Should we take down statues of racists?
Should we take down statues of racists?

Why do statues matter?

They're only lumps of stone. They can't talk, they can't think, they can't do anything. But you could say something similar about photos. They're only a collection of pixels, or ink on paper. And yet these collations of light and colour can be a very significant part of our identity. They say important things about who we are. We're unlikely to have photos on our phones or in our houses of people we hate. We keep photos of people we love, as a memory of happy times with them, and as a way of telling other people and reminding ourselves of how much they mean to us.

Public statues of famous people are a kind of national photo album. When a city or a country goes to the trouble and expense of commissioning, paying for and putting up a statue of someone in a prominent public space, it is a very definite way of saying that this person is both important and admirable. It is a powerful statement of the identity of the civic or national community. Statues define the space we live in. They are big, public and permanent. We walk past them every day. On a sunny day, we eat our lunch in their shade. Statues say who we are.

For taking down statues of racists

Edward Colston (whose statue in Bristol was torn down by a crowd in June 2020) made a fortune from the kidnapping and enslavement of thousands of people. Winston Churchill (whose statue stands in Parliament Square) defended the expulsion of indigenous people from their native lands by saying that they had been replaced by 'a stronger race, a higher-grade race' (i.e. white people); he described Hindu Indians as a 'beastly people with a beastly religion'; during the Second World War, he was widely blamed for diverting grain shipments to stockpiling food in Britain rather than using it to relieve the Bengal famine, in which an estimated three million people died. Cecil Rhodes (whose statue stands over the entrance to Oriel College, Oxford), was responsible, when prime minister of South Africa, for driving black people off their land, denying them the vote and excluding them from all but the most menial jobs. He justified this policy by comparing black people to children and saying they were fit only for manual labour.

These were repugnant opinions and repulsive actions. Maintaining statues in a public place which celebrate men like this not only endorses, but actively celebrates, their behaviour and their attitudes. It is fundamentally immoral.

Take the example of Jimmy Saville (1926 - 2011). In his lifetime, he was a successful DJ and media personality, who raised millions of pounds for charity. He counted prime ministers and members of the royal family amongst his friends, and was regarded as a national hero. Statues of him and plaques to him were put up in public places, and streets and hospital wings were named after him. Then, after his death, he was revealed to have been a predatory paedophile, who had used his status to systematically abuse hundreds of children. As soon as these revelations were made public, the statues and plaques came down and the streets and hospital wings were renamed.

No one would dream of defending a statue of Jimmy Savile. We don't want to celebrate a serial child abuser by commemorating him in a public place. And yet we continue to celebrate men who profited from the exploitation and mass murder of thousands of enslaved people. Why?

Can you imagine a statue of Hitler in a public square in Israel? Of course not. Thousands of Israelis are descended from victims of the Holocaust. To make them walk past a statue of the man who oversaw the murder of their family members every day would be deeply cruel. And yet the many British people of colour who are descended from victims of the slave trade and of colonialism are daily confronted with statues celebrating the men and women who became rich and powerful through the plunder, kidnapping and murder of their ancestors.

You say these statues are part of our history, and we cannot change history. Sending children down coal mines is part of our history; we don't do that any more. Preventing women from voting or owning property is part of our history; we don't do that any more. Sending men to prison for being in a consensual same-sex relationship is part of our history; we don't do that any more. Signs outside boarding houses that said 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs' are part of our history; we don't do that any more. Similarly, celebrating men whose power and prosperity was built on theft, kidnap and murder is something we used to do, but we don't - or at least we shouldn't - do that any more. And that means taking down those celebratory statues. That's not changing history; it's changing the way we think about history in the light of what we now know and value.

For keeping statues

These statues were erected in a different time, and need to be understood as such. Our cities and public spaces have evolved organically over the centuries; they are a living record of our past. To tear them down and rebuild them in the light of our current beliefs will prevent us from understanding our heritage, both the good and the bad. Stonehenge may well have been the site of human sacrifice; should we take it down? The Christian church inspired the Crusades, a brutal war against Muslims for belonging to the 'wrong' religion; should we blow up Westminster Abbey? Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice contains vile anti-semitic language, reflective of the attitudes of his time; should we ban it from our classrooms and our theatres? Better by far to look at these monuments of our culture in the context of their times. Try to understand why pagans sacrificed humans, what prompted the Crusades, the history of anti-Jewish persecution in early modern England. So too with statues. Reinstal Colston's statue, but with a well researched, well designed plaque making clear how he made the money he gave to Bristol and what the consequences of his line of business were. Don't eradicate; understand. Retain and explain.

Dividing people of the past into heroes and villains is naive and dangerous. It stops us understanding the complexities of history. Very few people are all bad or all good. Yes, Colston made money from the slave trade; he also established schools and other public institutions which have benefitted thousands of Bristolians down the years. Yes, Churchill (like many people of his time) was a racist; he also saved Britain from capitulating to the Nazis in 1940, thereby saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of British Jewish people. Yes, Rhodes laid the foundations for racist regimes in southern Africa; he also established scholarships which have benefited thousands of students. Rather than reacting in fury at what these people did wrong, we should try to understand them fully and accurately. Having their statues in our cities does not mean that we approve of everything they did or said. Rather, it reminds us that they were important people in our history. Taking down the statues prevents us from understanding that history.

Don't destroy, build. Rather than attacking the bad in the past, celebrate the good in the present (and the past). Right behind Winston Churchill in Parliament Square are statues of Mahatma Gandhi, who led the struggle for Indian independence (vehemently opposed by Churchill); Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned to give women the vote (originally opposed by Churchill, though he did change his mind); and Nelson Mandela, leader of the struggle against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa (Churchill backed the white rulers of South Africa who went on to establish apartheid). So Parliament Square is, like parliament itself, a place of dialogue and debate. Make all our public spaces like that. Let the present talk to the past. Put up monuments to people whose values we celebrate today. Don't tear down monuments to racists; put up monuments to anti-racists.

Motions that go with this topic

1. This house would take down statues of people who profited from the slave trade.

2. This house would take down statues of people who have expressed racist views.

3. This house would make it compulsory for at least 10% of public statues to be of people of colour.