Eddie Ford says it is healthy to question the iconography that is all around us
Being from the west country myself, it was a magnificent sight watching Edward Colston’s bronze effigy get dragged through Bristol and then dumped into the harbour to a great, approving roar. What bliss to be alive.
If you did not know it before, you are certainly aware by now that Colston played an important role in the slave trade as a board member and ultimately deputy governor of the Royal African Company. He oversaw the transportation into slavery of an estimated 84,000 Africans, with 19,000 of them dying in transit - thrown into the sea as shark food. For his efforts, over 170 years after his death, a statue of him was erected in 1895 by the local bigwigs - the plaque saying it was a memorial to “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of the city.
But now Colston sleeps with the fishes - or did until he was dredged up a few days later by the council and put into storage (possibly with a view to putting him in a museum surrounded by loads of Black Lives Matter placards). Quite rightly, the black, directly elected mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, described the toppling of Colston as an act of “historical poetry”.
All history is contested, it goes without saying. Colston’s effigy was hauled from its plinth and thrown off a quayside where his ships would have docked close to a bridge that is now named in honour of the 18th century Bristol slave, Pero Jones. From at least the 1990s onwards, campaigns have called for the removal of the statue - thwarted by Colston’s legion of defenders. Others have called for a memorial plaque honouring the victims of slavery to be fitted to his statue. That plan collapsed, when Bristol’s influential Society of Merchant Venturers, which used to count Colston as a member, insisted on watering down the text to hide his crimes. This charitable organisation runs three institutions in the city that bear his name, together with nine schools and 220 acres of parkland.
Of course, some of those who toppled Colston were the descendants of slaves - possibly including those chained to the decks of Colston’s ships. The same is equally true for many black people who were part of the Windrush generation - those encouraged to come to Britain to make up for the labour shortage after World War II. Unsurprisingly, they ended up at the bottom of the working class, most finding it near impossible to break out of that position - as did their children. It is the generation that grew up with structural inequality and a sense of pervasive racism which forms the ‘cadre’ of BLM.
As the media coverage has made clear, there is lot of genuflection towards BLM by the liberal establishment as part of an attempt to incorporate it into the fold. This is only to be expected, when the central modern myth of bourgeois ideology today has Britain as an anti-racist and anti-fascist power - the war being presented as a noble, democratic crusade against Nazi barbarism and the holocaust (when in reality the genocide of Jewish people was a mere detail of the war for the imperialists). All of Britain’s leading institutions practise a form of top-down institutional anti-racism based around some version of that very ideology, modified and revised as appropriate.
This attempted appropriation of BLM and the general anti-racist movement is at its most obvious in the US - dramatically symbolised in Washington DC by an enormous display of officially approved street art leading up to the White House. There is a similar phenomenon in Britain - Edward Colston seeming destined to become an object lesson on the horrors of slavery and racism. A statue of Robert Paden-Powell in Poole, Dorset, has been ‘temporarily’ removed following a furore about him being pro-Nazi. You can see why. The founder of the worldwide Scout movement described Mein Kampf as a “wonderful book with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation, etc” - even if these are “ideals which Hitler does not practise himself”. Now, of course, there is an increasingly concerted campaign to get Cecil Rhodes removed from outside Oriel College in Oxford - with similar talk about Sir John Hawkins, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and, of course, Sir Francis Drake himself. They all have numerous streets, building and parks named after them.
In fact, apart from rare exceptions, almost all the statues that were put up in London and other cities will be people associated with the slave trade, colonialism or the British empire. After all, who was above it? Certainly not Drake, or Elizabeth I for that matter - both enormously benefited from slavery. William Shakespeare, for another example, invested in businesses that were engaged in the slave trade. These individuals are not on a plinth because of their role in the slave trade, not even Colston, but for their dazzling wealth, generous philanthropy, political power or artistic brilliance. They are being venerated for their perceived contribution to official Britain.
Inevitably, the statue wars have created conflicts and tensions within the establishment as a whole, which is faced with a difficult balancing act. It wants to appropriate and divert BLM.
