12 June 2020

How talking more about our history can defuse a culture war


History matters. Britain is an old country, even if Tony Blair once sought to implausibly suggest the opposite. So, a fortnight after the brutal killing of George Floyd saw Black Lives Matter protests spread across the Atlantic, the British now seem to be talking mainly about statues.

This shows the extent to which people in the UK care deeply about the past. How we think about history can shape our sense of who are today. The multi-ethnic society that Britain has become is a direct product of our long history of Empire and decolonisation, and the post-war Commonwealth immigration which followed from it. But are we able to talk about what to do when there are different views of historic symbols – like statues – without descending into a dangerously polarised culture war?

People on both sides of our most polarised debates will often agree that they don’t want a culture war, before setting out all of the things the other side needs to change. We can agree that the angry shouting-matches seen in the US are not something we particularly want to replicate. It should be possible to make the case for both racial equality and for Britain’s history and identity – and would be a deep shame if one had to choose only one.

A good rule in politics is not to become the caricature that your opponents describe. The cultural left risks falling into the trap of adopting the type of “year zero” thinking that sees the right worry about a slippery slope. Yet the cultural right would be out of touch too with mainstream conservative opinion should it seem to make the defence of every statue of a slaver a litmus test for national pride. Thinking through the issues more rigorously could help those with different instincts to talk about where we might find common ground.

Get the debate back inside the law

One foundational priority should be to bring the statues debate back within the rule of law. Though most people disapprove of how the Colston statue was removed, there have been some cogent defences of the Bristol crowd’s action. The main mitigating case is that a long, thoughtful civic campaign against Bristol’s veneration of this central figure in the slave trade had got nowhere – not even managing to implement the plan for a new plaque, so that the existing inscription to “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city” would awkwardly acknowledge that “he was involved in the transportation of approximately 84,000 enslaved African men, women and children, of whom 19,000 died on voyages from West Africa to the Caribbean and Americas”.

So Professor David Olusoga, one of our leading historians of the black British experience, found “poetic symmetry” in the decision to dump the statue into the water, given how many of the enslaved Africans trafficked across the Atlantic met a watery grave. On this account, the felling of Colston was a mindful piece of cathartic public theatre – quite different in spirit to the mindless vandalism that defaced statues of Churchill, and even Abraham Lincoln, hero of emancipation, in London. The felling of the statue is certainly a minor misdemeanour compared to the horrors that it was seen to memorialise.

Yet there are real dangers in selectively condoning law-breaking for righteous causes, especially on race relations. Far right groups are now forming vigilante gangs to “defend” statues and war memorials, hoping to attract rival groups with a penchant for violent skirmishes. Britain First thugs may say that, if Black Lives Matters protestors can pull down statues that they don’t like, why shouldn’t they break the windows of a mosque or synagogue? The analogy may be very stupid – yet it is a foreseeable consequence, if the temperature of public discourse keeps rising, that perceptions of “threat” creates a greater risk that those with the most extreme views will commit acts of violence. The police would need to crack down on such extremists – making the commitment to the rule of law, for all, important.

Teach our long history better

Paradoxically, though there are passionately held views of why history matters, public knowledge of the events and people that we are arguing about can be very sketchy. How many people – outside of Bristol – could have told you anything about Edward Colston before his statue was dumped by protestors into the harbour on Sunday?

If you know your history, the idea of fascists ‘defending’ war memorials is risible. Yet the idea of anti-racism protestors attacking memorials should seem historically illiterate too. War memorials reflect the service and sacrifice of British and Commonwealth soldiers. The armies that fought the First and Second World Wars look more like the Britain of 2020 than of 1918 or 1940 in their multi-ethnic and multi-faith background. Most black and Asian opinion will be angry about the desecration of the Cenotaph – though media coverage may fail to reflect that.

We need to teach history ­– particularly contested history – better. While majorities of the public consider history important, British Future’s research for the Crossing Divides report on the WW1 Centenary found that young people can often find it irrelevant or boring. We could learn here from efforts in Northern Ireland and from local councils that have explored local curriculums, which would encompass understanding local links with empire, colonisation and slavery, as well as understanding the history of migration to and from particular areas.

