To remove, or not to remove statues: that is not the question Britain’s imperial past is asking of the present.

Something huge is happening in the UK. Britain’s colonial past is storming into the present and will not quieten until we listen to what it has to say. The national journey ahead of us will be deeply healing if we do.

In the past three weeks, the words “I can’t breathe” have become a universal slogan. And no, they have nothing to do with the Corona virus. They were the dying words of George Floyd as he was slowly killed, in full view, by a Minneapolis police officer. Like a match to dry tinder, his appalling, videotaped death ignited fury. Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements leapt to life spreading protests like bush fires through streets around the world. In the UK, while many people peacefully chanted, knelt or lay down in solidarity with the murdered man and fellow victims of racism, others went further, rocking the symbols of white supremacy quite literally off their pedestals.

In Bristol, the main target was the widely-despised statue of Edward Colston. Since his death in 1721, the philanthropist’s name and generosity had been celebrated in famous landmarks – a street, a school, the city’s largest concert hall – while the uncomfortable truth of his lucrative role as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading institution in British history, was hushed up. Estimates suggest he himself presided over the shipping of around 84,500 African men, women and children to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Horrendous 2-3 month sea journeys chained to the slave decks caused 19,000 to perish. Their RAC-branded bodies were unceremoniously tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as “wastage.”   

Colston’s statue being deposited in Bristol Harbour by protestors

Colston’s bronze presence has long been contentious in the city that used to be known as the ‘slave capital,’ but previous attempts to remove him had failed. On June 7th, however, Colston the philanthropist met his slave-trader Hyde when he was toppled off his perch and dumped head first into the harbour like one of the thousands of slaves under his watch. Whether you agree with such activism or not, it could hardly have been a more perfect gesture of karmic comeuppance. The aftershocks of his heavy landing are still reverberating, cracking the shiny veneer of Britain’s preferred version of history upon which it has built its largely benevolent national self-image.

I am not interested in judging the wisdom of this action – it was emotional and inevitable. I do not condone any of the subsequent violence and I deplore the eruption of the Far Right onto the streets with their eagerness to fight… anything. I am, however, glad that it was sufficiently contentious to prise open the Pandora’s Box of Britain’s imperialism making it impossible to slam the lid down on the restless ghosts of historic crimes.

Anyone who has attended my talks or read my blogs will know I have long been calling for Britain to look at, learn from and redress its own past wrongdoings. It has hitherto been far too easy to hide them in the shadows of the more recent Nazi genocide against which every atrocity naturally pales. For far too long, our history books and curriculums have primarily been testaments to our greatness: our victories and sacrifices, our worldwide achievements and position, the industrial revolution, the apparent huge benefits of British rule, the abolition of slavery… all worthy of celebration to those who still harvest and enjoy their fruits. But vast swathes of society are excluded from the feast and are still locked in lives of disadvantage, poverty and discrimination… or prison.

Churchill’s (boxed) statue in Parliament Square

The fact that until 2015 tax payers were still paying off the £20 million debt borrowed by the government in 1833 to pay compensation, not to victims or descendants of slavery, but to wealthy slave owners who lost out when slavery was abolished, shows how the tentacles of slave ownership reach into our present. Surely such glaring insult and inappropriateness are more worthy of expressions of outrage than the temporary covering of Winston Churchill’s statue? Yet Boris Johnson’s string of passionate tweets defending the lump of bronze representing his all-time role model were not only the same typical deflections from the existential debate being demanded by living people… on our streets… now, which are employed by many conservative thinkers. They also display a widespread British contradiction that is out of date and out of sync with the world. We as a nation verge on the obsessive when it comes to remembering our past as saviours of Europe from fascism. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the dark underbelly of murder, pillage, torture, cruelty, oppression, racism – the list is long – that formed the foundations of wealth, privilege and inequality on which so much of British society is built.

