It’s early morning and insomnia has let me to write, although I won’t publish this until the light of day.
Over the last few decades I am sure that the majority of us applauded the toppling of statues around the world like Saddam Hussain, Lenin, Ceausecu and others. Many of those who applauded have expressed anger at the toppling of a statue to Edward Colston in Bristol.
I’ve been watching news and social media around the issue of statues to historical figures dubbed heroes by some and racist monsters by others. Of course, the fact is that many were both. It’s not a straightforward issue because it is wrong to make judgements based on today’s values alone. Having said that, there is no doubt that some figures under fire defended slavery at a time when there was a movement to abolish it… those people cannot be claimed to have been naïve.
We no longer see blacked-up ‘minstrels’ as legitimate entertainment or condone racist jokes… but we need to acknowledge that we once did, calling it harmless fun. It wasn’t and isn’t, but reflected irrational fears and unequal power relationships.
To my mind there is a way forward.
Let us establish an institution – a National Museum of Slavery and Colonialism. (I favour building it in Birmingham, as its not only more central than London, but also has a long history of both migration and integration on the one hand, and racial tension and intolerance on the other.) At the same time, we should establish a national committee to consider all public statues and monuments to people who stand accused. That committee can pronounce upon the historical evidence as to whether the figure should be left in place or removed and displayed in the museum alongside the facts, warts and all.
That body would need to pronounce so that a statue of anyone whose overwhelming good outweighed the bad can stay in place and those whose inhumanity did not, should be housed in the museum. Everyone has feet of clay… it’s a matter of degree and that calls for a national debate. Although, ultimately, democracy has to rule, the national committee must include at least two thirds BAME members. It’s no good setting up something so that the white establishment can white-wash the facts.
Let’s take out the right-wing hate groups and over enthusiastic BLM marchers from the equation and have a calm debate that fully exposes and acknowledges the nation’s past and recognises that it’s time to consign the less than glorious parts to museums, not publicly acclaim those who made our country rich on the backs of oppressed and enslaved nations and individuals.