8 June 2020

Whatever you think of Colston’s statue, street justice should not be cheered

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It is easy to dislike Edward Colston, the 17th-century Bristol MP and wealthy slave trader. As an official of the Royal African Company, Colston was involved in the forced transportation of over 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas, making a large fortune from investments in the trade of human beings. His statue, erected in 1895, reflected Colston’s status as one of the city’s most prominent philanthropists – though its inscription made no reference to the slaving past from which he acquired his wealth.

It has been a site of contention in Bristol for many years. Should the statue be destroyed, placed in a museum or fitted with a new plaque? Does the statute automatically equate to an endorsement of all Colston did, or does it provide an opportunity to keep the darker aspects of our history visible in order to learn? Do we judge historical figures by the standards of today or try to set them in the context of their times; are such values contingent or universal? These are legitimate areas of debate.

Yesterday was not, however a time of debate. Yesterday was a time of passionate intensity, as a large, angry crowd tore down the statue, before dragging it off and dumping it in Bristol harbour.

The issue here is not whether you think the Colston statue should be kept, removed or reformed. It is how you think such decisions should be made. It is a question of process, a question of how we want our politics to work. And the answer must be ‘not like this’.

The bedrock of a functioning democracy is consent – we consent to allow representatives to decide things for us, to reconcile competing individual and group interests. And, crucially, we grant loser’s consent. In the messy business of politics, we accept that we will not always get what we want and that the election of a representative we didn’t vote for, or the passing of a policy we don’t like, isn’t reason to descend on the government or council with burning pitchforks. We recognise that change can take time, and that to last it needs institutionalised public support.

Loser’s consent has been dramatically weakened in recent years. Professor Helen Thompson marks the start of this deleterious trend with the EU’s flimsy ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, which the Conservatives rejected as insufficiently legitimated. But as a principle it gathered wider public momentum through the Second Referendum campaign (and received a boost of sorts from the Government’s unlawful attempt to prorogue Parliament last year). As I argued at the time, this will have a more diffuse legacy than many expect, and I think we could be seeing that already.

Indeed I’d be intrigued to know the crossover between those in the baying crowd and People’s Vote supporters. Given that Bristol voted overwhelmingly for Remain, and that the crowd appears to be overwhelmingly young, I suspect the overlap is fairly high. This is not to say there is any causality between the two positions, but rather to suggest a certain congruence of mind, an inclination to believe that you and you alone have the answer and to not accept the status quo or any compromise position to it. It is to be driven by faith in yourself, faith in your identity and your anger, rather than faith in democracy, in your fellow citizens or, indeed, in your own arguments.

Because that’s the form of politics that was on display in Bristol. This was not democracy in action, but democracy actively ignored in favour of street justice. It doesn’t matter whether that justice was informed by righteous anger. The crowd decided that they and they alone had the right to speak for the public and to shape the public space. This is the politics of the mob, of pure conviction, devoid of doubt, and those otherwise liberal commentators who are lauding yesterday’s scenes because they agree with the outcome should stop and pause for a second. Because it’s all well and good when we agree, but what about when it’s a different target we’re less comfortable about? The ends don’t justify the means, as many seem to think, because the ends can change, and the means will have been accorded legitimacy.

Now, I have plenty of sympathy for those pointing out that it’s not as easy as it sounds to achieve your aims through institutional means; that the council have failed so far to remove the statue despite repeated, passionately expressed demands, and that they have been debating the exact wording of a new plaque clarifying Colston’s slave-trading past since 2018.

But it’s absurd to argue that this is a justification for bypassing political process – including peaceful protest – and taking things into your own hands. The validity of an action is not determined by the intensity of the feelings that propelled it, but by the legitimacy it has through public support – and there is no mechanism by which a self-selecting crowd can claim to represent the public will. That’s what democratic politics is for.

This is not to say that Bristol City Council have nothing to answer for here. Their well-documented lethargy and squabbling does appear to have weakened people’s faith in their ability to get things done. There are two answers here. One is to say ‘elect a new council then’. Since 1973, when elections to Bristol City Council first took place, Labour have been in charge for all but 16 years. With hung councils accounted for, a party other than Labour have been in absolute control for only 2 of the past 47 years. If you want change, vote for it.

The other is to push for another type of democracy, such as a deliberative assembly to hear from different sides and legitimately come to a considered public judgment. There’s been plenty of scepticism directed towards events such as citizen assemblies, especially over Brexit. But, having run such events in the West Midlands in a previous life, I know first hand that they can work, especially when such debates are focused on contained, local issues and are endorsed by elected representatives. Questions about the statues seem perfectly suited to such a forum. The council should have set one up – and could still do so, whether on Colston or as part of a wider conversation about Bristol’s heritage and how its people want it reflected in their city.

Such mechanisms matter, because whatever you think of a statue, the road to the bottom of the harbour is not the road to a better, more productive politics.

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Frank Lawton is Deputy Editor of CapX.