Most people would see the need for multi-ethnic history of Britain being properly reflected in the textbooks and the school curriculum as a much more important and constructive priority than drawing up long lists of statues to target.

Talk about where we should draw the line

Most of us would make different choices about some statues. Few would defend a statue of the fascist dictator Adolf Hitler or the paedophile pop star Gary Glitter. But Colston seems a different case from Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, or Winston Churchill. And if Gladstone is “cancelled”, then it is going to be difficult for anybody from before 1900 to make the cut. Can we make any general sense of the principles behind these intuitions?

There is a significant middle-ground in this debate – that we don’t want to put every statue on trial by contemporary standards, but should avoid celebrating the egregious and the evil. Sam Freedman has suggested the useful question “what are they best known for?” That doesn’t decide every case – but it provides a useful framework for debate. Colston’s role in the Royal African Company, with its monopoly in the slave trade until 1688, is different to those like Jefferson, Washington or Gladstone, whose involvement in slavery influences how we see their legacy. Churchill’s status in Britain is clearly primarily about being the Prime Minister who defeated the Nazis – alongside many different views, from south Wales to Bengal, of which other aspects of his record merit more attention.

The exceptions would be where a prominent statue does create a significant clash with the values that an institution wishes to uphold today: such as a major figure in slavery at the entrance of a school or university. The Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College is the focus of the Oxford debate. Moving it to an exhibition in an Oxford museum might be the best solution.

Put up more statues

The best case for conservative moderation in removing statues is a liberal pluralist one. The stock of statues that we now have represents a layered account of what different eras and generations have valued. To re-interrogate all of those choices from our own perspective would have a rather flattening effect. Some egregious cases may have to go – but for the most part, we should focus on making our own contributions – and filling the gaps.

So here is an olive branch to those worried about the ‘erasure’ of history. Could we agree on more history – and more statues – instead? Only one in 30 statues in this country are of women – so Millicent Fawcett is a popular addition to Parliament Square, capturing the spirit of why new causes are protested there a century later. The We Too Built Britain campaign is petitioning for a statue of a black abolitionist – so that the allies of Wilberforce, such as Olaudah Equiano, or Ignatius Sancho, the first black Briton to cast a vote in the October 1774 general election, become better known too.

Make it local

The debates in Liverpool and Bristol, Plymouth and Newcastle should be locally-led – and council leaderships should ensure that there is proper engagement of the broad public.

Most importantly, while social media debate amplifies the poles of the debate, proper public engagement could well unlock a broad multi-ethnic “balancer” majority interested in opening up the debate and looking for the middle ground too. Indeed the differences will as often cut along lines of education and age as much as race: with younger graduates, from both white and ethnic minority backgrounds, pushing for more change, with more scepticism about how far to take that from many older black and Asian, as well as white, people.

Bristol had avoided the debate about Colston for many years. Or, rather, there was a lot of argument about Colston – but it mostly ran on parallel tracks in this liberal, affluent and highly segregated city, deeply divided by income and wealth, education and race. University, school and book festival discussions might agree on the urgency of overdue change. On the local newspaper website comments section, there was anger about erasing the past. The city’s business elite tried not to engage for as long as possible. It was harder to find forums where those with different views could hear what others in Bristol felt about it and why.

Local leaders and civic institutions have responded constructively. The Mayor of Bristol has established a local history commission. The Society of Merchant Venturers, cast by critics as “the high priests of the Colston cult” offered a conciliatory response – stating that the divisive question of whether or not Bristol had a statue of a man known for his role in the Royal African company was secondary to remembering the victims of the “abhorrent transatlantic slave trade”. Last month, the Society had recruited its first black member in five centuries, inviting leading local lawyer Marti Burgess, who chairs the Black South-West Network. From such small steps, bridges begin to be built.

What happens next after Colston is a conversation for Bristol but is now of national interest too. Could the BBC help to support a major Bristol public conversation – and give the rest of the nation a History Gogglebox-style insight into how the city tried to cross divides?

History matters. Let’s talk about it more. If we put the energy into getting it right, we won’t be starting a culture war – but defusing one.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of the independent thinktank British Future