Toppling racism one statue at a time or erasing history?

Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash

Following the death of George Floyd, famous statues in Britain are starting to be removed, and calls for similar action are spreading around the world. Protests have reignited a long-standing debate over the significance of public monuments.

Thousands in Britain are now deciding which parts of history they wish to commemorate. Should those who were praised with a statue now be judged according to our contrasting modern values? For many, the answer is yes.

“This was a great man who did great things”

The George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests are by no means the first instance of widespread debate over commemoration. In the US, the removal of Confederate memorials, alongside those dedicated to Christopher Columbus, have proven controversial.

As slavery and racism have been increasingly condemned, so have monuments that appear to glorify ideologies that were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. During the past few weeks, the principles of slavery have led to the removal of dozens of monuments worldwide.

In June, Black Lives Matter supporters toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. This garnered much attention, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer admitting that the statue should have been removed long ago. Much criticism in previous years was directed towards the statue’s plaque, which downplayed Colston’s role in the slave trade. The statue will not be replaced but moved to a museum.

The mainstream controversy stemming from removing statues largely concerns the significance of public monuments. Of course, we should be careful not to legitimise vandalism and mob rule. However, such widespread and decisive action, as we have seen in the past few weeks, is symptomatic of popular, long-term unrest concerning the significance of memorialisation.

Of over 4,000 adults surveyed in a YouGov poll, 53% agreed that Colston’s statue should have been removed (although only 13% agreed with the toppling). Sadiq Khan has said that he will review all of London’s slavery monuments following events in Bristol, arguing that London’s links to slavery “should be taken down”. Khan has already removed a statue of merchant and slaver Robert Milligan, who helped construct the West India Docks in London.

Similarly, numerous local governments in the US have commenced plans to remove Confederate statues. But is this a good precedent to set? If authorities are going to supposedly give in to protesters over slaver statues in London, should others offended by certain monuments also have their demands met?

Some statue debates have been more divisive than others. A statue of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement, in Poole perhaps best underscores the difficulty regarding statue removal. Authorities decided to remove the statue amid fears that it would be targeted by protesters.

This decision to remove his statue stems from Baden-Powell’s apparent support for Hitler by praising boys’ education in Nazi Germany, despite his criticism of Hitler’s totalitarianism. As a result, the removal of his statue has been opposed by local MPs and residents, as many are undecided over whether Baden-Powell’s questionable morals deem the removal of his statue necessary.

Memorials to similarly celebrated figures, such as William Gladstone, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi, are now also under varying levels of threat.

It is possible to find offence in the impact of many major historical events and figures. Describing an oppressive society, George Orwell wrote: “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” As such, those claiming “British History Matters” fear a dystopian future, in which history is censored by politics. 

“History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right”

So, which statues should be removed, if any? Is adding a plaque enough to condemn racism? Central to this issue is deciding what a statue represents. While Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stated that “statues teach us about our past”, their place in public life has naturally become a political issue.

Many can agree that it is no longer appropriate to glorify a major slave trader like Colston, however more popular figures, like Baden-Powell and Churchill, may require a flexible response.

Historian David Olusoga argues that statues say: “This was a great man who did great things”. If this is the role of statues, removing or asterisking certain figures could be one way to show respect for the multiculturalism Britain is now home to.

Official inquiries into public monuments will determine how role models should be portrayed and glorified, and they are sure to be controversial. Education, media, museums, encyclopedias, and archives can promote and preserve a bilateral record of our British heritage, but what society chooses to represent in its public statues signifies for many its ideals in the present.

This article is in our Opinions section. As such, the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter, or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.