The prime minister scored an own goal when he tweeted “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.” The editing and censoring the past is precisely what these protests have been about! Other than one in Liverpool, there are no dedicated museums to the slave trade. As for ‘teaching us about our past,’ one viral video of a slave trader being torn down has achieved far more in terms of educating people about Britain’s past atrocities than any existing statue has ever done. On an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron employed much the same avoidance tactic by stating that it was time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” How can you move on from something that is still happening? Until Britain finds a way as Germany has been trying to do – initially reluctantly and on the insistence of the British – to reckon with its imperial past and scarred present, we will not be able to “move on”.

Monuments are key to national identity. They demonstrate and instruct the values of a society by elevating heroes of the time onto plinths to be looked up to and respected for generations to come. They are not innately required to be permanent. Romans used to melt down their statues for coins. So what should happen when those same values become disgusting, offensive and humiliating, whichever angle you look at them from? When they become symbols of psychological and political oppression? Would British people not rightly feel offended or appalled having to constantly walk past statues of former oppressors – Hitler, Goebbels, Rommel – either here or in Germany? Yet this is what the black community have had to endure, seeing the slave-traders who murdered their ancestors, committed mass crimes, genocide and atrocity against them still celebrated in public. The toppling, removal or covering of monuments is not “to lie about history,” as Johnson claims. Nor should it become the prime debate, as it has in right wing papers, whose writers are incidentally putting up almost identical arguments and resistance to owning national atrocity as Germans once did. The statues have simply woken people from their willful amnesia. But there is a danger. If the agitators of colonial history simply vanish, so could the discourse and urgently needed education.

The removal of the slave-owner Robert Milligan statue in Canary Wharf

From all my studies and experience of Germany’s post-WW2 culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past) and the ensuing counter memorials and museums that dot the nation’s cities, parks and pavements, there is much the British state/we can, and must, do. As descendants of the original perpetrators, current generations are not to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, but we are responsible for making amends. So, rather than focusing purely on the clunky symbols and symptoms of discontent and planning ten-year prison sentences for those desecrating memorials, the government should be fully engaging with the debate and the root of the problem: institutional racism. The full truth of our past – warts and all – must be integrated into history lessons and school curriculums, museums and public monuments. Like in Germany, cities around the UK could hold their own competitions for imaginative counter monuments – Banksy has already submitted his proposal. Or information tableaus could be erected beside any monuments that remain in situ presenting the other side of the story along with an unmitigated condemnation of any repetition of those values. Also like in Germany, rather than building the highly contested Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament, a memorial to Britain’s own victims could be created as a reminder of how fragile civilisation and democracy are. And for the victims’ descendants, opportunities for conversation, dedicated remembrance days, apology, restitution, compensation, reconciliation, investment… it’s all so late but there is so much to do.

Banksy’s sketch proposal for reinstating the Colston monument as part of a slavery memorial

Facing and talking about uncomfortable truths is the first step to healing them. Covid has exposed the inequalities in our society. We have a unique opportunity here for attitudinal and structural change. In the words of the soul singer, Erykah Badu, we need to ‘stay woke’. We simply cannot go back to sleep on this. Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet’s beautiful message is so very apposite for these times.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”

doesn’t make any sense.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.”

Further reading (I have included a couple of articles with which I wholeheartedly disagree!)

The dark side of British History you weren’t taught in school – video by George Monbiot

Robert Clive was a vicious asset-stripper. His statue has no place on Whitehall by William Dalrymple

Removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes would be cowardly and anti-intellectual by Daniel Hannan

When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? by Kris Manjapra

Buried for 50 years: Britain’s shameful role in the Biafran war by Frederick Forsyth 

All lives matter: There is too much at risk for us to let the ‘culture warriors’ win. You cannot teach the lessons of history by trying to erase it by Liam Fox

Britain’s colonial crimes deserve a lasting memorial. Here’s why by Afua Hirsch

Until we reckon with our imperial history, Britain’s toxic culture war will burn by Daniel Trilling

Boris Johnson’s plans for ‘cracking down on crime’ aren’t ‘bold’, just old. And they don’t work.

