Statues: the culture wars erupt again

Statues: the culture wars erupt again

“In the middle of a dark January, nine months into a pandemic”, what is the “great, burning issue at the forefront of everyone’s mind”, According to Robert Jenrick, the answer is the fate of the nation’s statues. Last week, the Housing Minister outlined plans to protect public memorials from what he called “baying mobs” and “woke worthies”. Jenrick said he would change the law to protect historic monuments from attacks, such as the one by Black Lives Matter demonstrators on the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last summer. In future, he added, local people will be consulted on the fate of “heritage assets”, and any decision to remove them will require planning permission.

Left-wingers have been quick to attack Jenrick, One race and equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, even accused him of trying to “precipitate a contrived culture war, to agitate the Tory base”. But that’s very unfair: this culture war has been going on for years. It wasn’t the Tory base, after all, who threw Colston into Bristol’s docks, or who defaced the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square with the words “was a racist”, or who produced a map of monuments to “empire-builders up and down the country” in order to coordinate attacks on them. Such “acts of desecration” have become common in recent years; Jenrick’s plan is merely an overdue “Conservative fightback”. And he’s quite right: we shouldn’t be trying to erase our heritage. The plan to involve local people may be a “master stroke”; his new law will ensure that “much-loved” statues can continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

The problem is that many of Jenrick’s claims are “simply untrue”, said Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian. Aside from Colston – always an extreme example – have any statues been ripped down by baying mobs in Britain lately? No. What is happening, in reality, is “a reappraisal of what and who is celebrated in Britain’s public realm”. This is mostly “being undertaken by the opposite of angry mobs – by incredibly worthy, rather dull committees set up by mayors and local authorities”. Local people are already very much involved. (One of the examples Jenrick decried, of a Birmingham street being named Diversity Close, was actually the result of a “cheerful community competition”.) I can see that such innovations annoy many Tories, but history is not “some dead, unchanging object”. It is always being revised and contested. “Anything else is myth.”

 

Comments