When Mao’s Red Guards first got to work in China, they defaced statues before they tore them down. It was common to find a statue of Buddha, for example, with new signs saying: ‘Destroy the old world! Establish a new world!’ Boris Johnson’s government isn’t keen on statue removal, but it is offering a compromise. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, has adopted a policy of ‘retain and explain’, whereby the statue remains but with a plaque giving more historical context. Explanation, it is assumed, can only be good.
Yet you only have to look at the single case where ‘retain and explain’ has been deployed to see what we could be in for. Edinburgh City Council has had its planning application approved to attach a plaque to the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square commemorating Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty. The contention is whether he delayed the abolition of the slave trade by inserting the word ‘gradual’ into the 1792 motion on the issue.
A reasonable interpretation of his addition is that it ensured the Act’s passage. You might think Dundas’s record of advocacy for a transported slave, by which he proved Scots law would not uphold the institution, would be worth taking into account. Not according to the wise men of Edinburgh City Council. Their revision says Dundas was ‘instrumental’ in deferring abolition. It concludes with a gross distortion: ‘In 2020 this was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.’
Given that the council didn’t commission a historian to draft the wording, but turned to Sir Geoff Palmer, a scientist and an anti-Dundas human rights activist, the outcome is hardly surprising. The danger of retain and explain, however, is not just the capacity for historical illiteracy.