In 2 Samuel, King David laments the deaths of Saul and Jonathan:
The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places; how are the mighty fallen!
The chapter came to mind as I saw the reports about the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the removal of Robert Milligan from the West India Dock, the erasure of Gladstone’s name from a student building in Liverpool, the vandalism of the statue of Churchill and the Cenotaph. The events of 25th May, when George Floyd died while being restrained by a white Minneapolis police officer, have galvanised the globe into generic, frequently violent, protests about racial disparities.
The immediate frenzy is abating, at least for the moment; most of the Black Lives Matter protestors and counter-demonstrators were, of course, peaceful. But now comes an even more unsettling period, as ‘activists’ ask ‘questions’ and initiate ‘dialogues’ with opportunistic (or frightened) politicians about other buildings, statues, and streets named after historical figures who have suddenly become ‘controversial’. It is plain these activists only want one answer to these ‘questions’. It is equally plain that those who should be opposing, or at least moderating, this Cambodia-style culture-cleansing are unequal to the task.
Instead, the Mayor of London has launched a ‘Diversity Commission’ to consider future removals and renamings – with the help of a website called Topple the Racists (these racists including Drake, Nelson and Peel). English Heritage is to ‘review’ the blue plaques placed on buildings associated with prominent individuals for “problematic connotations”. In Liverpool, Penny Lane (of Beatles fame) may be renamed. Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council is ‘temporarily’ boarding up a statue of Scout Association founder Robert Baden-Powell. Boris Johnson has called for a commission to add to all the reviews on race relations. (Labour MP David Lammy responded angrily that if Johnson would just implement all the recommendations of these reviews, “the Black Lives Matter protests can stop and we can get on” – an assertion sadly at odds with experience.)
British companies like Sainsbury’s have joined global firms like Amazon in expressing support for the BLM movement, although perhaps they do not even know themselves whether they are motivated by genuine morality, a sense of good public relations, or fear – or some combination of these. Celebrities have sought moral cleansing (or a career fillip) by confessing their racism to our prurient society. Popular TV shows have been pulled or part-pulled in a panic-stricken reaction, and even Blue Peter presenters have wisely expressed their adherence to the new religion (‘an idea we prepared earlier’). Professions from fashion to football, the clergy to journalism, and academia to wildlife conservation, have been vying to outdo each other in what Cotton Mather called “visible Goodliness”.
These are continuations of decades-old processes – complaints about Colston are at least 30 years old – but in the wake of George Floyd’s death they have been supercharged. Concerned observers have noted the obvious similarities with the Salem witch trials, Stalin’s show-trials and Nazi book-burnings, and inevitably Orwell –
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
We do not know what happened immediately before the video footage of George Floyd’s death, nor can we imagine what it is like to be a police officer in America. Clearly, he died horribly, and there ought to be a fair but thorough investigation. However, what happened to him has little or nothing to do with monuments to Britain’s shapers, and aggrieved or calculated attacks on these are deeply damaging to England’s sense of herself. We should not exaggerate the power of the protestors, who constitute a small and fragile coalition of the fringes, but nor should we underestimate the real-world importance of even the smallest symbols.
These smallest symbols include Edward Colston, who was undoubtedly an exploiter of human misery. He is, therefore, an easy target for ire – arguably too easy. He was born (1636) into a world in which slavery had always been widespread – practised by many societies, sanctioned by classical commentators, Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Talmud and the Koran. White people were frequently enslaved, either by other white people (the Vikings founded Dublin as a slave port), or by the pirates of the Barbary Coast, who raided in the Hebrides as late as the 1760s.
If Colston is to be dismissed as a mere exploiter, what then of Samuel Pepys and even John Locke, who were likewise investors in the Royal Africa Company? What of all British monarchs, going at least as far back as Elizabeth I – and all the institutions which over the centuries have been endowed by aristocrats and prosperous merchants? It is unproductive to view Colston’s actions and attitudes through a 21st century prism. It is likely many of the (white) people now protesting on behalf of black people would have accepted the conventional views of their period had they been born in 1636. Their conformity to our era’s religion does not inspire confidence in either their moral steadfastness or reasoning abilities.
“Our era’s religion”, because Black Lives Matter is a kind of cult, in every way as irrational, mystical and obscurantist as any medieval precursor. This might surprise activists, who appear to see themselves as somehow operating above history, as brave, independent thinkers, or even ‘radicals’. Political correctness bears a close resemblance to Puritan sects, not altogether unexpectedly in Britain, where famously “The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism” (1). There is no Messiah, but there are demons, legends, martyrs, passive-aggressive preachers, saints, testimonies and witnesses. There are opportunities for enjoyable confessions, theatrical genuflections and self-abasement, and eventual rebirth as somebody better than one’s own old self and – of course – other people.
Along the Bunyanesque road to redemption, there are unclean idols to be cast down. In one picture, Edward Colston’s statue was being rolled to the quay edge for drowning by pleased-looking young white men with 17th century style beards, whom one could easily visualise in Puritan fustian. After the immersion, these self-selecting Elect probably high-fived each other (and strangers), revelling in brief fellow-feeling and a feeling of purgation – an ideational colonic irrigation.
Their motivations are easy to understand – people are instinctively religious and frequently simplistic. Young men, in particular, relish teamwork and vigorous physicality, and there is little scope for these in this England where Englishness and masculinity are swear-words, whose default philosophy is Doubt, and whose national Church is a rather embarrassing adjunct of the caring professions. The iconoclastic temptation is always strongest in disappointed idealists.
