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Britain Battles over History

Members of far-right Football Lads Alliance hold a British flag in front of a protective covering surrounding the statue of former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, central London, Saturday, June 13, 2020. British…

The statue of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square is now boarded up.

In the Dorset town of Poole on England’s southern coast police are mounting a 24-hour guard on a statue commemorating Robert Baden Powell, the founder of the Scouts movement and briefly an admirer Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, once describing it as a “wonderful book.”

In east London last week, just days before ugly clashes erupted in the British capital between far right activists and supporters of Black Lives Matters, workmen hastily removed a statue memorializing Robert Milligan, an eighteenth-century merchant, who on his death owned 526 slaves laboring on sugar plantations in Jamaica.

Anti-racist campaigners in Britain have a burgeoning hit list of statues they want removed, triggering a new front in a culture war that risks future violent street tussles.

Most Britons pay little heed when rushing past monuments lionizing some of the great men of Britain’s past — from national leaders like Churchill to grand merchants and city fathers like Milligan.

William Shakespeare, the country’s great playwright and poet, once described public statuary as “unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.” He bragged that his words would outlast statues of great men, mocking, “Not marble nor the gilded monuments Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”

He may be right.

Britain’s public statues — many erected at the height of the British empire between 1830 to 1914 — have become a tumultuous flashpoint, which on Saturday spilled violently on to the streets of London in running skirmishes between bottle-throwing far right agitators, baton-wielding police and Black Lives Matters protesters, all under the watchful eye of Admiral Horatio Nelson from atop his column in Trafalgar Square.

Nelson, the preeminent British admiral during the Napoleonic era, himself once wrote in defense of the Jamaican slave trade.

Anger at the past

Far right activists said they had come to protect statues in the capital from being toppled — as happened during anti-racist protests earlier this month to a monument in Bristol commemorating Edward Colston. Jubilant protesters dragged Colston’s bronze statue from its plinth and chucked it in the harbor, in scenes more reminiscent of the 2003 toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad or the removal of monuments to Lenin and Stalin witnessed at the end of the Soviet era.

In a dramatic gesture mirroring what happened to Floyd, one protester placed his knee on Colston’s bronze throat before the statute was rolled to the harbor wall.

A 17th century merchant and great municipal benefactor, who founded schools and alms-houses in Bristol, Colston’s wealth was derived from the transatlantic slave trade. His trading company is estimated to have transported around 84,000 African men, women and children, with 19,000 dying on the ships transporting them from the coast of Africa to the plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas.

For supporters of Black Lives Matters, galvanized by protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who was suffocated by a white policeman in Minneapolis in Minnesota on May 25, the statues are terrible reminders of a dark imperial past Britain refuses to fully acknowledge.

Until it does, they say, racial inequality and prejudice will persist.

The statues to men like Colston and Milligan are hurtful, they say, and offensive to the descendants of slaves in the city of Bristol. “The crowd who saw to it that Colston fell were of all races, but some were the descendants of the enslaved black and brown Bristolians whose ancestors were chained to the decks of Colston’s ships,” historian David Olusoga wrote in the Guardian.

He added: “Whatever is said over the next few days, this was not an attack on history. This is history. It is one of those rare historic moments whose arrival means things can never go back to how they were.”

For others, a matter of pride

For self-declared patriots, the statues representing the past should be celebrated — and defended.

Paul Golding, leader of Britain First, a far-right group, told Saturday the ranks of his supporters, some drawn from from the fan clubs of professional soccer teams: “I’m here today because for two consecutive weekends our monuments and memorials have been trashed by left-wing thugs. We’re here today with one pure mission: to defend our memorials.”

Hundreds of people also turned out in other British cities, including Glasgow, Belfast and Newcastle, claiming to safeguard historic statues and war memorials from harm. Dennis Smith, who turned out to protect statues, told reporters, “If it wasn’t for people like Winston Churchill, we wouldn’t be here today speaking English. We would be speaking German and there wouldn’t be any black people around either.”

A week ago Churchill’s monument in Parliament Square was vandalized with a protester daubing on it that Britain’s wartime leader “was a racist.”

Historical revisionism

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted Friday that defacing the statue was “absurd and shameful,” adding that Churchill “was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial.” He added: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations.”

He noted: “They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.”

Johnson and his ministers are now talking about introducing legislation that would make it a criminal offense to desecrate historic and war memorials with a maximum ten-year prison sentence. That might help to safeguard the monuments, but it is unlikely to silence the debate about some of them, which is featuring not just activists but journalists, politicians, historians, and Oxford and Cambridge colleges, too, in heated exchanges about their future and how best to teach history.

“Pulling down statues is nothing new, nor is the changing of street names and even those of cities and countries,” says historian James Holland. Writing for Sky News, he said: “It has happened time and again through history. Most of us in the West cheered when the swastikas were blown up in 1945, or when the statues of Lenin and Stalin were pulled down, or even that of Saddam Hussein.”

The comparison, though, with Nazi and Communist leaders incurs the wrath of others. They acknowledge there are some clear-cut cases like the slave-traders Colston and Millington, which should have been consigned long ago to museums, but statue-defenders say the criticism of other historical figures lacks nuance and that arguments for the removal of their statues risks editing and censoring the past.

On Saturday Chris Patten, the chancellor of the University of Oxford, defended the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College, telling students who are campaigning for its removal they should be prepared to embrace freedom of thought or “think about being educated elsewhere.”

He said that they are simplifying the facts about Rhodes.

A British mining magnate and politician in southern Africa in the late nineteenth century, Rhodes was an ardent advocate of British imperialism, describing the Anglo-Saxon race as “the first race in the world.” His defenders point out that he created Oxford’s famous Rhodes Scholarships, requiring that “no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on grounds of his race.” The focus on Rhodes is unfortunate, Patten said, noting that Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president after the end of apartheid, endorsed the Rhodes scholarships.

“There is something facile and narcissistic about parading your moral superiority over someone who died more than a century ago simply because he upheld the values of his own age, according to newspaper columnist Daniel Hannan, who concedes Rhodes was not a saint.

Winston Churchill's grandson, Nicholas Soames, says the vandalism of his grandfather’s statue was “sad to see.” He acknowledges Churchill’s views of black people, Indians and women’s rights are “unpalatable to many people nowadays,” but he notes his grandfather came of age in a “different era” and “at the end of the day, Churchill saved this country. He was one of the greatest leaders this country has ever seen. He was a great defender of liberty and democracy.”

His legacy should be assessed “as a whole,” he says.

For some who are sympathetic to the call for statue removals, there is danger in moving too fast and of failing to appreciate that most historical figures were flawed personalities.

Times columnist Janice Turner says previous generations did not think too hard about the sources of Britain’s historical mercantile wealth. “Today’s young are citizens of a diverse Britain, more likely to have a friend of another race. For white teenagers now, descendants of slaves sit next to them in class, score for their football team,” she says.

But she warned that while “the youthful fire of demonstrators can achieve real change” they should “pause for reflection before the far right exploit it.” A culture war, she fears, “threatens to become a street battle. Which is what a nihilist minority on each side want.”

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