So, the statue of Colston – long the subject of historical debate in Bristol – has been torn down and thrown into the harbour by a mob claiming to represent Black Lives Matter. An intelligent conversation that Bristol was having about its civic past – how hospitals, almshouses, and schools – came into being (through the actions of a particularly generous philanthropist who was also a particularly prolific slave trader) was undoubtedly being had, greatly abetted by a new wave of recent revisionism. That process may well have (especially post the BLM) have culminated with the removal of Colston’s statue and its installation in a museum, or possibly some sort of other action such as a revisionist plaque introducing a moral context which wasn’t acknowledged in 1895 when the statue was built.
Now that debate has been abruptly ended by a criminal minority who claim to represent a vanguard. The justification, in preference to peaceful petitioning, is that the latter had not yet yielded a result despite a petition with 10,000 signatures.
I argue that tearing down the statue was despicable and utterly stupid act, which is entirely counterproductive to the cause of BLM.
1. On Democracy
Failure to get what you want when you want when you want it in a democracy is not a justification for violent criminal action. A 10,000 signature petition is, quite frankly, utterly feeble in today’s environment when petitions with millions of signatures can be generated in a matter of days. Note also that, even supposing all the 10,000 were Bristolians (highly unlikely) the population of Bristol is more than 550,000. There is only the scantest evidence that Bristol as a whole supported removing the statue, despite the city’s famously progressive politics.
So, the mob did not represent the people of Bristol. They did even not represent even the 10,000 who signed the petition because many of these would have favoured only a constitutional removal and subsequent display in a museum. They did not represent BLM and its important aims. Their claims to represent a vanguard rest only on their own arrogance that they are the heirs to the future, proposed and seconded by themselves.
2. On Statues
It is perfectly true that statues often tell us more about the memorialiserss than the memeroialised. In the case of Colston, of those who sponsored his statue in 1895, 174 years after his death. But this is precisely why they are so revealing. Every monument exists within a historical context, and this helps
us understand eras where people thought differently (and viewed their pasts very differently) than we do today. They, like us, found heroes and villains which were often determined by political convenience rather than a temporally detached objective judgement. They were also liable to exaggerate things, tell lies, and twist the facts.
Given that, why would we expect monuments and the built environment to somehow seamlessly evolve like a living creature, to tell a history that suits our present standpoint? We know that even old history books (which marshalled evidence, were written by trained reasoners with peer review, and could develop nuances over hundreds of pages) often don't do this. So why on earth would we expect statues and monuments to? Why do we expect temporal moral unimpeachability when we tell stories through the medium of stone and metal?
The idea that all statues/monuments/buildings standing - because they occupy public space prominently - imply they are part of today's 'approved' current social and political narrative of now is false, and disempowering. Those who put them their may have wanted to venerate them, but that does not mean we have to. We can make up our own minds about that- the statue as it stands stimulates debate, rather than veneration. It is a statement of the obvious to say that many statues are of people who held views we see as downright offensive. Queen Victoria (icon of imperialism); Winston Churchill (racist); Nancy Astor (virulent Anti-Semite); David Hume (racist); William Gladstone (slavery apologist); Oliver Cromwell (massacrer of the Irish); Horacio Nelson (white supremacist). Others simply had fingers in the pies of what were, at the time, not particularly controversial positions, horrific as they seem now. Those who quite consciously profited from slavery or imperialism include all who held shares in the South Sea Company, East India Company, or numerous sugar or other slave-sustained industries. That would then include many (or most) members of the ruling class from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Plenty from the twentieth too, when you consider that the British Government only paid off the national debt accrued from buying the freedom of slaves throughout the British Empire (1833) in 2015. Beneficiaries of this compensation (funded in part, ironically, by taxation levied from decedents of slaves) include former Prime Minister, David Cameron and other contemporary celebrities. When it is unclear where the 'guilty' line is drawn (slave trader, slave owner, conscious beneficiary of the slave trade) then much of Britain's modern history risks condemnation before the jury of whig iconoclasm.
