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Politics

Swimming Lessons for Statues: British History as Abstraction

There is an Orwellian doublethink when it comes to British history, particularly the history of its empire. At once we are invited to be proud of our many achievements, to bask in our island’s individualistic endeavour for greatness, so long as we do not in fact think about history. When we are told to be proud of our history, we are not actually meant to engage in it, we are not meant to think of it in fact but instead picture it, through the gaze of vague disinterest and fumbling nationalism. I say fumbling nationalism because I find so often patriotic appeals to Britain’s greatness to be all too flimsy. Colonialism seems to be the colossal C-word from which public conscience simultaneously cringes from its invocation before then proceeding to mount a defence in its name.
In the wake of the BBC Proms controversy over the National Anthem, Boris Johnson stated: ‘I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness.’ To be honest, I am still not sure when exactly we started feeling appropriately embarrassed at our history of slavery and colonialism. As a nation we have rarely if ever formally or materially apologised for colonialism, the one major instance in the last few decades is when Kenyan victims of torture successfully took the government to court and received £19.9 million in compensation. This was on all accounts a begrudging ‘apology’ and compensation from the British government whereby the Foreign Office tried its best to prevent any compensation claims. William Hague, foreign secretary at the time, said ‘we do not believe that this settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former British colonial administration.’ Clearly, this compensation was meant to be an exception.
There is a sense of manufactured outrage surrounding the attempt to discuss colonial history. When the National Trust produced a report called ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’ (title isn’t snappy I know), conservatives went wild. Ben Bradley MP for Mansfield along with 27 other Tory MPs wrote a letter protesting the Trust’s report. Bradley even appeared on the BBC to try and defend the view that the Trust was engaging in revisionism and was anti-British. The issue here being that history is by no means a fixed entity, the more we uncover, the more we view the past and present (and future) differently. In the letter to the Trust, the signatories write ‘history must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit snowflake preoccupations.’ It should be apparent to anyone that accurately tracing the historical significance of sites of British heritage to the colonial past around them is anything but sanitising. The hilarity of this letter highlights the danger of those who want history to be a mere touchstone, a floating signifier of Britain’s greatness; Churchill and his aura must be forever beyond reproach, to even consider his family home of Chartwell in relation to his imperial preoccupations is blasphemy. Perhaps these same people think when we tourists visit Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Poland, we shouldn’t pay any mind to Nazism or the Holocaust.
This abstraction of history as only ever a point of reference for patriotism reaches new heights of hysteria on the topic of statues. This last summer, during the BLM protests in Britain, the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was torn down and thrown into the harbour in protest. The removal of the statue by protesters should not come as much of a surprise. Beginning in 2018, the Bristol City Council planned to produce a new plaque for the statue to replace the original which read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. There is no mention to Colston’s exact source of his wealth. The second plaque was intended to amend this in frank terms, detailing his involvement in the slave trade and the number of Africans trafficked, as well as using his status as a Tory MP to defend the right to trade slaves. A Tory councillor objected to this proposal and a historian representing Merchant Venturers tried to revise the proposal into cleaner terms. They tried to change wording like ‘trafficked’ to ‘transported’ and removed mention of Colston’s selective philanthropy grounded in religious kinship. Although this revised proposal was ultimately vetoed by the Mayor Marvin Rees, the attempt to sanitise British history is all too evident. But even when Colston’s statue, a commemoration of a man responsible for the trading of some 80,000+ plus Africans was thrown into the harbour, the attempt to save his reputation and that of Britain was still underway by some foot soldiers in the cringeworthy culture war.
