Yet another repercussion of the George Floyd case has been the dawn of realisation that the UK has some very awkward questions to answer about not only its’ heritage, but the manner in which it continues, whether inadvertently or deliberately to seemingly acknowledge some highly dubious characters and their highly dubious past. The fact that there are so many statues scattered all over the country, many of individuals utterly complicit in the slave trade says much about the attitudes of the country now as it did then. But exactly what questions have we to answer..??
The dichotomy we face, as a nation, is where we ‘draw the line’. Take, for example, my own city’s iconic statue of the Duke of Wellington. Famous for the traffic cone on his head (yes, that one) more than anything else. On the friezes of this effigy are images of him slaughtering south Asians and plundering Indian cities. What’s more, it sits outside the Cunninghame mansion (more commonly known as GOMA – the Gallery of Modern Art ) a former mansion built by Lord William Cunninghame, notorious slave trader and tobacco magnate. Yet most of us saunter past it daily and smirk at the cone without giving a second thought as to what it represents.
And that’s the salient word…what they ‘represent’. I have said this previously – statues are meant to memorialise individuals. The intention behind them is reverence. Should we be ‘revering’ a sculpture with a past as dark as some of these individuals? Does it somehow make it ‘ok’ or acceptable that these are historical figures and, in some cases from hundreds of years ago? What if there was a statue to Jimmy Savile? Would we leave it, untouched and put it down to being ‘an important part of history’..?
The difficulty , as I see it, is that we cannot change history. There are many events of the past that we wished had never happened – but they did and the issue is what, if anything, we can learn from them to try and avoid repetition. Glasgow, indeed the UK, has a dark, colonial past and played a huge part in , amongst other things, the slave trade. Now, in 2020 ( actually for a long long time but certainly now, triggered in part by events in America) this is unacceptable and whilst we cannot undo its’ involvement, the least we can do is to remove reminders of it from public view and take these effigies to a museum where future generations can learn about their involvement in a shameful episode of British history. After all, the lack of education is at least partly responsible for racially discriminatory behaviour.
Back to where we ‘draw the line’ – the issue is there are probably illustrations everywhere of a time in our past, everyone’s past, that we would rather not recall. Slavery was intrinsic and fundamental to the Romans and was an accepted practice in ancient Greece. So should we tear down the Colosseum because it was built by jewish slaves or, closer to home, rename a plethora of Glaswegian street names because of their reference to and connections with servitude?
This is a difficult and complex subject and relies on a mix of tolerance as well as respect. Ripping down anything and everything we don’t like or find offensive is evidently not the answer. Part of history is accepting that everything and everyone has a past. Some we like, some we don’t. But, for the sake of our future, the past is important. As I say many, most, all of these statues do not belong, any longer (if they ever did) in full view of the public and to somehow court attention. No – remove them but do not destroy them. They serve as a reminder of a time we must never revisit.
As for ‘mob rule’, it is entirely unacceptable. A civilised society follows the rule of law and the democratic process. Choose not to and all hell breaks loose and an anarchic system develops. I, for one, did not welcome or approve at all the scenes at Bristol harbour. Notwithstanding the strength of feeling a civilised society follows the rule of law and due process in order to accomplish a goal.
The ripple effect following the barbaric death of George Floyd will continue for some time.