The Future of Statue Toppling | Nathan Allen
Let me first say, the removal of Edward Colston’s statue is long overdue. In a country which has done so much to end not only the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also the modern one, Colston’s legacy is not one we should be honouring with statues. His statue seemed just as out of place when it was erected in 1895, and it was out of place today. However, the violent manner by which Colston’s statue was removed on Sunday, is far more dangerous to future British discourse on monuments, than many realise. Colston’s removal presents an argument which statue topplers have long pushed for one you cannot advocate against without being called a glorifier of some evil extreme. I for one agree that they’re right: there is no justifiable reason to keep up the statue of a slaver. However, the problem isn’t the toppling of slavers’ statues, but instead who we target next, once all the ‘problematic’ statues are laid in the bottom of their local harbour. The problems I am going to lay out are imminent. The floodgates are open: if we are all to compromise on the removal of some statues, we must address each of these concerns and understand these will not be happy years in front of us if we do.
The first problem we will face is picking the next sacrifice for the furnace of social condemnation. British Slavers are an easy bunch to cast aside, but what of the statue of Washington which stands outside the national gallery? He directly owned 124 slaves at the time of his death. Does political leadership wash him of this sin? Let’s say we make the very sensible decision to not remove foreign statues, so as not to peeve off our foreign brothers. The next predictable turn will be on figures directly linked to profiteering from Britain’s colonial past. Robert Clive will most certainly face a challenge to his spot overlooking St James Park and Cecil Rhodes may no longer be able to hide behind his Oxford scholarship, once the blades get sharper. However, this is where the waters begin to muddy on the crime of empire profiteering. Isaac Newton lost three million pounds investing in the South Sea trading company. Should the man that laid the groundwork of almost all modern science be torn down attempting to profit from empire? Should the statues of British Prime Ministers be torn down if they ever led a colonial war? You can argue this is silly, that a line will be drawn, but this is to deny the reality that the last five years of cancel culture has shown. Once historical judgement begins to pass on more complex crimes than slavery, then all whom are tarnished by any degree of contact will have to face mob judgment.
Furthermore, the method by which Colston was destroyed is one that should be unanimously condemned. If you believe that the destruction of property is justifiable if a large enough mob gathers to do it, you do not support the underlying principles of the democratic rule of law. Naturally, this then presents the challenge of how statues can be removed justly and legally in the future. Surely some will turn to giving the government the monopoly on statue toppling, which at first glance seems the most logical route; but in doing so the government will have to seek legitimacy on any action it takes in relation to this. Statues which glorify local people could face easier removal, as petitions at the local level can be justified if residents don’t wish to look at some nefarious bandit of history as they pop to the local Tesco. Still, in the age of online petitions how does one know if these petitions are supported by locals, or if they’re from ‘concerned’ citizens scattered across the country. Then comes the time for the statues of national figures to face the guillotine. Can we truly remove figures considered to be of national importance if a minority of locals remain in opposition, or will we have to have a national referendum every time we no longer want a bronze model to see the light of day? If a mob has already been able to publicly pull down a statue, then they could do this again if a local petition fails to gain traction or goes against the outcome they desired. A bronze statue of Margret Thatcher was rejected by London over similar fears that it would be vandalised before being situated in Grantham on a comically large plinth. It shows that the mob was already willing to use violence to influence government action on the creation and placement of statues. If the government has the power to topple them, then it is undeniable that the threat of public destruction will also have this same influence and the democratic removal of statues has been compromised before it has properly begun.
The pandoras box has been opened and the removal of statues will now be more openly justified in the national discourse than ever before. However, we must not bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the removal of statues will stop at slavers. The historical Stasi will continue to unearth past crimes and the government cannot be trusted to maintain any real legitimacy over statue toppling. If one wishes to topple statues, they will have to face these problems successfully, which I know they will not. In turn, it will not be long before an argument for the universal removal of monuments seems more appealing, than facing the realities of the justified iconoclasm they seek.
Photo by flowcomm on Flickr.