collection of old essays. Hence the radio silence.

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The View from the Other Side

Here’s an ‘imperial statue’ – a little figure I bought at a roadside market in Cape Town a few years ago, carved and painted by an anonymous African, as a representation of his (or her) colonial master. I hope to use it for the cover of my new edition of The Lion’s Share. I don’t want anyone pulling him  down.


(The photo was taken by Kevin Greene, who lives just round the corner from me. Let me know if you ever have need of a professional photographer in Hull!)

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History Wars

You would think that, as a historian of the British Empire, I would welcome these ‘history wars’ that have just broken out (again). You know, the ‘statue’ thing: whether or not public images of old imperialists, or men (it’s usually men) with imperialist and racist views, should be torn down as insults to ‘correct’ feeling today, or offensive to men and women of the ‘races’ that were looked down on in the past. It puts my subject – history – back into the spotlight. Surely I should be pleased?

Whether or not all this statue-toppling is justifiable morally and politically must be a matter of personal judgment. My own view has been spelled out on this blog: I’d rather the statues stayed, but with inscriptions testifying to their crimes. This is in order to avoid the sanitized view of British history that would be created if we only had statues of literary figures, humanitarians, slavery abolitionists, nurses and suffragettes in our streets to admire. We have plenty of those in any case; but we also need images of our British baddies, in order to remind us how ‘bad’ we – that is, past Brits, if we are allowed to identify with them – have been. Personally I’m quite happy to see Rhodes go – he happens to be one of my own historical villains – though I would rather have seen him kept on the facade of Oriel College, with a suitable inscription, and perhaps wearing some mark of infamy (a dunce’s cap?). But I’m shedding no tears over him.

I also take the point that the BLM and RMF (‘Rhodes Must Fall’) movements have made people aware of some of these seedier sides of British history, which were generally kept from them in school. I remember at my school being taught about Wilberforce and Britain’s part in the anti-slavery movement, but nothing about her (or her citizens’) part in establishing  the slave trade in the first place. It never occurred to me – at the age of 14 or 15 – to question this. To the extent that BLM and RMF have corrected this imbalance, and punctured the more innocent and ‘patriotic’ view of our past, they deserve to be commended; by a radical historian (as I believe myself to be) most of all.

But that’s where my support for these movements peters out. This is for two reasons. The first is that their list of targets seems to be spreading exponentially. A slave trader, OK; and one of the most brutal and active of imperialists, well, perhaps. But Churchill, because of his racist and imperialist views? Yes, he had them, in common with most (not all) of his high social class at that time; but he had others too, far more liberal; and accomplishments that could be said to far outweigh these flaws, and which are the reasons  for his commemoration in Parliament Square.

If Churchill ‘falls’ because of his racism, it might be hard to find another British hero, especially from long ago, who doesn’t deserve the same fate. The best example may be Gandhi, whom Churchill despised, but who also has his own statue not far from his; and whose views on black Africans were scarcely more ‘correct’ by modern standards. Scratch the stone or bronze surfaces of any of the other statues scattered around our cities, and we might well find the same. Even our justifiably celebrated suffragettes could be less than supportive when it came to their ‘coloured’ sisters. (See, for example, Are we to pull down their statues for that?

My second reason for being unhappy as a historian about this particular version of the ‘history wars’ is that it doesn’t really add much to our understanding of the past, which is what a true historical education should aim to do. Generally it over-simplifies it, turns important historical issues and debates into questions of ‘black or white’; without any regard for their complexity, or their contexts. ‘Imperialism’, one of my own special areas, is a prime example. The word is widely used these days as a blanket term of condemnation, on the same level as – or even synonymous with – ‘racist’, or ‘fascist’: words which themselves are often employed indiscriminately; and without any acknowledgement – probably through ignorance – of the many different attitudes and policies the word covered in historical reality, and of the global conditions in which various forms of ‘imperialism’ were pursued.

I’ve already given, in a previous post, an example of one notorious ‘imperialist’ who was motivated by the desire to eradicate Arab slavery in Africa ( Where do you place him? Another example, on the opposite side of the ledger, was the renowned ‘anti-imperialist’ JA Hobson, whose criticism of the colonialism that was being practised in his time – the turn of the 20thcentury – didn’t prevent his advocating another kind of imperialism, in order to protect free but weak peoples from exploitation by global capitalists. He realised that ‘imperialism’ per se  was not the root of the problem. Nor was it, in most cases. This is why I called my book about him Critics of Empire, rather than The Anti-Imperialists, which had been my original choice of title before I too came to this conclusion. ‘Imperialism’ in fact describes a highly complicated and variegated number of phenomena, and the indiscriminate use of the word more often than not obscures the huge differences, moral and political, between its various forms. Perhaps more seriously, it can distract attention from other historical causes  of events that lie beneath its surface.

Which is why – I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before on this blog – I once suggested at a conference that we ‘imperial’ historians go through a period of, say, five or ten years when we don’t allow ourselves to employ the ‘i’ word (or the ‘e’ or ‘c’ words – no, not that one!) at all; in order to encourage us to try to understand and explain phenomena and events other than under the simple – but often misleading – rubrics of ‘imperial’, ‘empire’ and ‘colonial’.

Pulling down Rhodes’s statue won’t do that. My British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, might. That is, if anyone were bothering to read it. (In publishing terms I understand it’s a bit of a flop. Which is why I’m shamelessly pushing it here yet again.)

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Be Alert

Of course I’m worried about the coronavirus; both personally – with my ‘underlying condition’ it would almost certainly be curtains for me if I caught it – and also because of its far more serious impact on millions less fortunate and privileged than me.

