Statues – we’ve been here before

The world this morning is white. Or black. The inbetween where wisdom lies is in danger of being squeezed.

Tory MPs are on their knees attempting to wipe graffiti of the Churchill statue in Parliament Square. Priti Patel goes ultra vires telling Bristol police they must prosecute demonstrators who tore down the Colston statue. Melanie Phillips in The Times asserts that ‘On both sides of the Atlantic, this mayhem is the result of decades of appeasing those determined to bring down Western culture.’

(Am I, I wonder, one of those seeking to bring down Western culture, or one of the appeasers? I think I’ll reverse the charge in this case. This mayhem has more to do with people like Ms Phillips who choose white over black, or for that matter black over white.)

On the other hand, I’m hardly in favour of lining up dustcarts or convenient quaysides as dumping grounds for every statue which offends. Colston had to go. He just went sooner. But Cecil Rhodes?

Nelson Mandela, with his ‘Cecil, you and I are going to have to work together now’ line, suggested a way forward. Statues may once have been celebrations of individuals. Now they help us connect with how we’ve got to where we are, and how brutal that process often was. Colston was simply in too public a place, and his slave-trading simply too egregious a crime.

(Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, quoted Mandela this morning on the Today programme. It is a very apposite quote, but Patten came over as too complacent. We aren’t where we were four years ago, or indeed where we were in 2003.)

I’ve a personal interest in Rhodes. Oriel, where his statue stands, all but invisible, high above the High Street, is my college. It’s almost as if, more than a hundred years ago, even then they didn’t want to shout about Rhodes. Most of us never knew he was there. (We frequented a hot dog stand on the other side of the road, but never thought to look up.) Oriel decided four years ago that the statue should stay. Now they are in a bind. Most statues are more or less public property. Councils can decide. The Rhodes statue is Oriel’s and the college risks being drawn into a very public and very animated debate.

We know where the Daily Telegraph will stand, and donors to Oxford college finances may well, many of them, be Telegraph readers. If the college decides to remove the statue donors may look elsewhere. That’s the impression that’s given. Whether true or not, I can’t say.

But what matters more is the wider debate. The Black Lives Matter debate, about inclusion and job opportunities and education. In the USA it’s focused around the police. Our police function as guardians, not enforcers, and while there are policing issues, it’s important to keep the focus on the wider issues of inclusion. I want to see action which is radical and conclusive, so we don’t have to keep returning to the issue of discrimination. Likewise I want to see NHS and healthcare workers, and all support staff, properly recognised, and remunerated. That included immigrant populations. Minimum salaries shouldn’t guide immigration policies. The contribution immigrants make to society, and it is huge, is a far far better guide.

I’m an historian by training, and history isn’t about identifying with your favourite bits of the past. (Though history is a marvellous diversion.) Or the more nefarious bits. We shouldn’t get hung up on Cecil. If it’s anything, history is about recognising the interplay between continuity and change, and how they work out in the present. So don’t get stuck in an antiquated timeframe. Be aware that values change, and in our time they have changed radically for the better. Western culture, and that includes much though not all of religion as practised in the West, now has a much wider and more inclusive moral basis. Pope Francis is a good exemplar.

We’re in danger in the current debate of getting stuck behind our statues. Letting them dictate its terms. We’d do far better to seek out the ground we hold in common, and work out from there.

Have we gone too far for that? I’d like to see most – not all, but most – statues remain. Let them help us connect with our history. Whether that should include Cecil Rhodes or not, the next few days will tell.

I don’t want to see a much important debate highjacked by the fate of statues. Nor do I want see my college becoming the subject of public opprobrium. If in the end the statue has to go, then so be it.

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