Debates surrounding controversial statues have been at the forefront of American cultural politics over the past number of years, but with the Black Lives Matter protests entering the British political sphere, statues and the debate surrounding them has become front and centre in British politics. This has come to a head with the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. A debate regarding statues, their purpose and longevity needs to happen across the United Kingdom and difficult questions need to be answered. Are statues a representation of a feat? Or a person? Should statues be constructed under the condition they are eternal and when, if ever, should they be deconstructed? Most importantly, if society deems statues inappropriate, correct democratic procedures need to be upheld to ensure that they are dismantled safely and legally and not in the form of lynch mobs and angry protesters. We cannot normalise public vandalism.
People are inherently flawed. Perfect role models do not exist and so any attempt to normalise only perfect people being eternalised in statue form is an impossible endeavour. Statues, therefore, should never be an endorsement of an entire person and should instead be erected in memory of an act or idea that person is seen to represent publicly. For example, Sir Winston Churchill has recently come under fire with calls to remove the various statues erected of him as certain views he held are inappropriate in our modern society. Churchill is quoted on numerous occasions stating lies and opinions which would be considered racist today. He also did play a role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 and co-ordinated the disastrous Gallipoli offensive. These are historical facts which no reputable historian will dispute and facts we must not ignore. Despite these failings, this is not the not the part of Churchill we choose to celebrate, nor is it what Churchill represents in our modern British society. Winston Churchill was the face and voice of wartime Britain and today he is seen as the embodiment of Britain's wartime spirit and resilient nature in the face of Nazi tyranny. To the British public today, he represents the triumph of good over the fascist scourge which terrorised Europe. Therefore, Churchill’s statues are not an endorsement of the whole man, but of a specific feat he accomplished - The defeat of Hitler. Churchill’s role in defeating Nazism is why he has a statue, not because he was a perfect human being. His views regarding race, sex and class demonstrate that by today's morals he certainly wasn’t perfect. If we decide as a society that only people considered completely moral by today's standards are worthy of statues, Britain's cultural public landscape will be decimated. Our cities would be filled with hundreds of empty pedestals. Everyone in history held views that, by today's standards, would be considered; racist, ableist, sexist, classist, sizest, unfavourable to mental health sufferers or another buzzword we use to demonise people with socially wrong opinions. Churchill, despite his flaws, deserves to be forever remembered for his role in the defeat of Hitler.
Edward Colston was a slave trader and a racist. However, that’s not what his statue represents and to say that that the statue is an endorsement or representation of slavery/racism today is inherently false. No one views his statue as an endorsement of his horribly bigoted views. The statue was erected as a thank you from the people of Bristol for his generous philanthropy. How he gained his wealth, his job title and his personal views regarding race are all incredibly inappropriate and his charity does not justify his role in the slave trade, but this does not mean we should ignore his role in Bristol's development. His charity helped build many of the public works which allowed Bristol to develop, and it's that aspect of his life we choose to remember. As a society we should encourage generosity and loyalty to our towns and cities and, at time of erection, Colston was chosen to embody this idea. However, as the people of Bristol decided to erect a statue in his honour, the city also holds the right to remove it, in a legal and proper manner, if they view it inappropriate. Petitions, peaceful protest and voting in local councillors sympathetic to the Black Lives Matters cause is a more moral and legal approach than the manner in which the statue was removed. Vandalism is not a legal nor a moral form of protest and ultimately the forced removal of the statue was an act of public vandalism. Society should not allow lynch mobs of angry protesters to bully and dictate which public art or history can remain and which can't. Therefore, there must always be a democratic mandate for changing the public landscape. Vandals can never be proven to represent the majority and, if unpunished, vandals won't be held accountable for their actions. Bristol council or any other council may vote to remove statues they deem inappropriate or offensive and that democratic mandate must be respected. However, until our councils choose to remove any public display of remembrance, we cannot allow vandals and protesters from any political persuasion to forcibly remove publicly owned statues. To allow, tolerate or see this go unpunished is inherently undemocratic and a failure to enforce law and order.
I sincerely hope that future generations choose not to judge us in the same manner some of our society choose to demonise our ancestors. It is a fact of being human that morality changes with time and it is unlikely that certain beliefs or actions we practise in today will be considered moral by our predecessors. Therefore, if we allow this notion of removing statues when the individual isn't perfect by standards of their future, we will lose the tradition that exists worldwide of remembering great acts individuals helped achieve. I personally believe heroes and great acts should be immortalised as it helps to create a nation full of people who have public figures to represent us on the world stage and promote values that we as a country wish to encourage. These include the bravery of World War 2, represented by Churchill, or philanthropy, represented by Colston. People should be viewed in the context of their time and we are fortunate to live in a period where racism and inequality is at an all-time low whilst social mobility is at an unprecedented high. Everyone in a private capacity or in a less well-known public capacity is guilty of an inappropriate view, and I want our future heroes to be remembered for as long as possible, not demonised for views unrelated to why they’re remembered today.
To conclude, I sympathise with the Black Lives Matter movement, the actions by the American police have been less than appropriate and many Black people do live in a constant state of disadvantage due to the colour of their skin. However, no matter how justified their anger. British protesters must obey British law and protest in a peaceful and legal manner. The vandalism we have seen recently is a disgrace and arguably a failure by our police to enforce our laws. Finally, the wider debate regarding statues will be cemented in the front of British politics for a while now. I believe my thoughts on the debate are in the silent majority and that we, as a country, will continue to remember great acts by individuals and honour their memory by not allowing bullies to remove their statues.
Matthew Bell is 20 and from West Tyrone. He is studying History and Politics at QUB and is University officer in the Young Unionists. Matthew aims to promote unionism to the post-Good Friday Agreement generation.