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A meaningful debate about statues is happening – the government just doesn’t seem to be taking part

The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol with the writing changed from 'erected by the citizens of Bristol as a memorial' to 'rejected by the citizens of Bristol as a memorial'.
Graffiti on the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Alamy/JMF news

At the start of this year Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, introduced legislation intended to protect historic monuments. As a result, the norm is now that monuments and plaques should be kept and contextualised rather than removed. All historic statues, whether listed or not, must go through a full planning process before being removed. Jenrick himself has the final say on these decisions.

After years of campaigning by Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement, an independent commission into Oriel College’s statue of the imperialist voted in May to remove it. But the college has declined to do so, explaining that attempting to remove the monument would be subject to costly legal and planning processes and would probably face challenges “particularly since the Government’s policy, in relation to historic statues and sites which have become contested, is to ‘retain and explain’ them”.

While Jenrick’s new law received supportive comments from some segments of the media, the move was also criticised even from within the Conservative party. Conservative peer Ed Vaizey called Jenrick’s announcement “ridiculously provocative” and part of a “pathetic” anti-woke agenda. Political opponents and campaigners have accused the government of “stoking a contrived culture war in order to distract from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic”.

But while these are justified critiques, they risk overlooking what is at stake in these heated debates about public monuments. The government’s backlash is not just a distraction from the pressing issues raised by the pandemic. It is indicative of a broader refusal to acknowledge, let alone address, the deep historical roots of the inequalities that pervade contemporary society.

Activists contesting statues are raising vital questions about our histories and how we remember them, but they are not only calling for a reckoning with the past. The Bristol protesters who brought down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston a year ago were part of a global mobilisation against structural racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the ongoing legacies of slavery and colonialism in the social inequalities that continue to structure society today.

In Britain, the disproportionately devastating effect of the pandemic on people from minority ethnic groups has made starkly visible deeply entrenched inequalities in health, working conditions, housing and policing.

The statue debate speaks directly to contemporary inequalities and allows us to see the fault lines in our public conversation about Britain’s role in empire and slavery, and – more importantly – about the ongoing legacy of this history in British society.

Robert Jenrick,secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, outside Downing Street.
Robert Jenrick has the last word on statues these days. Alamy

A deeper debate

The government has not confronted these issues. Instead, they have drawn on tired narratives about the threats to Britain’s cultural and historic heritage, blaming a “revisionist purge” carried out by baying mobs intent on censoring or destroying history.

My colleagues at the University of Manchester’s Centre of the Dynamics of Ethnicity, Gary Younge, Meghan Tinsley and Ruth Ramsden-Karelse, have challenged these claims.

So has Sadia Habib, exploring this topic with young people around the UK through a series of workshops with Manchester Museum, to uncover their experiences of statues.

All have noted that statues themselves are not a neutral record of history. They are often celebrations of figures whose views and actions were outrageous and cruel, even by the moral standards of their time. Those who toppled Colston were not seeking to forget him, but questioning his veneration.

Our research has explored how grassroots organisations, museums, artists, researchers and local authorities have pushed forward the conversation in creative ways. Commissions in London and Bristol, and reviews in cities and towns across the country, are seeking to rebalance the selective stories that are told about the past.

A global movement

These national conversations also connect to global movements to reckon with histories of empire and slavery. Our research is investigating how activists across the UK, the US, South Africa, Belgium and the French overseas department of Martinique approach the issue of statues with problematic symbolism.

In 2015, students and staff at the University of Cape Town gathered to demand the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes. They pointed to its prominent location at the entrance to campus as symbolic of the continued dominance of legacies of colonisation and exploitation. A month of organising and protesting led to the statue’s removal. As a crowd chanted and cheered, Rhodes Must Fall activists insisted that this would “not mark the end but the beginning of the long-overdue process of decolonising” the university. Their actions have reverberated globally, inspiring movements across South Africa, at Harvard and the University of Oxford, and beyond.

In the US, longstanding debates about statues gained momentum in 2017, in the wake of violence by white supremacists defending a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. The state’s governor introduced legislation in April 2020 to allow cities to remove statues, paving the way for a US$10 million (£7.2 million) plan to transform Richmond Virginia’s famous Monument Avenue, where four Confederate statues have already been removed. A final monument to Lee remains on the site and is the subject of an ongoing legal battle.

The statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York
The statue of Theodore Roosevelt in New York. Flickr/LunchboxLarry, CC BY

Many statues commemorate complex figures. In New York City, a statue of Theodore Roosevelt stands on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History. Roosevelt – governor of New York and US president celebrated for his conservation work and breaking up big business – is depicted on horseback. He is flanked by two standing figures, an African and a Native American. Indigenous activists and many others had long called for the monument’s removal, citing the racial hierarchy built into its composition, and Roosevelt’s involvement in the eugenics movement.

A commission established in 2017 was unable to agree to remove or keep it. Instead, an exhibition explored diverse perspectives on the statue. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, the monument was relocated. Conversations about its final destination continue.

In Martinique, activists pulled down statues of Pierre d’Esnambuc, the first French coloniser to arrive on the island in 1635, and Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, who reinstated slavery in the French colonies in 1802, calling for a public reckoning with the legacies of slavery and empire.

Yet they also pulled down statues of abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, making the point that whitewashing abolition erases long histories of resistance by enslaved people. The history and contemporary identity of Martinique, the activists argued, has not simply been handed down from metropolitan France – rather, it has been, and continues to be, shaped by Black people in the Caribbean.

Communities are now confronting the question of what will become of Colston, Rhodes, Roosevelt and others. Should they be displayed in museums – and if so, how? And what should replace them? Should we leave the plinths empty, create space for changing installations and live performances, or commission statues of figures that we can all celebrate? Or, as Gary Younge argues, do all statues simplify and set in stone stories that are far too complex to be told by static representations of singular individuals?

As my colleagues and I explain in a new briefing, the government’s doubling down is only silencing desperately needed conversations about the past and its role in the present – not least, the role of structural racism in shaping the uneven effect of the pandemic. It is vital that these conversations be continued, that decision-makers listen to them and act upon them, and that the government act to support this work.

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