What should we make of the clamour for more statues to meet the same fate as Edward Colston's? One thing to say is that the toppling of monuments is rarely historically literate. During the French revolution, Parisians destroyed twenty-eight statues of biblical kings from the west façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. In their zeal, it didn’t matter that the 500-year old statues didn’t actually portray the kings of France. Countless pieces of art, books and historical artefacts have been lost to this kind of ideological erasure. Finding themselves in the illustrious company of the Taliban and Islamic State, it is wrong to describe this weekend’s iconoclasts as mere vandals.
Even if you agree with the removal of Colston's statue, it is possible to be horrified by the way in which it was done. Indeed, many Brits were: a YouGov poll found that while 40 per cent approved of its removal, only 13 per cent agreed with the method. In London, I stood next to the police as they limply watched protesters climb on and deface Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. Lost on the crowd, one man stood behind the police waving a flag of Che Guevara, who ordered hundreds of executions without trials among other atrocities. History and its key players are more complicated than the new ideologues will allow.
What is more shocking, however, is that instead of condemning these acts of criminal iconoclasm, the Mayor of London has institutionalised it. Sadiq Khan has announced the creation of the creepily named Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. This commission will review London's landmarks, including murals, street art, street names, statues and memorials and will ensure that the physical landscape of the capital conforms to current ideological sensitivities.
The Commission will consider ‘what should be celebrated before making recommendations’. We would be right to ask here whether the Mayor (whose term could have ended last month, if an election had been held) – or any commission – should really have the power to decide how to edit London’s material history. And what are the chances that a diversity of views will be represented on this Commission? It seems highly likely that the metric by which they plan to assess our statues and street names is a forgone conclusion and not up for debate.
Such reviews also ask us to place unjustified faith in the rightness of current ideology. Orwell foresaw this kind of thing because it is so typical of authoritarianism:
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except the endless present in which the Party is always right
Websites like toppletheracists.org, which is run by the Stop Trump Coalition in support of Black Lives Matter and the ‘topplers of Edward Colston’, along with the a list published today by the BBC, pinpoint the statues that are likely to become the target of such a purge.
Throughout British history, London did not have the diversity it does today, and it is profoundly wrong to write away the history of the people who came before us, regardless of whether we currently find aspects of that past morally objectionable. It is straightforward cultural erasure.
To keep ourselves in the ‘endless present’ is not only an impossible task, it is undesirable and can only lead to destruction and division. What's more, it is hugely disrespectful to generations past. We should be mature enough as a society to disagree without needing to destroy.
Through the Roman occupation, the Anglo-Saxon period, the Victorian era, to the present, these things have left an indelible and valuable mark on our landscape and our history. The Mayor of London should not be giving credence to the authoritarian impulse to divest us of historical perspective in the public space.
Where does it end? As critic of the French revolution Jean Louis Mallet said, 'like Saturn, the revolution devours its children'. Writers who are influential on the movement tearing up our streets, like Robin Diangelo – an academic working on ‘whiteness studies’ – think that our entire history is complicit in systemic racism and white supremacy. The question would then be: what would we not tear down?
It is possible to find something objectionable in every historical figure, era or society. The current Labour leader is named after Kier Hardie, the first independent Labour party MP. By the current standards, you could certainly say that Hardie held some pretty rancid views about immigrants. Should the Mayor’s office be demanding Kier Starmer change his name by deed poll, or resign?
The authoritarian impulse to cleanse the public space and history of wrongthink must be resisted tooth and nail. Coming out of the coronavirus lockdown into an economic crisis, do taxpayers really want their money spent on a Commission that will decide how we edit our past? No person, commission or generation should have the power to make such decisions
Emma Webb is director of the Forum on Integration, Democracy and Extremism (FIDE) at Civitas think tank