But the desire to incorporate is tempered with an instinctive hostility to pulling down statues that express the historical continuity of the British state - the local and national heroes up and down the country that cohere the nation. Hence the draconian proposals from Priti Patel, the home secretary, of a possible 10-year prison sentence for defacing or vandalising statues and monuments. The idea of a bill already has the backing of over 100 Tory MPs and seems at the moment to have the support of the Labour leadership. Though that could quickly change. Imposing such a harsh punishment on a BLM activist for spraying rude comments about an obviously unpleasant person could prove to be highly unpopular. Of course, tearing down statues of Saddam Hussein or VI Lenin in places faraway is only to be applauded.
In turn, predictably, there has been a counterreaction in the tabloids and elsewhere - though how deep it runs is hard to judge. Only the likes of the English Defence League, Britain First, Democratic Football Lads Alliance, etc have actually taken to the streets to “protect” monuments from anti-racism protestors. But if you read the rightwing papers, they are quite conscious that what is being challenged by BLM and others is the standard chauvinist narrative about Britain - which they do not like one tiny bit. Perhaps speaking up for these discontents the other day was Nigel Farage, who in the words of the Express made a “brilliant” defence of Baden-Powell by pointing out that one of the protestors who defended the statue held up a placard that read, “British History Matters” (June 13). Large parts of conservative opinion will regard defending the statues of Rhodes or Drake as a defence of Britishness.
In other words, the statue wars - without wanting to stress the point too much - are a form of the culture wars, Trumpian or not. We can see this in how an old Spectator article from 2002 by Boris Johnson was immediately resurrected. In that piece he wrote that the problem in Africa is not that Britain was once in charge, “but that we are not in charge any more”. He also downplayed, if not dismissed, Britain’s role in the slave trade.
There are also demands in some quarters that monuments to Winston Churchill should be removed as well - almost the ultimate heresy, given the official hagiographic history that we were brought up with from a very early age, plus the endless documentaries, TV shows and films venerating him. But his world outlook was unarguably racist, like most in ruling class circles of his time. For example, his infamous 1920 article, entitled ‘A struggle for the soul of the Jewish people’, essentially argues that there are good Jews like the Zionists and bad Jews like the Bolsheviks. But he blames Jews for the Russian Revolution, because the “majority of the leading figures” were Jewish, who were all part of “this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation”. Just as noteworthy were his remarks in 1937 about the indigenous peoples of Australia and North America. He did not admit wrong had been done to them, because “a stronger race” or “higher-grade race” had “come in and taken their place” - that is just the natural order of things.
On the other hand, there are black nationalist elements within BLM who venerate black queens and kings - constructing their own racially charged history. This approach can be found in the very bad book Black Athena by Martin Bernal, which eccentrically argued that Greek civilisation derived from an Egypt run by black Nubian pharaohs. Yet the fact of the matter is that, if you take the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, it had the American side, which supplied tobacco and sugar, and the African side, with various chiefs and local kings who were enthusiastic slave traders - whether their own people or those they captured. It is true that Britain had its own operations in that respect, but nonetheless there was a thriving African political economy in slaves.
While the first generation or two of labourers were white and came from the destitute and criminal classes, what developed was a system of black slavery in the West Indies and the southern American states, meaning that to be a slave was to be black and to be black was to be a slave. In that sense, BLM is right to make a connection between race and class.
There have been accusations of Pol Potist or Maoist-style Cultural Revolution politics made against those who want to get rid of statues - saying it is like banning the ‘bourgeois’ Beethoven or making traffic lights display red for ‘go’ in pursuit of a Year Zero programme to remove all traces of the previous socio-economic system. There might be a grain of truth here, but the fact of the matter is that most ‘remove the statue lists’ are in the dozens, not the hundreds. We in the CPGB certainly do not favour wiping out all traces of capitalist culture, whether it be music, painting, literature … or the built environment. But that is an extrapolation from where we are now.
Certainly, if it is legitimate to put statues up, then it is legitimate to pull them down. Monuments and effigies are put up for reasons of ideology - no more, no less. Which is precisely why the current statue wars are so healthy: they are questioning not only the past, but today’s ruling-class ideology.
We normally walk past statues without a second thought, regarding them as everyday parts of the urban furniture. But now a new awareness has developed, as shown by the daubing of Churchill’s statue with “He was a racist” - yes, he was! Walk around Parliament Square and look at this and then that statue - and ask who they were and why they are here.