On A Pedestal
Posted on June 11th, 2020
By Rab Bruce’s Spider
The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston has had a profound effect all across the UK and even further afield. After years of prevarication by the Authorities, the local people took matters into their own hands, and their action has now triggered discussions and even some actions in other places where statues are being removed.
Of course, some people object. Tories always prefer symbols of power over the lives of ordinary people, while others see such destruction as erasing history.
But do we really learn history from statues? I would argue that we do not. Statues are erected to commemorate people or events, and because they are expensive to put up, they are generally funded by the wealthy. As a consequence, they tend to represent people those wealthy and powerful individuals respect. They look up to people who did what they perceive as great things, and then the rest of the population is required to literally look up to those symbols of power.
As for history, we learn this from books and other written records. I generally discount television interpretations of history since most programmes are intended to portray the vision of the past which the UK Establishment wishes us to see. There are exceptions, of course, but TV does not really provide a proper platform for an in-depth discussion of historical events, so many programmes are superficial in what they tell us.
As for the statues themselves, they are interesting as historical artefacts, but they do not teach us anything except that people with wealth and power respect other people with wealth and power, and they wish the rest of the population to be reminded of their perceived greatness.
So toppling a statue does not erase history. Instead, it provides an opportunity to create a new interpretation of our past.
Personally, I’d prefer to see such statues removed to museums where they can be exhibited as part of a wider display providing the full context of their meaning. But sometimes dramatic action is required to trigger a response from wider society, so I shed no tears over the toppling of the Colston statue.
However, we should not take the current trend as signs of a major victory. The Establishment may accede to demands for controversial statues to be removed, but we already know they are putting forward arguments about who decides what is controversial. Winston Churchill, for example, is a divisive figure, but it is unlikely his statues will be taken down.
More importantly, statues may be a symbol of how the UK Establishment perceives the world, but taking them down will not alter that perception in their own minds. Removing some obviously inappropriate statues is certainly a victory and a step on the long road towards equality, but it’s a small victory in the overall scheme of things, and we should not ignore the fact that institutional racism is still very much a part of British culture.
But let’s end on a positive note. The removal of some statues has at least opened the discussion on the UK’s past. There’s a long way to go yet, but it is good that people are openly talking about it. Perhaps there will come a day when more people will recognise that the UK’s past glories were often founded on the misery of others.