Saving the Statues
The wave of statue-felling that many foresaw back in the summer of 2020 did not come to pass. Edward Colston was the first and the last to be violently dragged from his pedestal, after which only Robert Milligan was removed (more peaceably), while Sir Thomas Picton remains on death row in Cardiff, entombed in plywood.
Whilst this loss of public art is a tragedy, it thankfully falls a long way short of the “hit list” of nearly 80 prominent statues published by “Topple the Racists” three years ago. But has the danger really passed, or have its methods simply evolved?
The fundamental problem with that campaign was that it was a direct import from America. It even seemed to be associated with a group called “Stop Trump”. The anti-West activists didn’t understand that there are two Wests: the old and the new. The history of the new world is built on shallow foundations and, if you want to undermine it, the arrival of Europeans presents an obvious inflection point for attack. The same is not true of a country like Britain. Though Britain’s foundations involve similar invasions, those were too long ago and, besides, acknowledging them doesn’t fit the victim/oppressor narrative essential to the “progressive” political agenda.
The statues and history of the new world can be toppled on the pretext of some imagined prelapsarian utopia of peaceful indigenous tribes. This then presents activists with a blank canvas onto which they can paint their own agenda. The old world, however, will never present such a blank canvas, so changing the narrative calls for more insidious methods. Not dramatically toppling history, but gradually co-opting it, sowing seeds of doubt, shame and confusion that allow that new narrative to take hold.
The most prevalent such seed is the ubiquitous “contextualisation” plaque, where extraordinary feats of courage or generosity are side-lined in favour of disproportionately emphasising acts that were, at the time, quite ordinary. Thus at Guy’s Hospital, London, planning permission has just been granted to surround the statue of its founder with boards that aim to make what were very ordinary investments for his time as important as his very extraordinary philanthropy.
Some realised the insidious power of plaques from the start. The day after Colston fell, activist Sir Geoff Palmer proclaimed “I don’t want statues to be taken down. My view is you remove the evidence, you remove the deed.” He understood that the plaque is not a compromise. That rededicating a statue to your narrative is far more effective than removing it. Yet politicians and institutions, desperate to land upon some reasonable compromise, have misguidedly latched onto plaques as precisely that.
So the government’s sole defensive effort in the culture wars was etching “Retain and Explain” into the National Planning Policy Framework. And whilst this made removal far more difficult, it also encouraged a disastrous proliferation of plaques while providing no framework to ensure their objectivity.
Then we have the gradual public association of statues with controversy. Police forces from London to Northumbria have drawn up lists of “contentious” statues including Queen Victoria, Churchill and the Cenotaph. Even the state broadcaster has joined in, publishing a list of “seven of the world’s most controversial statues”, with Nelson’s Column at number one ahead of Francisco Franco and Joseph Stalin, literal fascist and communist dictators. Lists like these don’t reflect reality, they manufacture it to an agenda. Statues are now considered so fundamentally controversial that even entirely unrelated protests on issues such as climate change are targeting them in an attempt to grab headlines.
The cumulative effect of these negative associations means that, when an opportunity arises, there’s a strong temptation to simply offload the problem. Following a report pinpointing no fewer than eight supposedly contentious statues in Glasgow’s George Square, when the time came to redevelop a number went suspiciously missing from the artist’s impression. The council has delayed any decision on their future, saying only that “The strategy for the positioning of the statues will be further informed by the statues condition report (from existing records, most of the monuments are in a poor state of conservation)”.
Which brings us to one of the most subtle methods, which is not an action at all, but rather a lack of it. A walk around London today will encompass many statues and plinths in a poor state of repair, with water-staining, crumbling corners and faded letters now standard. The mayor is currently spending vast sums on his “Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm”, auditing old statues and building new ones to his committee’s own programme.
The final, but perhaps most insidious part of the puzzle is in the classroom, where our children are being taught to find shame in their history, with statues the chief symbol of it. Developing “new teaching materials” was one of the key recommendations of Edinburgh’s audit, while school children in Colston’s home town are now urged to ritualistically mock up and destroy effigies.
Baying mobs may not be roaming the streets with ropes, but that doesn’t mean the campaign against statues has ended. Only that it has adopted more insidious methods. This is comparable to the realisation of socialist revolutionaries like Rudi Dutschke and Antonio Gramsci that revolution in Europe could not be achieved through force alone, but only through a “long march through the institutions”.
Our statues will not fall in dramatic set pieces, but through a combination of antipathy and apathy curated over time that means, when the moment comes, it’s simply easier for everyone to quietly pack them up and look the other way.