But whataboutery aside, I would argue that those who wish us of the uncomfortable aspects of their past - and especially progressives who advocate remedial or affirmative action to correct for its legacy - would be better advised to let the monuments stand for precisely that reason. Because they help us remember how our ancestors thought, and where we now disagree. If those valuable reminders are airbrushed, would we be more or less likely to forget? The ‘put it in a museum’ counterargument I often hear confines them to viewership only by a small minority of the educated elite who visit them. Letting it stand in its original context, re-plaqued if necessary to reflect our new interpretation, enables the most to be learned, the most questions to be asked, the most searching debates to be had. The statue is no longer an object of veneration, but a means by which we can think and learn about not jsut the past, but also how our ancestors thought about their pasts. Destroying statues and renaming buildings is a black and white process which uses history for a political purpose. But to understand history? That requires us to have the courage to meet its gaze in its own context where shades of grey are likeliest to be appreciated. This is why should stand where most will see it and scrutinise it- not destroyed, censored, or tucked away in the dusty corners of a museum of history's 'guilty men'.
3. On Colston and other 'Guilty Men'
I am not going to defend Mr. Colston by attempting to perform some sort of moral arithmetic where his role as a slave trader (and a trader when the practice was at its most industrialised and most brutal) is somehow subtracted from his role as a progressive civic philanthropist. It is good and proper that the past is continually reassessed to inspire the present. That process will inevitably create new heroes and villains and cause reputations to be re-evaluated as is just and proper. However, what I would say is that I do not find the line between Colston – who has been toppled - and many other cherished historical figures - who (so far) have not - to be a particularly clear one. Most people in the past were racist, sexist, homophobic, pro-imperialist, pro-slavery, and most other things. Make no mistake- mostly likely, so would you, had you lived in their eras. Do not suppose for a moment you would have necessarily formed up alongside Wilberforce and the Suffragettes and early Gay Rights campaigners and those on the ‘right side’ of history. Therefore, we must ask, who is next?
What about the beloved progressive hero William Gladstone- the 'People's William', a man responsible for mass working class enfranchisement, religious toleration, a huge school building programme, the abolition of entry by payment into the army and civil service, a leader of international humanitarianism, and much more besides. Already, the University of Liverpool (his city of birth) has removed his name from a a hall of residence for fears of his links to slavery and cities like Peterborough are debating whether to rename streets and schools which bear his name. This is because his father, John Gladstone, was the largest recipient of slavery compensation following the Slavery Abolition Act, 1833. He profited to the tune of millions in this way . Moreover, William spent many of his early years in Parliament defending his father’s financial slave interests in this area and diligently avoided the slavery issue when many about him were highly energised by abolition and the general consequences of slavery (note this was not a benefit Mr. Colston had in his era 150 years prior).
On paper, I don't really see a particularly hard difference between the superficial cases that could be made against Colston and Gladstone. two. Both men made fortunes from the slave trade, and both defended their financial interest arising from it. Both spent the rest of their lives apart from this doing good: Calston with his enormous progressive philanthropy, Gladstone with his heroic national service spanning 60 years and four premierships. Not that it would even be necessary to establish Gladstone's guilt as equivalent to Colston when the line is being blurred as it is. Will Gladstone end up at the bottom of Liverpool Docks? Or the Thames? Don't be surprised.
BLM asks fundamental questions about our society and problems of structural inequalities in it. The moral pressure on those in power to do something is enormous. Statues and building names are the easiest of easy targets- they can be taken down to much fanfare, while the existing power structures remain in place. In this regard, removing statues - which we are now starting to see happen throughout the country - is as impotent and tokenistic as posting black squares on social media. But even outside of the risk of erasing history, this it is not without harm, for mobs defacing monuments is as clarion a call as any to far right racist thugs to step in to 'defend' statues and monuments on behalf of the 'silent majority'. Someone is going to get hurt- someone whose body is flesh and blood rather than stone or metal.
And it reveals the ultimate irony of what the BLM debate has become in Britain: it is largely white people becoming furious with other white people about statues of dead white people. And soon, a group of thugs claiming to represent BLM trying to tear down a statue fighting other group of thugs claiming to represent ordinary British people, when in reality neither do. And in that cacophony, the real voice of ordinary black people and the vitally important moral questions BLM poses, are lost in the hubbub.