Eric Gill at work on what was even then a controversial sculpture

Cancelling the dead

Eric Gill’s Prospero and Ariel has been vandalised yet again. Mike Macnair looks at the politics of attacking soft targets

In the early hours of May 20 a man in a Spiderman mask was arrested for vandalising the statue of Prospero and Ariel by Eric Gill at the entrance to Broadcasting House, the BBC offices on Portland Place, London. He obtained access via the scaffolding which had been put up for the purpose of restoration of the statue after a very similar attack in January 2022.

The arrested man may be merely a publicity-seeker. The January 2022 attacker was a ‘fathers’ rights’ campaigner, who had previously scaled a construction crane dressed as Spiderman (a not untypical ‘Fathers 4 Justice’ stunt). Assuming this is not the same guy, May 2023 looks like a copycat. However, more serious arguments have been offered that the Gill statue should be taken down or left in its vandalised condition. The essential basis of these arguments is that Gill was a sexual abuser - shown to be so by his own diaries, as explored after his death by his biographer, Fiona MacCarthy. And hence the statue should not be on display, or should not be restored after the 2022 vandalism.

There are, in fact, slightly stronger arguments possible for ‘cancelling’ the statue in this specific case. The first element is that the BBC as an institution notoriously enabled and covered up sex abuse by celebrities - notably Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris.

The second point is that the statue itself appears to be a piece of paedophile imagery. Ariel in Shakespeare’s The tempest is a supernatural entity - an air-spirit who has been bond-servant to the witch, Sycorax, before she imprisons him in a tree and leaves him there for 12 years; Prospero releases him from the tree, but holds him as a debt-bondsman for enough time before the opening of the play that in act 1 Ariel is already grumbling about Prospero’s delay in releasing him. The character is not a child or childish, but is, on the other hand, gender-ambiguous (in later scenes Ariel can appear as female). Hence Ariel was originally played by a teenage boy, but from the Restoration period by a woman; this casting norm reflects the ‘agelessness’ of spirits, like elves/fairies and angels, as well as the gender-ambiguity.

Gill, however, represented Ariel in the Broadcasting House sculpture as a pre-pubertal boy (albeit with slightly enlarged genitals, which were remarked on when the statue was new), being hugged by his creditor-master, Prospero. This specific representation is certainly not required by the link of broadcasting to Ariel as a spirit of the air. It thus does seem to be best explained by Gill’s sexual obsessions.

That said, these arguments do not appear to be the reasons offered for why the statue should be taken down or left unrepaired. On the contrary, the main arguments seem to be simply on the basis of Gill’s sexual abuse of his children, and that the act of leaving the statue in place, and restoring it to an undefaced state, would be in effect a BBC endorsement of Gill’s conduct (the view of the original attacker and of Katherine Tyrell on her blog Making a Mark1). Even Jake Kerridge, who in the Telegraph on May 20 argued against taking the statue down, poses the arguments in terms of the case for ‘cancelling’ Gill’s work in general, rather than in terms of this dodgy image at the front door of this guilty institution.2

Gill’s individual case should remind us that a lot of sexual abuse takes place within the private space of families and along the lines of their internal authority relations.3 The Savile and Harris cases should remind us that, outside this context, abusers are commonly facilitated by the operation of bureaucratic hierarchies; and that they are also protected by the denial of justice and routine sale through the “free market in legal services”. The focus on attacking the work of ‘paedo’ Gill proceeds on the assumption that sexual abuse is mainly the work of an identifiable sub-class of paedophiles and so diverts attention from the institutional forms which protect abusers.

Soft targets

The underlying political method involved is going after soft targets. In this case Eric Gill, who is long dead, and his artwork, are seriously soft targets. No-platforming the dead is rather an easy job. In contrast, parental authority in the family, which facilitates child abuse, is a much harder target. Jimmy Savile was a very hard target while he was alive. The phenomenon behind that - the sale and denial of justice by the free market in legal services - is a very hard target, being part of the core of the capitalist constitution. The BBC as an institution is intermediate: it is a hard target insofar as it is a large institution, with major funds and lawyers at its disposal. It is a somewhat soft target in that the advertising-funded media would like to see it abolished, so that, in so far as targeting the BBC takes a form which can be exploited by the press barons, it may get some sympathy.

Going after soft targets is much more widespread and is not uniquely leftwing - it has been noted that the de facto bloc which calls for taking down the Gill statue includes Tommy Robinson. The technique of Tory witch-hunting of trans people, and of illegal migrants, has the same character: in both cases, the Tories go after people who are politically unlikely to be able to fight back, in order to use them as an entering wedge for ulterior purposes.

In the trans case the Tories are going after the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Labour, and in the long run for some of the National Conservatives seeking to get back more parental control of teenagers, and the traditional Tory policy for women of Kinder, Kirche, Küche (children, church, kitchen - an old slogan from the German Second Reich, but the underlying idea far more widespread on the traditional right).

