The Politics of Statue Removal and Why Conservatives Need to Find Their Voice | Daniel McIntyre

In these strange and heated times, amongst the constant change and flux, we find an almost quaint continuity from the left, that once it gets its blood up, it still goes straight to iconoclasm. It is as if we can almost be comforted by the knowledge that in a world of ceaseless fluidity, the lefts tradition of cultural destruction still marches irreverently into the future. The same however, cannot be said for conservatives and their intellectual tradition. If the core idea of the conservative tradition is to conserve that which is ‘ours’, then sadly this has disappeared. When confronted by the toppling of an inherited cultural edifice in Bristol recently, conservatives have responded with a mixture of meaningless indignation and the kind of arguments one can only find from people who have at best lost their chest, or at worse, don’t even know what it is they believe in anymore.

Conservatives are being challenged by the left who want to remove statues from the public sphere, a challenge that impacts far beyond Bristol. Seemingly discombobulated by such a challenge, conservative arguments against in response have been both platitudinous and clichéd. Arguments along the lines of ‘if we don’t learn from history then we are condemned to repeat it’. Not only this, but in contestation they have been caricaturing the left, saying that the left just wants to destroy history, to eradicate it. Of course, this isn’t the case. The left doesn’t want to destroy history, they just don’t want to see statues of men who have perpetrated wrongdoing in the past being placed in the public sphere.

Whilst the statue of Edward Colston, slaveholder and philanthropist form the 18th century came down in a very distasteful and feverish fashion, pulled down amongst the rabid crowd and hauled into Bristol harbour, this was a unique event, a symbolic statemen from the left, and the beginning of a conversation. Conservatives should get past this unique event, and realise that in future, the modus operandi of statue removal will be in a civilised manner (through the authorities) and will all be in the name of ‘learning from history’. The left would be quite happy with this, statues and cultural edifices will be banished from the public sphere and therefore everybody wins. Right?

But is this what conservatives want? Do conservatives literally mean we just want to retain these statues for pedagogical purposes? If this is the case, all the better to put them into a museum that can draw big crowds that maximises their educational potential. A statue of a slaveholder such as Colston is perhaps more straightforward, but what if there are more grey areas, with figures such as Sir Francis Drake, Sir Thomas Guy, or Winston Churchill? All figures listed on the ‘Topple The Racists’ website.

Conservatives will baulk at any suggestion of moving these out of the public sphere, so then is it really just about ‘learning from history’? Of course not, and  it’s time for conservatives to wean themselves off this ridiculous argument and state why they want the statues to stay in the public sphere. They need to make the case for what these statues mean to them, that these statues don’t represent racism to them for example, which would be morbid, but rather something else. These are cultural edifices which orients them and gives their society its meaning. Conservatives therefore need to stand up and convey that these edifices are integral to who it is that they are and must stay in the public sphere, despite their imperfections. For conservatives, cultural symbols are inherited good and bad, and manifest to them as England as England, representing the first-person plural that is ‘us’. This of course is meaningless to the left. But both sides aren’t looking at the same statue, and this needs to be conveyed. One side sees racism but doesn’t see orientation, the other side sees place, but doesn’t see racism. If conservatives want to maintain their cultural symbols in the public sphere then they are going to have to fight for them, present their side of what the statue means to them, rather than cravingly mumbling about ‘learning from history’.

What’s the alternative if they don’t? Well it’s simple. Their history will be put into museums. Their cultural symbols will be used to elicit shame, guilt and repentance. How will conservatives orient themselves when this happens? 20 years of this and you’re left with a depleted cultural vitality and a broken people with destabilised identities, unsure of what it is they stand for, and next thing you know the people will be voting for the next Trump who can stabilise their identities and push back against the tide.

Recently I’ve even seen some conservative commentators arguing that it’s fine to remove cultural symbols so long as it’s deliberated by the relevant authorities. We have seen this recently in Tower Hamlets, where the local council have removed the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan. One must ask however, how do they adjudicate as to whether a statue stays or goes? Is there some moral criteria to draw upon? What would this be exactly? So far it looks like its fine to remove a cultural edifice so long as the historical figure fails to meet the criteria of whatever moral fad is passing through society at that time. A statue will be removed whenever the good justifying it, is no longer good enough.

On this trajectory, as conservatives continue to lose in the culture war, in 50 years-time the Churchill statue will be gone because by then, his ‘good’ will not be good enough, and the fashionable sensibility will banish him to the repository of shame that increasingly will become of Britain’s history. In Bristol they didn’t think Colston’s good was good enough anymore. Until conservatives find their voice and defend their cultural symbols that’s not based on some fashionable good/bad analysis, or because of their ‘educational purposes’, but because they are ‘ours’ and represent ‘us’. Until they find their chest to state this, many more statues will be removed from the public sphere, and they will deserve to be. How can anyone expect culture to be preserved if there is no one willing to fight for it?

Photo by Duane Moore on Flickr.

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