Wednesday 10 June 2020

Tories and Statues

Our precious history is getting lost! blubbed Sarah Vine in the pages of the Mail. On the contrary, the unceremonious dunking of Edward Colston has done more for a full reckoning of British history than any number of government programmes. Indeed, if Vine was concerned with the warts and all story of this bloodied sceptred isle, she might have a word with her significant other who tried his damnedest to limit the national curriculum to kings and queens. Well, given their bookshelf might we expect anything different?

Still, Vine's jitters represent well the unease rippling through Tory England. The Black Lives Matter protests have opened up the possibility of a street movement focused directly on racism and policing, and as those with a memory might remember, the two have come together in riots that play out roughly every 10 years - 1981 in Brixton and Toxteth, 1991 in the Midlands and south, 2001 in northern England, and the 2011 London riots. A bit of urban unrest usually helps the incumbents look tough, but with trust eroding thanks to the Tory mishandling the outbreak there's no telling what the political consequences might be. One reason why Bristol plod took the very sensible decision, from an operational point of view, not to intervene in Colston's bath.

The Tories need a story to tell themselves, a narrative that can help cohere the base. Boris Johnson has gone for the old "protestors have a point but violence undermines the message" shtick, which was entirely predictable and, if anything, the standard liberal stock response, but another strand of Toryism wants to concede nothing. Daring to raise questions about the thin blue line, and using mob rule to impose a subaltern order on public space. Well, it's unconscionable, isn't it? Writing for Conservative Home, Charlotte Gill thinks so.

For readers of this blog, Sadiq Khan is not a name readily associated with radicalism. He's hardly blazed a trail for local government in the way, say, Labour-run Preston has, and yet the Tories can't stand him. Despite his snoring boring creds and ensuring London is open to business, in both senses of the term, the way the Tories carry on you'd think he's conniving to set up a revolutionary tribunal. Yet, hilariously if you know anything about the man, Gill has Khan at the head of an extra-parliamentary statue-bashing movement, where he's allied himself to "Twitter" and radical left. And now, weeps Gill, after Calston other monuments are getting targeted. She fears a toppling of "male statues" and an intolerance toward past deeds, "Any discussion of moral relativism, an important feature of examining the past, has been abandoned", she writes, channelling her inner postmodernist and demanding the nuance and understanding she;d never concede to others when the record of her class is up for discussion. Perhaps then she might want to think about the actual context Colston's statue was erected in, for instance, and then get back to us.

We then devolve into straightforward ranting. Campaigning against statues shows Sadiq Khan's censorious instincts! Don't you know he banned bikini bodies from London Underground advertising hoardings? Doesn't he know some of these statues are symbols of national grandeur? Doesn't like the display of women's bodies and has anti-British tendencies, you say? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. If this mayor-sponsored foray into cancel culture is allowed to carry on, don't you know tourism might also suffer? Heaven forfend. She ends by calling on ministers to "stand up for what's fair." The government, after all have a huge majority, so why don't they use it? Ah yes, the totally healthy hunger for the smack of firm government, as long as others are on the receiving end.

Still, even Gill's hyperbolic screed wasn't enough for some, and if you want the measure of the party the comments are always a good place to look. On this one we have one commenting on "the far left" destroying "our heritage." Another whingeing about the "lies about slavery" and, hilariously, the "anti-British communist Sadiq Khan." And topping it off, another commenting on George Floyd's coffin with the oh so funny "The schwarzers love their bling...". No responses, no challenges, it's almost as if the Tories don't really care about racism, especially among their own supporters.

Ultimately, this isn't just about public order, it's about who gets to define and control the symbolism in public spaces. Statues of bourgeois patriarchs are there to remind passers by who are the sanctified and celebrated, whose history and experiences are valid and who doesn't matter. An act of erasure and smothering, petrified in stone. Monuments to forcible forgetting. From the point of view of the Tories, if the state can't determine how space is organised and used, if it cannot defend the symbolism that helps confer its power legitimacy then its authority is diminished. For them, these are the stakes - and it doesn't come much more important than this.


Jimbo said...

I dunno, the guy the statue celebrated seems to have profited from a diabolical industry, but if everyone started getting rid of statues like that they disagree with them there wouldn't me many left.

Personally I think that plaques can be put on statues like this one which details the atrocities they got involved with.

However anything that winds the mail up is ok with me.

Anonymous said...

But Baden-Powell? How many slaves did he own? Clive of India? You're quite right, this is a cultural war, and the answer to how much BLM to the mainly white middle classes prosecuting it - is not much. Black lives in this context are merely a means to an end, and given the backlash against genuine campaigners for equality, black lives don't matter a great deal.

Dipper said...

Baden Powell clearly had some unpleasant views about Jews, but then we have seen recently there always seems to be one race who a group of people hold responsible for all the ills of the world, a race born with guilt, and at the moment it is white English.

Baden Powell was in charge of the besieged garrison in Mafeking. He kept morale high by amongst other things putting on amateur dramatics in which Baden Powell would appear in drag. They produced stamps for postage in two varieties, one with Baden Powell on and one with Baden Powell's young favourite Goodyear. They go for about £100 each on eBay.

The scouting movement was founded out of his time sending scouts to get through the line at Mafeking. It is one of those things that is an unalloyed good thing. For some young people it is the defining experience of their youth, when they discover self reliance and self confidence.

To repeat, statues are something of a warning as well as a celebration. A reminder that what was once considered acceptable is now no longer acceptable, a reminder that however high you are held now, in the future you will be found wanting.

There is lots to say about Churchill. Roughly, my reading of Empire is that there were two opposing camps - the Christianity, Civilisation, and Commerce group who thought the empire was bringing a higher standard of life to the colonies (and one could argue the concepts of a civl society with laws, courts, rights, votes and parliaments did exactly that) and a more militaristic approach. For anyone who is interested it is worth looking up Lord Frederick Lugard who Churchill crossed swords with over mass killings in Nigeria.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that whilst much of Churchill's career is pretty lamentable, for a few months in 1940/41 he got it exactly right. But for Churchill standing up against the likes of Lord Halifax we would have lost our independence with catastrophic consequences not least for the UK's jewish population.

But that's history for you. Difficult choices amongst people none of whom we now like.

Roger Fox said...

This is such a "modern tendency" to get rid and destroy the monuments and statues that set by our ancestors. And this happens in different countries.