Charles Wright: What Sadiq Khan’s diversity commission did (and was never going to do)

Charles Wright: What Sadiq Khan’s diversity commission did (and was never going to do)

Somewhat under the radar, Sadiq Khan’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm was wound up earlier this year. The controversial initiative was set up a month after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd to predictably lurid headlines: “Woke Sadiq Khan bid to tear down London statues.” The reality has been less dramatic.

The context for the commission was revealed in a study showing that more than a fifth of the capital’s predominantly Victorian memorials were dedicated to named men, just one per cent to people of colour and twice as many to animals than to named women. More objects in public spaces were needed, Khan said, to present a “more complete picture of everyone who has made London the incredible city it is today”.

The rapid growth of the Black Lives Matter movement following Floyd’s murder and particularly the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June 2020, nevertheless did prompt a new focus on who was being commemorated in the capital.

It was a significant moment: slave trader Robert Milligan’s statue in Docklands was taken down and statues and busts of Sir John Cass, director of the slave-trading Royal African Company, were removed by the University of East London, St Botolph’s church in Aldgate, and two East End schools.

Departments at two London universities dropped the Cass name, as did the Cass Foundation, which had administered his charitable legacy since 1748. The City of London Corporation opened discussions on removing his statue from the Guildhall, along with that of slaver, plantation owner and twice Lord Mayor of London Sir William Beckford.

A name change was also agreed for Beckford primary school in Camden. The school had opened in 1886 as Broomsleigh Street school but renamed after Beckford by the London County Council in 1929 – 159 years after his death.

Plans were put in train to remove the statues of benefactors and beneficiaries of the slave trade Sir Robert Clayton and Thomas Guy, from Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals, and that of 17th century slave trade investor Robert Geffrye from Hackney’s Museum of the Home, which occupies former almshouses Geffrye endowed.

The City Corporation confirmed its decision to remove its Cass and Beckford statues in January 2021 as an “important milestone in our journey towards a more inclusive and diverse City”, according to policy chair Catherine McGuinness. But the government was already intervening. The law was rapidly changed so that removal of any statue or memorial at least 10 years old, whether listed or not, would require planning permission, and national planning policy was amended to emphasise a new “retain and explain” approach.

The government “does not support the removal of statues,” said culture secretary Oliver Dowden. The Guildhall, the hospitals and the Museum of the Home fell into line, agreeing to keep their statues, along with interpretative panels. At the same time, there has been only a flurry of street name changes.

Meanwhile, despite the accusations levelled at Khan, City Hall hadn’t been taking the lead with pulling down memorials and renaming buildings and streets. Rather, the commission was talking to boroughs and consulting an expert panel, looking to “advise on better ways to raise public understanding” of existing memorials and names, as well as promoting the “diverse histories” of the city. But it was “not established to preside over the removal of statues”.

What has been the result? Most immediately, the commission can point to its substantial “untold stories” grants programme. It has supported some 70 projects across 24 boroughs, from new memorials and murals to events, exhibitions and walking tours, marking, in Khan’s words, the contribution to the city’s history of people and communities too often “wilfully ignored”.

The streetscape will be changing too. London will be see two major new memorials over the coming three years: its first permanent HIV/AIDS memorial, to be sited in Fitzrovia close to the site of the country’s first specialist HIV ward, with a £130,000 contribution from the commission; and one to the victims of transatlantic slavery at West India Quay in Docklands, with £500,000 of funding.

City Hall is already clear that the commission has “improved our collective understanding of our shared history”. Formal evaluation is underway, but at the very least, the commission’s ambition  – not for fewer statues but for more memorials of various kinds telling a “wider, diverse and more representative story of London” is set to be realised. Its long-term legacy perhaps remains to be determined.

X/Twitter: Charles Wright and OnLondon. Support  for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details here.

Categories: News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *