Thomas Vare presents his view on the debate around Britain's statues.
In many ways, statues do not need defending. For most people (and for most statues), the ecclesiastical romances of stone echo a graceful song of spoken words and sturdy deeds. Recently and rightly, however, our country, whilst wrestling with the ghosts of a wretched past, has begun to discuss “the legacy of Empire”. Statues, and indeed history, should not be erased in the course of this revolution. Recalling the footfalls of a lost time, these austere oracles provide an immutable record of forgotten events. Like Orderisi’s vistas, they sit still and silent, embedding historic acts into daily existence. They are, therefore, one of the many constant links that revive an ailing memory.
At a shrouded point in time, statues stop simply remembering the past but become an active part of it. The Mall is completed by Nelson, and the lions that guard him are as much part of Trafalgar Square as the tiles we walk over. Statues are part of our history, both in their representation of the past and in their place as an historical artefact, and represent but a small thread in the chaotic passage of time. To sever this historical tie would be to cut society off from its foundation, creating a rootless tree wavering in tempestuous winds. Rather than removing these statues and creating a void of pleasant untruths and half-realities, it would be better to place them in their true historical context with plaques and proper education.
Statues commemorate certain worthy deeds rather than the entirety of a person’s moral code. In a past age when men revered Emperors as gods, the man was worshipped; in the modern epoch statues are built for great actions rather than the entire content of one’s soul. This is self-evident to the builder and the observer; if a pure moral code is required for the erection of a statue, then the fatal flaw of humanity will preclude any being built. Cecil Rhodes is honoured for giving large sums of money which fund Oxford scholarships to this day, rather than his hideous views on the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. If the statue was intended to commemorate his hate-honed views on race, then it would be different. But it does not. It instead remembers a remarkable act of charity, regardless of his other moral worth. Taking down statues for actions which the effigy does not even commemorate therefore shows a lack of understanding about the purpose of “monumentalising” the past.
When a statue is torn down by protesters using a 21st century lens, judgement cast back over the centuries leaves only silence as a defense, and incognisance as a jury. This is no way to engage with the past. Any historian will agree that it is anachronistic and unwise to judge yesterday’s actions on today’s morality. If we do begin to approach history in this manner, we will be in constant disgust at the litany of terror that is human history. Our terrible hand is stained with the blood of a thousand persecutions, executions, and annihilations. If we start destroying historical artefacts, the records of historical events, because they are distasteful to us now, then the whole of human conduct before the millennial turn will in time fall to guilt-fouled fiends convinced of righteousness. It is odd that it should be the modern man infused with post-modern subjectivity who should gaze backwards with unbending asperity. If we cannot even accept an objective morality for the present, how can we possibly impose one on the past? I merely hope that vengeance for the dead does not become an ethic for the living.
Even if you accept the arguments for removing statues, it has become clear that it harms the cause for which it is purported to support. Racism infects every aspect of society and its remedy, if it exists, requires change from every person on every level of the social structure. Tearing down and desecrating statues alienates the very people the protesters need to convince. According to a YouGov poll, only 13% of those Britons surveyed approved of the Colston statue being removed and the way in which it was done. Figures like Churchill, in Parliament Square, are often viewed in an overwhelmingly positive light by the general public. Any movement must seek to garner the support of the public and destroying statues sets back rather than furthers that goal.
Attacking bronze has not only proven unpopular but also a distraction to the real and pertinent issues at hand. In the UK, the narrative of the Black Lives Matter protests has been consumed by the cavilling discussions of a man of local importance rather than national interest. The protests have become embroidered in a menial debate about statues which is but a distracting skirmish from the main force of the issue.