Monuments beloved of historians and pigeons that have punctuated Britain’s green and pleasant land, in some cases for centuries, are being torn down, beheaded or defaced.
There they stood minding their own business until the murder of George Floyd, an African American in far away Minneapolis, ignited passions in the hearts of Britons bent on challenging the systemic racism negatively impacting the lives of minorities.
The first sculpture to be torn of its plinth was that of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader and philanthropist, who made his fortune from the shipping of 90,000 Africans from Bristol to America and the West Indies. Protesters gleefully rolled this “memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city” into the harbour.
Today Churchill's statue gracing Parliament Square that was defaced by hooligans has been boarded-up as an affront to Britain’s reputation
Dismissed by the prime minister as the work of thugs, the action may have served as balm for hurt souls but his memory cannot be extinguished that easily in a city that grew wealthy from slavery and showed its gratitude for Colston’s charitable works by affixing his name to roads, buildings, schools, institutions, pubs and clubs.
Colston's elevated status
That ignominious end to Colston’s elevated status has inspired the forensic study of just about every statue in the land on the part of disparate groups.
Campaigners in Oxford now demand the removal of a statue of the university’s former student the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) Cecil Rhodes adorning the façade of Oriel College.
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To date the college has resisted all such appeals primarily because a scholarship programme funded by Rhodes has been awarded to more than 8,000 students. Moreover major donors threatened to withdraw their financial backing and bequests should Oriel succumb to pressure.
The debate over the worthiness of the above slave trader and some would say a brutal coloniser who founded the modern diamond industry to be memorialised for all eternity in spite of their not unsubstantial charitable endeavours is one that has a certain validity.
The problem is that Britain’s notorious nit-picking, petty PC brigade has muddied the waters setting its sights on the destruction of statues depicting some of the most revered figures in British history.
Who could have imagined that the man who arguably saved Britons from speaking German, including yours truly, could be one of the tree-huggers’ targets! When most of those around him were pushing to appease the Nazi regime during the war’s darkest days when victory seemed a hopeless dream, Winston Churchill, who admittedly was no saint, refused to give up on the fight.
Today his statue gracing Parliament Square that was defaced by hooligans has been boarded-up on the instructions of London’s mayor Sadiq Khan whose decision has been criticised by the government as well as Churchill’s grandson former minister Nicholas Soames as an affront to Britain’s reputation.
The movement’s push to rid Britain of “colonialist” sculptures has unbelievably set its sights on a statue of the Mahatma in the city of Leicester on the grounds that one of the humblest and most peaceful men ever was a racist. Statues of Gandhi as well as the man credited for ending apartheid in South Africa Nelson Mandela have also been covered-up.
Such attacks on inanimate symbols smack of hypocrisy. Who among us walks past a statue, any statue that has stood for generations and is consumed with hurt?
For most of us they exist virtually unnoticed rarely eliciting any emotional response. Furthermore, the movement is undermined by a lunatic fringe agitating to destroy Giza’s pyramids. Good luck with that!
Secondly, history is immutable and unchangeable. It is neither good nor bad, it simply is and any attempts to rewrite it or bury the former existence of individuals who changed its course, is nothing less than Orwellian censorship.
With few exceptions those statues should be left untouched to allow the observer to make his or her own judgements. They are the inheritance of society as a whole not merely one sector currently riding a wave.
The downing of statues is also dangerously divisive. Every action has a reaction and in this case the defilement of Churchill’s memory as well as the defacement of the Cenotaph commemorating the Glorious War Dead has enraged the far right as well as nationalistic organisations — and, in truth, numerous ordinary folk, proud patriots, who fear their culture is under threat.
Clashes between largely white male demonstrators claiming they were determined to defend London’s statues and supporters of the Black Lives Movement occurred over the weekend although police struggling to keep both sides apart bore the brunt of injuries. The government is looking weak, seemingly unable to control the violence.
I must admit I’ve been appalled by the puerile reactions of movie and media companies seeking to appease protesters by pulling one of the most memorable romantic movies ever Gone with the Wind that secured eight Oscars, as well as an episode of the iconic British comedy series Fawlty Towers. Why on earth should we impose contemporary mores and values on our ancestors!
Together statues, movies, television series and books are time capsules of former eras permitting future generations to be enriched by the past and learn lessons for the future.
Once again America sneezed and Britain dubbed “The Sick Man of Europe” due to its failure to contain the pandemic, has caught a cold.
— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.