But I’m also worried about the politics that seems to be going on under the cover of the disease; insidiously slipped in, with everyone naturally distracted, no proper means of scrutinising it democratically, with a lame ‘virtual’ House of Commons, most of its decent Conservatives ‘purged’ by Johnson last year; and measures simply announced – or in some cases not announced at all – as faits accomplis. Most of them are designed as sops to the Conservative Party’s Right wing and the rabid Brexiteers in the country. The government’s refusal to consider an extension for trade talks with the EU before we finally cut the painter, in the teeth of current public opinion polls, is an example of this. Without the distraction of the virus, and with a properly functioning democracy, it’s possible that this might not have got through.

The latest example is Johnson’s announcement yesterday of the merging of the Foreign Office and the Overseas Development Department: designed to make the latter a tool of British diplomacy, rather than the foreign Aid agency that Labour intended it to be when it set it up. Soon we’ll be seeing ‘Aid’ diverted into supplying arms to the Ukrainians, rather than clean water to poor Zambians. The Tory Right has always begrudged giving taxpayers’ pennies to lazy natives (or, for that matter, to Britain’s own working classes). Johnson yesterday referred to foreign aid as ‘that great cash machine in the sky’. That mirrors the populist Right’s prejudices precisely.

I suspect the evil hand of Dominic Cummings behind all this. We know that one of his greatest ambitions is to ‘tame’ the civil service, and make it less ‘independent’ and more meekly obedient to the Executive. I can’t imagine the fluffy-headed Boris thinking this wheeze up on his own. Just look at him at Prime Minister’s Questions if you doubt his utter incompetence to function off his own bat. And you’ll see then why he was so desperate in April to rescue Cummings from the fate he so richly deserved, after that law-breaking dash to Durham. He can’t do without him. Cummings is his Thomas Cromwell, his Svengali, his Machiavelli, his Mephistopheles, his Rasputin. He even looks the part.


One of the most difficult things for us on the Left to do over the next few months is to ‘be alert’ (to mimic Boris’s – or Cummings’s? – own slogan) for signs of ‘reforms’ like these emerging out of the fog created by Covid-19. Cummings undoubtedly knows how to exploit any conditions for his own right-wing agenda. A global pandemic is just there to be used.

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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.

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Don’t Mention the Blacks

What did I tell you? Out comes Boris, using this ‘statue’ nonsense to entirely avoid the main issue raised by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and instead to attack what has been the Tories’ favourite target for years, the ‘Loony Left’!

It’s right out of the Trump playbook. Johnson even issues his condemnation in ‘tweets’. Together with his inane boasting about Britain’s being a ‘world leader’ in its response to the coronavirus pandemic (!!), his ban on government ministers appearing on certain MSM TV or radio programmes, like Newsnight, which might be overly critical, his studied refusal to criticise Trump in the House of Commons the other day, his government’s subtle reneging on ‘chlorinated chicken’ and American involvement in our NHS, and of course his persistent lying and avoidance of questions always, it looks as though he’s angling to become a mini but classier Trump himself, and to turn Britain into a de facto colony of the American empire. So are the biters (the British) bit. And 1776 is finally revenged and reversed.

Boris of course was born in New York. Does that have something to do with it? If only we had the same rules as America, it would rule him out as our Prime Minister. (I think. Or would that only apply to our titular Head of State?)

Banning ‘Til Death do Us Part  and the ‘Don’t mention the War!’ episode of Fawlty Towers  is of course beyond nonsensical. Both of them were satirising  xenophobia and racism. The ‘Loony Left’, or whoever is responsible for these acts of pointless censorship – it could just be over-defensive TV executives – should grow up. And acquire a sense of humour. Where would we British be without that?

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Imperial Statues

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:

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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Rhodes Must Stay

As a long-established historian of British imperialism – not ‘Establishment’, I hope, and not an ‘imperial historian’, which could imply that I’m an imperialist– I’ve felt nagged over these last few days with the idea that I ought, out of civic duty, to contribute to the current debate (though it’s not a new one) that has sprung out of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, nurtured by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and has now spread to embrace the question of whether statues of slave-traders and ‘imperialists’ in our British streets should be torn down.

On that last question I have to say I have strong opinions, which might seem at first sight to put me in the camp of the neo-Fascists who are happy to have these men – so far they’re all men – memorialised.

But my argument is very different from theirs. It’s essentially a historian’s argument. These men and what they stood for, however vile, were important in the history of modern Britain, and so should not be forgotten. Indeed, the more reminders there are in our cities of these dreadful aspects of our past national life, the better. All I would ask is that the plaques and inscriptions which in most cases adorn them be radically and prominently modified to recount their crimes, as well as their acts of ‘generosity’ to their local communities. That would put our true – rather than a sanitised – national history on display.

Otherwise we’re faced with the prospect of walking round cities like Bristol and London warmly cushioned by images of just the ‘goodies’ in our national story (if we can even agree on who those were), and oblivious of the rest. I can see that appealing to Right-wing patriots; who should therefore in logic be the ones in favour of bringing down Colston and Rhodes. But not the rest of us.

There’s one more thing that bugs me, as a historian of Empire, about the current ‘pull the statues down’ movement. That is the way its champions misuse the word ‘imperialism’ as a simple synonym for slavery, racism and oppression, when the phenomenon was in fact far more complicated than that; not necessarily ‘better’ – I’m not concerned with moral judgments here – but worthy of more sophisticated analysis. Some of that would allow the real dynamic of imperialism, its motives and its effects, to be understood in ways that should allow us to understand it better, and to target our criticism – if that’s what we want – more precisely and effectively.

I may devote a future post to this. In the meantime, if you can’t wait, and can afford the £15 that Amazon (those great imperialists!) are asking for it, can I recommend my British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t (IB Tauris, 2016). It also has a nice picture of me on the fly-leaf.

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