More prison places, more punishment, longer sentences and tougher stop-and-search powers for police… I am far from alone in being dismayed at Boris Johnson’s ideas on prison reform. 

However, his prison policies are no more and no less than I would expect from him: vain, backward-looking, wilfully ignorant of evidence and expertise and whiffing of his trademark self-serving disregard for the people affected. Anybody who works in the system or has occupied themselves with the deeper issues behind the revolving door of our flailing, and failing, system can see the shallow grasp he has of what is required. As the respected Prison Reform Trust says: “Tough rhetoric is no substitute for understanding the evidence.” 

In a blatant display of easy vote-winning, tough-on-crime policies, Johnson is returning to Michael Howard’s aggressive and long disproven claim: ‘Prison Works!’ So let’s just unpick a little of what he and his team are suggesting as part of their “bold” plan (‘bold’? ‘Old’ would be a more accurate description) “to create a justice system, which cuts crime and protects law-abiding people.” 

1. “10,000 new prison places” – at a cost of £2.5 billion – “so we can keep criminals behind bars.” Nothing new here, not least the well-known fact that prison is not a solution to cutting crime or reoffending. The then justice secretary, Liz Truss, made the same pledge in 2016 and the places were first due by 2020. The government then quietly reduced its target to 3,360 places by 2023. So far only one prison has been completed.

Responses to this idea: 

Peter Dawson, Director of The Prison Reform Trust: “Doing away with overcrowded and outdated prisons makes a lot of sense. But governments have been promising that for decades and they always underestimate what’s involved. According to the prison service’s own figures it would take 9,000 new spaces just to eliminate overcrowding – not a single dilapidated prison could be taken out of use before that figure was reached.” 

Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform: The construction of new prisons is “an exercise in ego and reputation” and a “gross squandering of taxpayers’ money.” 

Robert Buckland QC, the fifth Conservative justice secretary in four years: “More and better prison places means less reoffending and a lower burden on the taxpayer in the future…” Except it DOESN’T Mr Buckland! And there is a raft of evidence, teams of experts and front-line workers and decades of failure to reduce re-offending through a punitive system to prove it. 

2. To “properly punish” offenders by sending more to jail and to make sure criminals are “serving the time they are sentenced to” by putting an end to the automatic release of prisoners half way through their sentence. Hmmm… just a few weeks ago research indicated that short prison sentences were driving up reoffending and former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, had called for “ineffective” prison sentences of under six months to be abolished. You can do the maths yourselves. Currently reoffending costs the UK £18bn per annum. Keeping an adult in prison costs around £37,000 a year, with at least double that amount for a young offender. Reoffending rates for sentences of less than 12 months stand at 65%. There are 83,000 people in the system… Put those figures on your campaign bus Mr Johnson. 

3. Apparently it’s “time to make criminals feel afraid, not the public.” Home Secretary Priti Patel goes further and wants them to feel “terror.” “Populist electioneering” says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, and it is. Even the most basic psychology or a bit of listening to offenders’ stories would reveal the terror many of them have already felt in their homes, schools or communities making them feel compelled to join gangs or arm themselves with knives. Can the government not see the relationship between the rise in knife crime and the nine years of brutal cuts – that Johnson supported – to community support officers, probation, police, not to mention education, youth services, housing, mental health and other public services? Johnson wants “…to keep criminals off our streets and turn them into law-abiding citizens when they have paid their debt to society.” But has society honoured its duty to educate those people, to support their needs, to protect them? 54% of prisoners are dyslexic, 50% can’t write, 29% were victims of abuse as children. They will be released with just £46, a criminal record, often a newly acquired drug habit and frequently nowhere to live… so where is the ‘bold’ plan for the chances they will be receiving to become ‘law-abiding citizens’?

That’s still not the end of it.

