The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston on 7 June 2020 has swiftly become an iconic moment among the waves of nationwide protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even as the Prime Minister decried those who broke the law during the protests to make their point, Chief Constable Andy Marsh of Avon and Somerset Police voiced his full support for the decision of officers not to intervene to arrest the demonstrators, which in their judgement risked provoking scenes of violence in defence of the statue of a slave-trader.
The officers, it seems, were more in touch with the public mood than the government. By the following Tuesday the council in Tower Hamlets, where I live, had removed a statue of Robert Milligan from its plinth at West India Quay. More are likely to follow, and soon, across the country. It would appear to be the greatest vindication that the demonstrators could hope to receive.
Viewed cynically, one might say that these local authorities are either scrambling to head off the possibility of demonstrators taking matters, perhaps messily, into their own hands, or else have been stung by events into actions that they ought to have taken many years ago. Certainly, Colston’s statue had been a controversial fixture in Bristol for years before this incident, with numerous petitions for its removal failing to move the local authorities to action.
But that latter response especially risks glancing over something profound. The moral weight, the essential and unassailable correctness of the demonstrators’ cause, is shown more clearly by the fact that many politicians are not now arguing over whether the statues should be taken down, but how and when.
Virtually nobody in mainstream politics, one might note, is presently leaping to the defence of Colston and his ilk. Even Home Secretary Priti Patel, who called the actions taken in Bristol 'utterly disgraceful' and called for those responsible to face prosecution, stopped short of calling explicitly for preserving a monument to a slave-trader.
Perhaps she was mindful of the fact that this would put her in the company of, among others, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, the co-founder of the far-right English Defence League and former UKIP advisor who released a video reportedly describing Colston’s statue as ‘a part of British history’ and dismissing his role in the enslavement and transportation of black Africans with contempt: ‘who gives a s*** what it’s about and what the man’s done’.
Continued and widespread ignorance of Britain’s imperial history, and how enmeshed it is with the institutionalised brutalisation of black and brown people to this day, is part of the problem. Confronting this with maturity will, inevitably, mean asking searching questions. We will need to ask what parts of our history we celebrate with public monuments, and which need to be recontextualised. Proper, mandatory education about this toxic legacy from primary school would be a big step forward.
We had a vision of where things might get more complicated with the graffiti on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, adding the words ‘was a racist’ beneath his name on the plinth. Many Britons would probably feel queasy at the idea that we should hold both sides of the man and his legacy together: he remains a divisive figure today – viewed as a hero who led his country through the Second World War and also an unapologetic racist and imperialist who, among other things, opposed Home Rule in India to the bitter end and, faced with a famine in Bengal which killed three million people, appeared to blame Indians for breeding ‘like rabbits’. These difficulties cannot be sidestepped or waved away.
To ask ‘Where will it stop?’ is only really helpful in this context as a spur to further engagement. Using it to shut down discussion, invoking the fear that re-examining our national myths and heroes will leave us diminished as a nation and so it is better simply to leave well enough alone, is both incurious and cowardly. To ask these questions, and to reach answers which allow us to view our history and its effects on the present fully, will mean that we have come of age as a democracy.