Dave Hill: London’s history is too important to be debased by cosmetic statue wars

Dave Hill: London’s history is too important to be debased by cosmetic statue wars

The danger of stepping into Britain’s “culture war” mire is that the bullshit comes up to your armpits. Consider the case of Robert Clive, a man regarded in his own time as a gluttonous plunderer and a colonial administrator of such outstanding negligence that he as good as arranged for up to 20 million Bengalis to starve to death. The mildest suggestion that “Clive of India” might not be wholly deserving of a statue outside the Foreign Office has self-appointed protectors of “our history” screaming in agony.

The urge to punish all and any who so much as entertain the idea that, say, human traffickers who grew rich on forced labour might not be suitable subjects for eternal veneration in the form of heroic likenesses in public places presently consumes communities secretary Robert Jenrick.

Last week, he took the astonishing step of threatening the City of London Corporation with the tweak he’s pencilled in to his planning reforms to prevent it or any other local authority doing anything so monstrous. The City is considering retiring two of its old stand-ups, perhaps to a cupboard or museum. Westferry Bob in his supplementary role as Boris Johnson’s Culture Commissar has loftily declared that he alone shall decide who should be honoured with a Guildhall plinth.

Of course, this Rule Britannia stuff is primarily designed to irk opponents. And, as the paragraphs above show, it works quite well. It is also part of the government’s Continuity Leave operation, which runs in parallel with that other genius strategy, Beating Up London At All Times.

This brings to mind an autumn ruckus at the London Assembly provoked by Peter Whittle, a member of that body elected under Ukip colours in 2016 and now part of a post-Farage splitters coalition that terms itself the Brexit Alliance.

The then recent announcement by Sadiq Khan that he would be setting up a commission to “review and improve diversity across London’s public realm” inspired in Whittle a tour de force of peevishness which established beyond doubt that “our history” is, for him, no vast and complex canvas of past human actions and events whose weight and meaning for the present is an enthralling source of discovery and debate, but a collection of monuments to be worshipped simply because they are there.

He asked the Mayor “on a moral level” what “right” he had to “sit in judgement on London’s heritage”. Where do you start with such a historically-illiterate remark? How about the fact that the statue of Clive doesn’t exist because Merrie England loved him or because an elected government decreed it, but because in 1912, 138 years after Clive’s death, an ex-Viceroy to India and a few of his mates formed a revisionist fan club and had a whip round. What greater “right” than anyone else did they have to “sit in judgement” on what was glorious about Britain’s past and what was not?

Other AMs were outraged by Whittle’s tantrum. You can see their point, but, looking on, I wondered if they’d have been wiser to just laugh at him instead. Khan’s commission has no powers to remove statues of ethically ambiguous individuals from London’s streets. Yet, a London Tory politician is now claiming that the Churchill statue in Parliament Square and Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square are in the commission’s “crosshairs”. This is desperate stuff. It’s true that London Mayors (as distinct from Khan’s commission) have formal responsibilities for those august public spaces, but Khan is a politician who likes winning elections. Do you think he’d hand his enemies such a gift?

Yes, the Mayor’s commission has a political purpose and a campaigning flavour, but so does Jenrick’s heritage policing ploy, which will carry the top-down force of law. Those who took it upon themselves to rehabilitate Robert Clive a century or so ago were no different in that regard, and lacked even the legitimacy of a mandate.

Clive is part of London’s history and will remain so, statue or not, and his merits or otherwise will continue to be examined and contested. Ignatius Sancho (pictured), a self-educated slavery survivor, is part of London’s history too. His London life is, as Victor Keegan tells us, remembered by a small plaque further down the same Whitehall street as the statue of Clive. Their stories overlap and may even have intertwined.

It feels wrong that the representation of Sancho’s place in the London story is so humble next to Clive’s, and I for one would not object to an upgrade. That said, discussion of their respective parts in London’s past should not be reduced to the size of their memorials. The statue war is cosmetic, inflammatory and inane. Debate about London’s history should not be debased in this way.

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Categories: Comment

1 Comment

  1. Philip Virgo says:

    Should statues be decided by subscription and/or petition rather than lobbying? If so, General Havelock earned his place in Trafalgar Square. We should remember the similar popularity of General Napier who very publicly condemned the ignorant racism of young European Officers compared to the “old hands” of the “corrupt” East India Company whose behaviour was condemned by Christian missionaries and progressives like J S Mill. Perhaps the fourth plinth should be filled, on rotation, by statues of those who took practical action to end slavery and racial inequality. If so, these should include Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (who judgements helped drive the American colonies to revolt so as to preserve slavery), Viscount Exmouth (who dealt the death blow to the slave raids of the Barbary Corsairs), plus black British heroes unknown to current generations, such as Able Seaman William Hall (who won the Victoria Cross back in 1857) as well as others well known in their own day, like Sancho, Mary Seacole and Walter Tull. We might also erect plaques to some of those murdered by US Military Police during World War 2 to help remand modern generations of the differences between English and American racism.

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