While Jacob Rees-Mogg indulged in some predictable “Red Khan” baiting in the Commons last week over the Mayor’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, it emerged yesterday that communities secretary Robert Jenrick had a more surprising target in his sights – the venerable City of London Corporation.
The “oldest continuous municipal democracy in the world”, dating back to before Magna Carta, finds itself in an unwelcome “culture war” standoff with the government after deciding that statues of two prominent City figures with slave trade links should come down.
An icily-worded missive from Jenrick, noting that the Corporation “may be minded to remove statues and rename street names within your local authority”, reminds the City not only that “the removal of statues does harm rather than good” but also of its “unique status” as a “leading authority”.
The Corporation was “itself a product of the City’s rich history. It is in the City’s own interests that heritage and tradition are given robust protection,” Jenrick warned, somewhat ominously. “I hope this feedback is helpful in your careful consideration.”
The decision to remove the statues of two-time Lord Mayor William Beckford (1709-1770) and MP, merchant and philanthropist Sir John Cass (1666-1718, pictured) from the authority’s Guildhall home at the heart of the Square Mile was taken last month. Both figures had profited significantly from the Atlantic slave trade.
The removal was one of a wide-ranging set of recommendations from the corporation’s “Tackling Racism” taskforce, alongside measures addressing diversity in recruitment, governance, City services and businesses.
“The slave trade is a stain on our history. Putting those who profited from it literally on a pedestal is something that has no place in a modern, diverse City,” said taskforce co-chair Caroline Addy, while the decision was also welcomed by the Corporation’s de facto leader Catherine McGuinness.
“The view of members was that removing and re-siting statues linked to slavery is an important milestone in our journey towards a more inclusive and diverse City,” she said.
The move was not uncontroversial. Consultation, which was not limited to City residents, businesses and organisations, showed 71% of “external” respondents opposed to removing “items of contested heritage”. But three-quarters of internal consultees said that statues associated with slavery should be either “contextualised” or taken down. The taskforce backed that call, noting its intention to make recommendations “based on the wider issues rather than being obliged to adopt any majority view expressed.”
Cass’s name has already been removed from the charitable foundation he established in 1748, with funds substantially derived from his investments in the Royal African Company, responsible for transporting more than 150,000 Africans into slavery, and from beneficiaries including the Sir John Cass’s primary school in Aldgate and London University’s Cass Business School.
Nevertheless the Corporation now looks set on an unlikely collision course with the government following Jenrick’s announcement of new planning laws designed to ensure that “historic statues will only be removed in the most exceptional circumstances”.
A working party would now be considering the next steps, a spokesperson told On London. “As Guildhall is a Grade I-listed building, we will need to seek planning permissions and we will of course comply with any new legislation which might be brought in.”
Meanwhile, notwithstanding Rees-Mogg’s 1980s-style jibe describing Khan’s commission as a “loony” left-wing wheeze, the Corporation will be sitting on a borough working party set up as part of the City Hall programme.
Khan’s spokesperson said that his commission would “work with councils and partners to ensure we tell the full story of our capital.” And last week’s City Hall announcement of Commission members adds: “The Commission is not being established to preside over the removal of statues.”
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