4. “20,000 more police officers” – which will merely reinstate those lost by the past years of Tory cuts. “Extended stop and search powers” – which often result in the unfair targeting of ethnic minorities and were a key factor in the anti-police anger that triggered the riots while Johnson was mayor of London. Even reports by both the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police found no long-term significant reductions in crime. And “£100 million worth of airport style X-ray scanners, metal detectors and mobile phone blockers to crackdown on drugs and weapons coming into prisons – even though many of them come in with underpaid officers wanting to make an extra buck.

Johnson’s next point makes me laugh… and weep!

5. “It is vital we have a world-leading prison estate…” How about aiming for a fair, functioning, humane prison estate as a start? Every single HM inspector of prisons says the same: our prisons are shameful shambles. We lock up more people than anywhere else in Western Europe; we already have excessively long sentences; prisons are filled to 95% of their operational capacity; overcrowding, cuts in front-line prison staff (1/3 of newly-appointed recruits leave within a year of being in post) and squalid conditions have led to the highest levels of violence and self-harm. Drugs abound while meaningful activities, education and work remain a luxury… you can read about countless other contradictions of purpose and violations of human dignity almost weekly.

Frances Crook again: Mr Johnson “doesn’t seem to understand” how the current justice system works. “What is coming out of Number 10 is politics but not real life. It’s not going to deal with real-life crimes and victims. It’s a lot of hot air.

I am in good company when I say a government’s approach to prison policy is a litmus test for its maturity, wisdom, far-sightedness and humanity. 

Dostoevski:“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” 

Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” 

Even Johnson’s hero, Churchill:“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country…” 

In his macho rhetoric on the treatment of crime and criminals, painfully devoid of detail on educational or rehabilitative measures, Boris Johnson may mean well. ‘Tough on crime’ always appeals to the general public as it’s apparently for our safety. But with these measures, he is merely exposing naked ignorance, vanity and apparent indifference to the issues faced by real people. Emptying prisons of short sentence prisoners; providing extensive education and work opportunities; rolling out victim awareness and restorative justice courses; offering incentives for good behaviour; instating many more, well-trained prison officers on the wings with time, not only to open and close doors but to listen and guide… These are some of the things that will move our prison system in the direction of being fit for purpose. Only then can we start dreaming of ‘being safe’ and having the “world-leading prison estate” Johnson wants.

Further reading:

Mark Capleton: I’ve been in and out of prison for 35 years – trust me, Boris Johnson’s criminal justice policies are useless. Behind every sentence, there is a person. Without the rehabilitation and education opportunities given to me, I would be back inside. But the prime minister’s announcements don’t offer those chances at all. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-crime-policy-prisons-cps-stop-and-search-a9056966.html

Putting more people in prison is not the way to cut crime. If Boris Johnson wants to be tough on crime he must reduce re-offending rates, says Reform researcher Aidan Shilson-Thomas. https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/opinion/2019/08/putting-more-people-prison-not-way-cut-crime

Boris Johnson thinks building more prisons can curtail violence – he couldn’t be any more wrong. Johnson is appropriating the pain of victims for political legitimacy while simultaneously abandoning those who need help rather than jail time.  https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-prisons-stop-and-search-criminals-a9056286.html

There’s an unhelpful form of Tourette Syndrome lurking within certain British men…

What is it about some British men? It’s as if they have a form of Tourette’s that makes it impossible for them not to heed Basil’s advice and not mention the war. Smug winner syndrome, even 70 years on. I mean is it really a good idea, Boris Johnson, is it remotely mature or diplomatic to respond to a perfectly reasonable suggestion that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside, by equating such an approach to “punishment beatings… in the manner of some world war two movie”? (The Guardian, 18.01.17)

f1c8a09b8dc2c845d413acc6a7525daa3e3ac06a4553eade79040d0b2bd9c0bc.jpg

It honestly makes me wince, not because it’s insensitive, antagonistic or unnecessary, but because it is so unbelievably, pathetically childish. I once laughed at Will Self’s brilliant verbal portrait of Boris as “an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion” but I don’t find him remotely enigmatic or amusing anymore. Just dangerously out of date and out of touch.

Read More »