In the case of illegal migrants the Tories are blaming migrants for poverty which is, in fact, caused by deindustrialisation, ‘efficiency gains’ and anti-union laws, and in the long run aiming to get back the Home Office’s freedom of arbitrary action before the Wilson government in 1966 accepted individual petitions to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights (as always it is necessary to note that the European Convention and Court of Human Rights are quite separate from the European Union).

In both cases there is a short-term aim of dishonestly obtaining a marginal electoral advantage.

The left is equally prone to going after soft targets - but considerably less successful with it. Going after ‘Nazis’ (soft target) rather than state oppression of migrants (hard target) has been a staple since the 1970s. The left’s (predominant) support for Scottish and Welsh nationalism has been a soft-target approach to the question of political democracy in Britain. And so on.

Why soft-target policy fails to work for the left is simple enough. Which targets are hard and which soft is ultimately defined by the bribe-taking classes, in particular the lawyers (providing impunity for the seriously wealthy) and the advertising-funded media (playing up some issues and playing down others). Hence the policy of going after soft targets is to be led by the nose by the press barons, who can abruptly shift the political agenda if left soft-target hunting looks like getting out of hand. Chasing the soft targets then serves as a useful (to the regime) distraction for the left from doing what it could do to undermine the legitimacy of the political regime and build up the self-organisation, confidence and political leading role of the working class.

Grasping the past

Both these projects - undermining the legitimacy of the political regime, and building up the workers’ movement as a potential alternative leadership for society - require that this movement endeavour to grasp the past, in order to understand the dynamics which play into the future.

Henry Ford famously said that “History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present …”4 The claim may have been mere cover for Ford’s personal ignorance, but expresses the more general idea that we only need to know history which is useful to present policy. This would, of course, make it impossible to criticise present policy. Joseph Stalin famously rewrote history with each tactical zigzag. George Orwell satirised this policy in 1984 as “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

Applying this policy, the Tories have, through the ‘national curriculum’ introduced in 1988, massively cut down the range of history taught in schools and the diversity of interpretations. The result is a sanitised version of British history which centres, on the one hand, on the supposed antiquity of the constitution and the fantasy of “our island story” without invasions or revolutions; on the other, on “our finest hour” (1940) versus the European “age of the dictators”. Today, Policy Exchange’s ‘History Matters’ complains of the “rewriting” of history - by which it means its partial deTorification, to reduce the extent of public celebration of the British empire. Its agenda is to re-secure Tory Party control of the past, which it takes to be “non-partisan”.5

However, if the alternative to this is to erase the British empire, we erase with it British imperial and war guilt, and offer in its place either mere silence or the liberal fantasy version which New Labour promoted, and which is still within the frame of ‘national curriculum history’, but merely spun slightly towards the ‘equality and diversity’ agenda. And the result is just as much being led by the nose by the press barons as it is with the ‘soft targets’ approach generally.

There are practical political consequences. Britain used to be the global hegemon in the 19th century and down to 1940. In that capacity, and in the run-up to achieving that status, Britain committed dreadful crimes. But this is not a fully past and over story. In 1940 the UK agreed to hand over world leadership to the US, though there were unsuccessful attempts to slide out of the consequences in 1944 (Keynes at Bretton Woods) and 1956 (Suez). As part of that deal, the UK became a second-rank power directly subordinate to the US, but continued to operate as a military attack-dog in the colonial world. 1968 was the only year in the 20th century when UK troops were not engaged in either overt war or counter-insurgency operations. With the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, it became clear that Britain no longer had large-scale military capability; but it still serves, as in the Ukraine war and in other fields, as the US’s yap-dog.

London, moreover, runs a worldwide network of offshore centres through British continuing and former colonial possessions, and City “invisible earnings” from skimming global financial transactions to pay for the £16 billion deficit in trade in goods and the 46% of the food we eat which is imported.

In this context, to sanitise British history towards ‘equality and diversity’ agendas is not to wake up to the imperialism which underlies racism, but to fall asleep in the face of it. One visible present result is that part of the left which, extraordinarily, though ostensibly feminist, anti-racist, and so on, cannot see the hand of US and British imperialism in the war in Ukraine - or the imperialist character of the coverage of this war offered by both the advertising-funded media and the BBC …

This may appear to have taken us a considerable way from the efforts to vandalise Eric Gill’s dodgy statue and the arguments these have led to. But the underlying soft-target politics are the same.

  1. makingamark.blogspot.com/2023/05/what-should-bbc-do-about-eric-gill.html.↩︎

  2. . ‘The BBC’s Eric Gill statue is hard to defend’ The Daily Telegraph May 20.↩︎

  3. . Eg, www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/childsexualabuseinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2019; www.csacentre.org.uk/resources/key-messages/intra-familial-csa.↩︎

  4. www.hemmings.com/stories/2018/01/14/fact-check-what-henry-ford-meant-when-he-said-history-is-bunk.↩︎

  5. policyexchange.org.uk/publication/history-matters.↩︎