There are also constant temptations towards crowd membership. Humans are gregarious, and highly motivated crowds attract both atomised people, and those who seek self-abnegation. They also often attract bullies, who use political or religious concerns as a cloak for less acceptable impulses. The volatile ‘mob’, caught between rough camaraderie and violence, is an English tradition, going back at least to the eighteenth century’s ‘Mohocks’ and Wilkes or Gordon rioters. For Topplers, it must be very exciting to imagine you are doing ‘Good Works’, and facing down a malignant and powerful Leviathan – perhaps especially when you sense that the police will treat you relatively gently. What these ingenus do not intuit is that by undercutting English assumptions, they are undercutting themselves, making themselves even more alone. Edward Colston had feet of clay, but they stand on the same soil.
As well as it being unproductive to view such as Edward Colston through 21st century lenses, it is also unfair. Manichean viewpoints omit mitigating factors, such as Colston’s later philanthropy; he founded almshouses and schools in Bristol and Surrey, and gave generously to London hospitals. The evidence strongly suggests Edward Colston was not a nice person, but it is at least possible his generosity was caused by a degree of inner disquiet about the source of his profits. Perhaps we should not rush to judge him. Human beings are complicated, and it is uncharitable to view them as cardboard cut-outs – especially when you claim (as many Leftists claim) to be liberal-minded. Puritans turned incomprehensible altars into tables; Topplers similarly seek to level complex matters to drab understandability.
Colston is the most obviously culpable of the targeted figures. Other hate figures were even earlier (Drake) – or indirect beneficiaries of unsavoury activities (Gladstone) – or just made misjudgements (Baden Powell), which should be weighed against other, unquestionably positive, contributions to public life. The attacks on Churchill are especially ironic. Yes, he admired Mussolini, used ethnic epithets, and said he did not want to see England become a racially diverse ‘magpie society’. Many people said similar things in his period. Yet these commonplaces impelled some great thinker to conclude that it was judicious to suffix the single bronze word “CHURCHILL” on his plinth with the spray-painted words “WAS A RACIST”. There was even a brief-lived Twitter trend likening Churchill to Hitler.
The great guarantor of British freedoms, whose statue gazes over their global symbol, now needs to be guarded against destruction at the hands of people who portray (and really see) themselves as freedom-fighters. Perhaps those who find him so abhorrent ought to ask themselves one question – if the social condition of black people is imperfect now, what might it have been like had Churchill failed in his task? Churchill’s reputation has been defended by mainstream politicians, including Labour ones, but it says a great deal about British cultural self-confidence that these ‘questions’ are even being asked.
The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are many, and encompass fields from anthropology to psychology, and pop culture to politics. What is clear is that a country riven by Angst about its past is not having a happy present, and is unlikely to have a better future. There can be no true civilization without self-confidence. This is not to advocate complacency about history; there should be untrammelled enquiry, and constant fine-tuning of interpretations. But the best historians are those who can imagine themselves into whichever era they are examining, without viewing its inhabitants as incomprehensible or unspeakable aliens.
Statues are in many ways unsatisfactory; many are misleading, some out-of-place or scale, some faintly comical, some even ugly. Some really do celebrate people who should not be remembered kindly – although Britain has no statues that can be likened to the ex-USSR’s many statues of Lenin and Stalin, or Mongolia’s Genghis Khan monument. But these products of foundries are our founders – the nearest we can get to ‘meeting’ eminent predecessors who, however we see them now, did what seemed tolerable in their time. Their records cannot be simply expunged without invalidating much that came after. Images of even un-mighty exemplars stand as symbols of a historically distinct people. They give shape to cityscapes – and culturescapes. They epitomise some of the ways Britons like to see themselves – as bringers of prosperity, explorers, military heroes, reformers, statesmen, or thinkers. One of the words the Ancient Greeks used for statue was hedos (‘dwelling place’); these inert lumps of metal embody some fragment of the communal ‘soul’. Delete such symbols, and you do not only downgrade the individuals, but also that aspiration, that acceptance, that continuity, that romance.
There has never been, and can never be, a ‘Year Zero’ – because all of us carry forward trace elements of specific pasts into a never-inevitable future. White BLM activists seem to see themselves as bearers of universal values – although their outlook is derived from desacralized Western Christianity – and to believe that history is predestined to go one way. To reject a country’s icons calls eventually into question every aspect of its identity. There are many unattractive aspects of British history, but which country’s past is free from taint? Which culture, which group, which period? It is very easy to decry, or destroy; it is also insufficient.
It is natural that people whose ancestors were enslaved or exploited should nurse bitter folk-memories of the erstwhile slaving society, and sometimes feel not quite ‘at home’ in its inheritor’s history. (As an Irishman, I am myself lukewarm about the British Empire.) But would Africans, Afro-Caribbeans or Asians, have treated Europeans better had the historical positions been reversed? Countries that did not have empires would almost certainly have had them if they could. Countries that ended up exploited would probably have been exploitative had they had the means first. The English, or Spanish, or Americans are no better than Eritreans, or Senegalese, or Angolans, but they are certainly no worse.
Churchill was imperfect, but he was an avatar of England, and represents the last time in history Britain really was ‘Great’. For anyone who cares for England, it is both bathetic and sad to think that the London he saw as a sea of fire has become a swamp of discontent, and his romantically envisioned England a sad strand like Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, with “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” and clashing “ignorant armies”.
Soon, the politicians will release Churchill’s statue from its embarrassing defensive box, and public attention will drift. Yet now that all these ‘questions’ have been asked they cannot easily be answered. From now on, the hulking effigy will be an object of at best defensive respect – its newly-scrubbed plinth a constant provocation to an itchy-fingered activist cadre which can smell its Western enemy’s fear. We end where we began, with Samuel – “The shield of the mighty is vilely cast away.”
- Dennis Healey, at the 1953 Socialist International Conference in Copenhagen (speechwriter Morgan Phillips)