Enter Save Our Statues, a not-for-profit organisation that has tasked itself with protecting the nation’s statues and monuments from those who want to see them removed. The organisation pledges to ‘deploy all legal, educational and political domains available in order to save our beloved national history and culture from intentional destruction, distortion and deterioration.’ It is interesting here that statues are considered national history and culture in their own right, rather than commemorations of said national history. From abstracted history, these statue simps (as Joel Golby calls them) use physical monuments as receptables for this abstraction. The organisation began as a Twitter campaign headed by property developer Robert Poll who argues ‘judging historical figures by our modern laws and morals is a futile exercise.’ Whilst it is not straightforward to hold past societies or figures to present day standards, Poll’s argument here is inherently flawed in presupposing that nobody contemporaneous with people like Edward Colston thought that slavery was wrong. Samuel Gorton, an early settler of North America and a republican, was a fierce critic of economic slavery and stated in 1651: ‘there is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy negers to that end they may have them for service or slaves forever; for the preventing of such practices among us, let it be ordered, that no black mankind or white being forced by covenant bond, or otherwise, to serve any man or his assigns longer than ten years.’ The institutions of slavery and the anti-slavery movements were contemporaries and to suggest we cannot hold slavers accountable due to historical circumstance is either ignorant on the part of people like Poll or purposefully obfuscating historical fact and our ability to think critically about our past.
Peter Whittle, ex-UKIP deputy leader, acts as the chairman of the organisation and in a moment of what I can only assume is extreme detachment from reality states ‘never was a campaign more important than this.’ Personally, Peter, I’m not so sure about that one. I’m all for a bit of hyperbole but given this whole campaign began in reaction to Black Lives Matter protests there might in fact be more important issues at hand. What organisations and individuals like these mean for social justice is an obfuscation of real concrete issues and instead a focus on outrage and fetishizing British history. I think the real smoking gun of discourse around British history can be seen in Steven Yaxley-Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson)’s rant about Colston’s statue where he says ‘who gives a shit what it’s about and what the man’s done? It’s part of British history.’ In essence, any statue is worth saving no matter the context of who is being commemorated.
Britain has a difficult and troubling past when it comes to our empire and colonialism. I am not sure whether I am a patriot or not, I certainly don’t feel proud for being born here. I didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter. I am grateful being born in Britain for having a degree of material comfort other countries do not possess as strongly. I am grateful I can write this freely (unless I end up with a bullet in the back of my head tomorrow in which case joke’s on me). But I am interested in my socioeconomic standing in relation to other countries as well as people in Britain. In Britain ethnic minorities have unemployment rates of 12.9% where White people only have 6.3%. Black people with degrees on average earn 23.1% less than White workers. The homicide rate stands at 30.5 per million for Black people, 14.1 for Asian people, and 8.9 for White people. 35.7% of ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty compared to 17.2% of White people. I cannot be proud of Britain’s history because it is so large, so far-reaching, and so abstract. I am proud however, of those who throughout its history, have stood up against inequality and against powerful establishments. As can be seen in the statistics I have listed here, work still needs to be done. This must occur through economic investment, proper and affordable housing, democratising workplaces, and criminal justice reform. What good are the monuments to a dead empire if its surviving ancestors are still facing the challenges of racism and capitalism in its death?

Further Reading:

Boris Johnson on BBC Proms and British history:
https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/boris-johnson-uk-embarassed-history-proms-row-a4532761.html
UK Compensating Kenyan Torture Victims:
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/uk-compensate-kenya-mau-mau-torture#:~:text=Britain%20is%20to%20pay%20out,%2C%20William%20Hague%2C%20has%20said.&text=%22We%20understand%20the%20pain%20and,events%20of%20emergency%20in%20Kenya
Ben Bradley on National Trust:
https://www.indy100.com/news/tory-mp-slavery-ben-bradley-national-trust-9724954
National Trust Report:
https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf
Edward Colston Statue and Bristol Council:
https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/second-colston-statue-plaque-not-2682813
Save Our Statues Website:
https://saveourstatues.org.uk/our-cause/#issue
‘A bat signal has gone out to Britain’s proud patriots: Save Our Statues’:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/10/britain-statues-edward-colston-bristol-slaver
Abolition and Republicanism over the Transatlantic Long Term, 1640-1800:
https://journals.openedition.org/lrf/1690
Equality and Human Rights Commission Statistics on Race:
https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/race-report-statistics