openDemocracyUK: Opinion

The statue defenders are the real enemies of free speech

Why is the anxious right afraid to debate whether imperial figures are still national heroes?

Jon Wilson
24 July 2020, 9.15am
Statue of Cecil Rhodes, Oriel College. An inquiry is underway into the future of the statue.
Howard Stanbury/Flickr, CC 2.0

In the decades which followed the end of the Second World War, Britain emerged as a democratic state shorn of its empire, committed to a new global order based on the self-governing sovereignty of nations and the equality of their citizens. This was a radical break with what had gone before. Protecting empire had been a central theme in the politics of the 1930s. War was fought by the empire, in part to defend empire. But after 1945 empires collapsed quickly, and as they did so, in most parts of the world, the imperial statues came down quickly.

Statues celebrating Germany’s empire were the first to fall, replaced by heroes of nations like Poland and Czechoslovakia, newly independent from Nazi occupation. In India, statues were first moved by Britons anxious to protect the monuments of imperial heroes from newly enfranchised Indian crowds. For example, a figure in Kanpur commemorating the death of Britons during the rebellion of 1857 was quietly moved in 1947 to protect it from Indians let into the previously white-only park where it had been housed. By the 1960s, Indian state governments were pulling down imperial statues in the hundreds. They did so to express a more confident sense of cultural nationalism, and caused diplomatic protests from Harold Wilson’s government in London. More recently, the fall of the Soviet empire has seen the mass removal of statues to Russia’s Communist empire-builders in eastern Europe.

In Britain, statues to imperial heroes were – until recently – ignored not pulled down, more likely to be the repository of bird-shit than political rage.

Britain moved on from empire, without taking statues down. In part that happened as mid-century politicians and intellectuals rewrote empire’s story to claim independence in India and elsewhere was its culmination, not collapse. But by 1960, empire had been abandoned so fundamentally that Harold Macmillan could stand before parliaments in Ghana and South Africa in his ‘Winds of Change’ speeches and celebrate Black African nationalism.

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A review of the imperial statues in our towns and cities is long overdue.

Most were put up in a short period between the 1860s to 1920s, and they commemorated a politics based on racial inequality and violent conquest. The statue-builders imagined the world was divided between a small number of large competing imperial states whose power was based on force. Many of the figures celebrated, Robert Baden-Powell and Cecil Rhodes for example, thought war allowed better societies to thrive, and the weaker ones to die out.

These kinds of ideas have always been contested. The figure of Robert Clive standing amidst cannon-fire which Lord Curzon erected in King Charles Street was fervently opposed by liberals, who wanted Garibaldi put up instead. But there were enough like Curzon with the power to get statues put up to celebrate the men who embodied imperial violence.

Britain’s empire ended a long time ago. The fall of statues to slavers and imperial officers is an opportunity for the iconography of our public spaces to finally be brought into line with the democratic approach that has governed public life for almost a century. Protests in response to the Black Lives Movement create the exciting prospect of Britain properly reckoning with the empire it lost generations ago. In its place, they allow us to collectively create a shared national story to reflect and celebrate what, in practice, the country has been since the 1950s: a democratic, self-governing, multi-racial post-imperial society.

What values are really being defended?

But that national conversation is currently being blocked by the irate response of politicians and commentators who vigorously condemn the removal of statues. Some of these largely conservative critics use hysterical rhetoric about ‘totalitarianism’ and ‘revolution’. The more apoplectic among them (Peter Hitchens and Toby Young, for example) imagine that anti-imperial iconoclasm is undermining Britain’s liberal, easy-going, tolerant society.

The irony is worth noting – peaceful protests against statues which commemorate the anti-liberal supporters of authoritarian regimes are condemned as attacking free speech. It’s worth reminding ourselves how different the world which produced these statues is from the values that Hitchens, Young and comrades defend. The early twentieth-century Conservative party was imperialist and protectionist. It championed tariffs to protect national and imperial trade. Its arguments for imperial federation, an imperial single market and customs union were linked to ideas about racial hierarchy, and to the idea of uniting what Rhodes called ‘the Anglo-Saxon race’. But supporters of empire also used arguments about the need for big states in a competitive world familiar to present-day supporters of the European Union. By contrast, the modern Conservative party is avowedly anti-racist, economic liberal and strongly wedded to the idea of free trade. Most importantly it believes in the sovereignty of the nation-state, imagining the world to consist of independent, self-governing societies that have a right to resist the encroachment of external forces on national life. Rhetorically it is more likely to appropriate the language of anti-imperialism – opposing the great empire of Europe, for example - than to justify imperial rule.

None of this is surprising. Since the mid-1950s the most articulate Conservative intellectuals had either become committed anti-imperialists (for example Enoch Powell) or simply remained silent on the subject. There is no unambiguously celebratory history of the British empire written by a Conservative-voting writer until 2003. Niall Ferguson’s Empire published in that year celebrates empire as something it was emphatically not: a vehicle for diffusing free trade. Until Iraq, even for Tories, empire was consigned to the irrelevant past. The useful, celebrated past for Britain’s right consisted instead of the moderate, decent, down-to-earth lessons learnt from the supposedly continuous history of an insular, island nation state over many generations.

My point is to highlight the strange predicament of those protesting against the downfall of statues. They defend statues which celebrate figures symbolising values exactly the opposite of those they support. They talk of a ‘cultural revolution’, but don’t defend the order the supposed revolutionaries are trying to replace. Their worry is not that anything specific which the statues stood for might be dethroned; it is with the act of dethroning itself, and what conscious change in our public realm might entail.

This only makes sense if, a century after universal suffrage, conservatives are anxious about democratic conversation. If there is, in other words, a deep-rooted authoritarianism in conservative thinking which distrusts popular debate. From the comments of the statue-defenders, this certainly seems the case. Critics argue that those encouraging discussion of statues are accused of “playing an irresponsible and dangerous game”; dissent pushes us down a “slippery slope”. For one prominent blogger, protests about statues in Britain threaten the degeneration of our ordered polity into “feudal tribalism” unless the state adopts a vigorous, violent response. Given the largely peaceful character of protests and the success of the police in maintaining order, these are remarkable statements. They imply the paranoid view that open debate about the destiny of the nation and its heroes will quickly lead to disorder. In fact of course, there’s no sign that that’s the case.

The statue-defenders claim to defend the nation, but they have a hollow and undemocratic idea of what it is. They do not think we, its citizens, can debate and agree on our moral values, so instead they need to be imposed by an elite. They believe there is no space for reasoned disagreement within the national public. They do not trust people to speak other than through the narrow questions asked in plebiscites. Ultimately, the dictates of order force these fearful conservatives to defend silence in public space.

There are better ways of engaging with our national history than this, and they are being developed in towns and cities throughout Britain, by leaders from all political sides. In less than two months we’ve seen the debate about who to represent on the empty plinth in Bristol where Thomas Colston once stood; Sadiq Khan’s review of London statues and the discussion convened by a Conservative councillor in Croydon about imperial street names in Croydon. These, and conversations which will begin over the next months and years show that citizens want a mature and sustained debate about what and who we value in our history, about what we share in common, about which elements of the past we can celebrate and which move beyond or challenge.

Contrary to the fears of frightened Conservatives, we are capable of reaching a consensus about whose image should stay and who should go. The question is not whether each individual was morally pure, but whether they connect with what we want to celebrate now. My guess is we’d keep Churchill and Gladstone, but remove Clive and Baden-Powell. But let’s have the debate. If the defenders of silence and opponents of debate don’t get their way, the empty plinths which emerge are an opportunity for a national conversation about the relationship between the past and present which is long overdue.

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