Boris Johnson has just tweeted that, “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”. I dislike the extremism of language that marks the twittersphere, but this really is fatuous nonsense. Of course we “edit” our past as we emphasise and reveal moments in it. Of course we can censor how it was represented. Johnson himself has attempted to write a history of Churchill to achieve these very objectives (not that it’s any good, except about how Churchill wrote).
I’ve welcomed tearing down the statue of the Bristol slaver Colston from his pedestal, rolling it to the dockside and tossing it into the water. His galleons did the same to many slaves. It is not an act of vandalism. No one’s property was damaged. None were hurt, unless you count the amour propre of those clinging to their belief that England’s class system is a saviour of world civilisation and never an oppressor.
Purging our monuments in this way has an obvious upside. We actually learn about what they symbolise. Those who complain that it destroys history are quite wrong. In his twitter feed the Prime Minister claims the “statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come”. Wrong again! It is the way they are currently preserved that reproduces a culture of denial and ignorance. When the past is symbolised by rickety mystifications, history is badly taught, no one believes in it, and all enthusiasm is lost.
The obvious truth is that Britain is unhealthily obsessed with its decline and what to save and salvage. The whole Brexit farrago is about “restoring” a self-regard embedded in a history that is now over.
This also means that the magnificent insurgency of Black Lives Matters should not be obsessed about what next to dismantle.
By all means take down Cecil Rhodes who looks down on Oxford High Street or Henry Dundas who towers over Edinburgh and stick them into museums where we can continue our education of what they stood for without celebrating them.
But the movement to confront the past must not be trapped by our enemies into becoming an unhinged iconoclasm seeking to purge our land of images. To ensure real knowledge of our history we need to move the debate on to the question of who we should now be celebrating and for what reasons?
How should Bristol now replace Colston and his pedestal? There is a petition to replace him with Paul Stephenson who helped lead the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. I have suggested that the city should accept Kara Walker’s magnificent Fons Americanus. This triumphant monument to our overcoming slavery is a transatlantic gift that should be welcomed, celebrated and given a permanent home in Bristol even if it’s too big for the Colston’s ex-venue, for it addresses the whole of the Black Atlantic.
We need more works like Hew Locke’s fabulous Jurors Sculpture at Runnymede. Here, where King John was forced to append his seal to the Magna Carta, Locke has created a narrative memorial to democracy, liberty and human rights. He has done so with twelve extraordinary chairs bringing the history of popular resistance to arbitrary power to life. It was commissioned by the local authority on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta itself.
An outstanding example of someone we need to memorialise is the man who made what is arguably the first articulation of modern democracy as a system of equal representation: “The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he …”
These words were spoken by Thomas Rainsborough. What kind of country with such an ancestor would fail to give him a public memorial? Yet look up the monuments to him and all I can find is a plaque unveiled by Tony Benn in 2013.
Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, the earliest warning of what is to come, merely shares a plaque with Percy.
At least Ada Lovelace, creator of the first computer programme, has a blue plaque of her own.
Stuart Hall has a building named after him at Goldsmiths University.
They would all be part of my list of who we should memorialise. The principle needs to be, as Sue Goss has argued, that we need public art that appeals emotionally to our relationships to the past in terms of what we want to become. This is more important than readjusting the tableaux of Victorian heroes.
Let’s not get bogged down on the terrain Johnson desires because he is obviously right that Churchill should stand, even if he and the entire country is still trapped in what I call ‘Churchillism’.
Also, we need to think about the nature of the art. Kara Walker’s figures are narrative yet escape from the traps of shiny reproduction. A memorial to Mary Shelly needs to include Frankenstein. Regular people need to be part of the story, something Hew Locke achieves.
Tony Cragg is arguably England's finest sculptor. He lives and works in Germany. There he created a work that outstrips Henry Moore and bears comparison with Michelangelo’s David and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. It’s called Tommy. The name of his son, it is also the nickname of those who fought for Britain in the first world war. It should stand in Whitehall besides the cenotaph.
This is the debate we need about monuments. What should ours be?
Anthony Barnett is the author of ‘Out of the Belly of Hell, COVID-19 and the Humanisation of Globalisation’.