Our public discourse has become increasingly divided into polarised camps. Social media accentuates it, and the loudest voices dominate.
To paraphrase Joe Biden’s inauguration speech, not every disagreement has to be a cause for going to war.
Far from a ‘woke mob’, the Black Lives Matter movement had been preceded by years of discussions by historians, curators, archivists, cohesion experts and equality campaigners, on what our public monuments and statues represent and how we reflect upon on our nation’s past, present and future.
It is understood that so many of our public monuments and statues are from the Victorian era, at the height of Empire and industrialisation. There are two other things that most people can agree upon: these monuments and statues might be of their time, but they are not particularly diverse (whether on gender, ethnicity or another under-represented characteristic), and some of the individuals honoured are deeply flawed, with wealth amassed from slavery and the suffering of others.
The basic premise of the Government’s new policy around our 12,000 or so public monuments and statues is reasonable. However, the law will need to be clarified in certain areas.
For instance, it appears that most of our historical monuments and statues will be protected. Contexualisation, rather than removal, will become the norm. However, it is unclear how far “educating and informing” merge into what might be seen as “editing and censoring”.
If statues are to be removed, there will need to be a full planning process involving ministerial approval. However, in the case of the Colston statue in Bristol, local people struggled to get it removed and could barely get a contexualising plaque through legal means. We risk a huge planning backlog. Is a minister going to look at every case? What thresholds will be applied?
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said in his article last week that “our American cousins” had found ways to grapple with issues of contested history and inclusion. After the Capitol Hill insurrection, I was struck by the symbolism and hope in a photograph of Black National Guardsmen, stationed in Washington DC in defence of the Capitol and standing in front of civil rights activist Rosa Parks’ statue in the National Statuary Hall. What is missing from the Government policy announcement is anything on widening the diversity of our 12,000 heritage monuments. Historic England itself recommended “new artworks, displays and counter-memorials” to deal with contested history.
We Too Built Britain, the campaign for greater representation in legal tender and public art and monuments, has run a campaign called #21for21: Twenty-One Heroes for the Twenty-First Century, that represent ethnic minority, gender, LGBT, disability, and socio-economic diversity. This can form the basis of a new generation of public monuments, managed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and commissioned over ‘a decade of renewal’ after the pandemic.
It is important for inclusion that all under-represented groups are reflected in such a public works project. Once again, inspired by our American friends, I am reminded that we have no equivalent in our seat of political power of the statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at his memorial, “greets visitors in a wheelchair and reminds them of the man who refused to let disability stop him”. The Fourth Plinth project has brought attention to the issue of disability, but we need something permanent.
Moreover, if we end up keeping and protecting so many public monuments and statues of slave owners, however much “of its time”, should we not also finally secure a Slave Memorial? Memorial 2007 have had a longstanding campaign for such a memorial in Hyde Park dedicated to the victims of the slave trade. We should also seek more statues honouring Black abolitionists such as Ignatius Sancho and Mary Prince, without whose campaigning, testimonies, autobiographies, petitions and legal cases, the likes of Lord Wilberforce would not have been able to build the parliamentary case for abolition.
We often talk about the past as if devoid of ethnic diversity. Yet Roman Britain was ethnically diverse. Queen Victoria had several non-white godchildren, including Sara Forbes Bonetta, an Egbado princess of Yoruba origin and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a prominent suffragette and daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire. In We Too Built Britain’s campaign to memorialise ethnic minority individuals who served in military conflicts onto legal tender, few disagreed that such brave and patriotic individuals should be honoured.
There are so many themes like this that bring us together, but the polarisation around so-called “wokeness” only accentuates our differences and not what we have in common. Rather than doubling down on difference, let us reflect our inclusive histories and our shared values. It is time for our future public monuments and statues to play a role in a post-Brexit integration strategy. Let us have more statues, not less, and show what our modern and diverse country represents now, and who we choose to honour now.
It is time to be bold and ambitious and put forward an inclusive plan that not only contexualises history, but also builds upon it from a 21st century lens. The two must go hand in hand. Or to quote both President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Let’s Build Back Better.
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