26 February 2024

Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth has become a running joke


Suppose you wished to devote your energies to sapping national pride, to denigrating British history, to lowering the country’s morale. Trafalgar Square presents itself as something of an obstacle. The Nazis certainly gave the matter some thought. Part of the plans for a German invasion, drawn up in 1940, involved removing Nelson’s Column to Berlin. 

Our victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 mattered. Napoleon despised us as ‘a nation of shopkeepers.’ He planned to invade, enter London, wreck the shipyards and demolish the arsenals of Portsmouth and Plymouth. The guillotine and a republican dictatorship would have followed. But freedom prevailed. That was something that we understood to be worthy of celebrating and commemorating on a grand scale. The heroism and sacrifice deserved to be remembered. 

It was also understood that powerful architecture could also be beautiful. Brutalism was not required. The architect Sir Charles Barry was given a budget of £11,000 to work on the terraces, the fountains, the columns, the sculptures. Trafalgar Square opened to the public in 1844, and it has become intertwined with our national life. On New Year’s Eve, the revellers would jump in the fountains. Since 1947, Christmas has been marked with a giant tree given to us by the Norwegians. Freedom of speech has been on display with countless demonstrations held there. 

Inevitably, the Left has sought to ‘cancel’ Nelson, accusing him of supporting the slave trade, relying on letters that turned out to be forged. The historian Christopher Brett says:

‘Nelson actually freed slaves, argued against the Barbary slave trade and supported proposals for slaves to be replaced with paid labour. The charge of him being a ‘white supremacist’ is based on zero evidence. He had black sailors in his navy as well as freed slaves who were paid the same as everyone else.’ 

Despite the ambition of the woke culture warriors, it is hardly realistic to take down Nelson’s Column or rename Trafalgar Square. But there is a chance of mockery which they have eagerly taken up. For more than 150 years, the fourth plinth in the Square was left empty. At one point, there was going to be an equestrian statue of William IV but the funding ran out. 

But this century has seen an array of opportunities taken to use it to insult its surroundings. We have had a rolling exhibition of the most ghastly tat. One piece of rubbish is replaced by another as if novelty offered a justification. Visitors from around the world are offered this indication that our national self-respect has been abandoned. Contempt from the public is treated as a perverse vindication – it shows how ‘challenging’ it is. Using this circular argument the worse it is the better it is. 

Some recent instalations include: a giant blue chicken, a ship in a bottle, a giant thumbs up and a dollop of whipped cream with an assortment of toppings. 

The space is currently allocated to a sculpture of Baptist preacher John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley to honour an anti-British uprising in Nyasaland in 1915. The Daily Telegraph reports that: ‘It will be succeeded in November by face casts of 850 transgender people that are arranged in the style of a central American ‘tzompantli’ war trophy skull rack.’ 

The Mayor of London promises more dreary unimaginative absurdities to come: ‘The Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm will focus on increasing representation among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, women, the LGBTQ+ community and disability groups.’ Overlooking, of course, that there are few disabled people in our history more recognisable than Nelson.

We may be known for our sense of humour but this succession of poor jokes should not be continued. A permanent statue should be chosen. 

For some time there was a campaign for a statue there of Sir Keith Park. An unsung hero from New Zealand, he led ‘The Few’ in the Battle of Britain. He implemented Fighter Command’s strategy and was placed in charge of 11 Group, which was charged with defending London and the south east. 

Battle of Britain fighter pilot Douglas Bader said: 

‘The awesome responsibility for this country’s survival rested squarely on Keith Park’s shoulders. British military history of this century has been enriched with the names of great fighting men from New Zealand, of all ranks and in every one of our services. Keith Park’s name is carved into history alongside those of his peers.’ 

But Park has since got a statue in Waterloo Place. Quite near but a less prominent site. 

Another idea put forward was a statue of Margaret Thatcher. Another obviously worthy recipient as such a transformational champion of the cause of freedom not only for our country but across the world. Visitors from Central and Eastern Europe could gaze at the lady who played such a crucial role in winning the Cold War. 

Then there has been an open secret that for decades the fourth plinth was being kept in reserve for Queen Elizabeth II. Few could dissent that such an honour would be justified. What a powerful symbol it would offer to this remarkable international figure. Having her on a horse would fit in very well. The King could surely be relied upon to choose a suitably traditionalist sculptor to do his mother justice. I realise these things can’t be rushed. But it would be welcome to have some official confirmation that this is the plan. And if the recent offerings are really the best we’ve got, then for goodness sake, let’s leave the plinth empty.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.