|Volume 51 Number 2, January 23, 2021||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Defence of the Rights of All:
The Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has recently announced proposals for new legislation to be framed as the need to protect public statues and monuments. The planned legislation comes in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last year when, amongst other actions, the statue of the notorious human trafficker and Tory MP Edward Colston was in a mass protest removed from its plinth and cast into the ocean, where the lives of many of his victims in late 17th and early 18th centuries had been forcibly ended. Demands to remove the statue began over twenty years ago and had intensified since that time. There were local opinion polls, petitions and even demands from the local MP that the statue should be removed. But all to no avail. After its celebrated removal last June, schools and other institutions in Bristol connected with Colston changed their names, while the Mayor of Bristol announced that any decision concerning its future would be made by the people of Bristol. This statue and its removal came to symbolise a wider struggle against the glorification of those connected with crimes against humanity, slavery and empire, as well as opposition to the economic and political system which arose from those crimes, which continues to perpetuate racism and other forms of inequality and division.
Events in Bristol were just one example of unprecedented protests against racism and in defence of the rights of all throughout the country. The removal of the offensive statue prompted local authorities, museums and other institutions throughout the country to act on long-standing demands and announce that they too would review decision-making processes regarding the appropriateness of the public representation of history. In the wake of the wider protests, many institutions and companies in Britain also felt compelled to publicly state that they too are opposed to racism and the legacy of slavery and empire.
The government reacted in a hostile manner to the Black Lives Matter protests, and in particular to the toppling of Colston. It tried to criminalise the protests and to dismiss the issue of racism and the defence of the rights of all as simply a protest about public monuments and allegedly a demand "to rewrite history". The Prime Minister spoke openly of those who he alleged "want to pull statues down, and to rewrite the history of our country, to edit our national CV to make it look more politically correct". What contemptible nonsense.
The reactionary think-tank Policy Exchange, started by Michael Gove and friends, began to gather information about the "new culture war" and about action that it claimed was "being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past". According to Policy Exchange, "history is being politicised, and sometimes distorted" in the current moment and "large swathes of our public heritage is being effectively re-written or erased entirely - much of it seemingly without much proper debate or forethought. It all adds up to a major transformation in the way in which we deal with history in the public square."
In the autumn, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sent a reiteration of the government's policy on what it began to refer to as "contested heritage" in a letter to publicly-funded museums, archives, and the Heritage Lottery Fund. In short, the government stated that it "does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects", and it opposed any actions by museums themselves which are "motivated by activism and politics". The government apparently does not see its own actions as motivated in this way. Now the Communities Secretary has proposed new laws to counter what he refers to as "an attempt to impose a single, often negative narrative which not so much recalls our national story, as seeks to erase part of it", which has allegedly been done "at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a 'cultural committee' of town hall militants and woke worthies". He argued, "What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not removed on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob". A mob! The common people on the move! The government then goes on to shamefully claim that there is an attempt "to lie about history... to denigrate and destroy our past", and that to demands to remove offensive statues are tantamount to tearing down historic buildings and burning books.
What the government is now proposing with its new policy of "retain and explain" is to remove decision-making power even further away from the people. If a local authority intends to remove a statue, it will need to apply for planning permission, permission which can be vetoed by the government. The government is clearly greatly troubled by any opposition to a Eurocentric rendering of the past, any attempt of the people to become the decision-makers, not only in regard to the glorification of slavery and empire but also to the capital-centred system which perpetuates racism and inequality. All the government's fine words regarding its alleged concern about existing "inequalities" and "shared history" lie exposed by its deeds and its efforts to provide the state with ever greater police powers.
In these circumstances, it is clear that there can be no faith in government-appointed commissions or other such mechanisms. The struggle against racism and Eurocentrism, against the glorification of all crimes against humanity, as well as against all forms of discrimination and for equality, justice and accountability, must be further developed by all democratic people by finding their own way forward, as part of the struggle to defend the rights of all.