Changing whose history?

Andy Gregg welcomes the acquittal of the Colston Four, finding double standards at the heart of Tory culture wars and planned attacks on judicial rights

The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol has become a defining symbol in both the anti-racist and Black Lives Matter campaigns, as well as the culture wars that the Tories are now waging so desperately to try to shore up their base. Throughout history, statues have been erected, and then sometimes torn down, according to the prevailing political, cultural and ethical conditions. This process is itself historical and, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says, those taking a stand against these statues “are enriching our history” rather than erasing it, as Boris Johnson believes.

Many of those who mourn the empty Colston plinth in Bristol had no such objections to the toppling of statues such as those of Saddam Hussein or Stalin. However, for many people in Bristol and beyond, the existence of prominent monuments erected in praise of slave owners (or those to a bloodthirsty colonialist like Clive or Rhodes) are quite as objectionable as those of autocrats and despots like Stalin or Hitler. Would the anti-woke warriors also object if statues or public mementoes to Rolf Harris or Jimmy Savile were dealt with in the same way? More recently, a statue outside BBC Broadcasting House, sculpted by Eric Gill, was attacked. Gill was a well-known artist who, it has recently been discovered, raped his sister and daughters, even indulging in bestiality with his dog. However, the anti-woke brigade of conservative politicians and media commentators did not express anything like as much as anger as they did over Colston. Many of them claimed that the toppling in Bristol led inexorably to the attack on the Gill statue, and might lead even further to attempts to deface or attack statues to Churchill or other heroes of the Empire, such as Clive, Rhodes or Nelson.

The Colston statue was not erected by anyone who actually knew the man or who benefitted directly from his ‘philanthropy’ – which derived directly from the enslavement and mass murder of Africans. The monument was erected over 170 years after his death by a small and elite group of Bristolian capitalists. Those who planned the statue designed it as a response to the recent and nearby erection of another statue depicting Edmund Burke, who had been critical of the city’s involvement in the colonial slave trade. In this sense, the statue has always been political and was erected by those who cared not at all for the real history of Colston’s, or indeed Bristol’s, central role in the enslavement of many hundreds of thousands of people.

The acquittal by the jury of the four suspects charged with toppling the monument and pushing it into the river was itself a historic moment. It marked the culmination of a long campaign against the depiction of Edward Colston as someone to be lauded and lionised rather than criticised and condemned. This campaign had been resisted for many years by the conservative establishment in Bristol, who had even refused to arrange for an accompanying plaque to explain the horrendous nature of Colston’s involvement in the slave trade. Boris Johnson’s eventual injunction that controversial statues should be “retained and explained” had, in this case, already shown itself as unworkable. In the case of the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford, the anodyne ‘explanatory’ plaque states that Rhodes was a “committed British colonialist” who “obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land and peoples of southern Africa. Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since”. The plaque was introduced after the college had already broken a promise to remove the statue that so many of its own students found insulting and offensive.

The Government’s “war on woke” includes attacks on the National Trust for at last drawing attention to the role of slavery in the amassing of capital that allowed the building of the stately homes of the British ruling class, as well as criticisms of historians and others seeking to decolonise the curriculum. These are all examples of attacks on real history, not a defence of it. Many right-wing commentators have called the jury’s verdict to acquit in the Colston case “perverse” – meaning, of course, just that they disagree with it. The verdict does show the importance of jury rather than judge-led trials in determining the real verdict of a properly educated and politically informed group of 12 peers, as has also been the case in the acquittal of some Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion demonstrators. The Government has threatened to crack down on such “perverse” verdicts, and the judiciary is itself coming under pressure on a number of fronts, with the Government’s manifesto pledge to challenge the use of judicial reviews and proposals to weaken the 1998 Human Rights Act. These changes will affect how people can make the state accountable, potentially undermining independent scrutiny and weakening the role of the courts in holding the Government to account.

New penalties for toppling statues of up to ten years mean that those convicted would receive far more draconian sentences than those for rape. Attacks on our rights to demonstrate actively and loudly, as well as the attacks on judges and juries when they don’t deliver to the Government’s narrow interests, are the real history here. Of course, the toppling of monuments will never be enough to challenge the full-scale attacks on our democratic rights and freedoms that are now underway. What we need is monumental change to the underlying structures and institutions of our society, rather than just the toppling of a few monuments. The battle for these freedoms is, and has always been, what real history is about.

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