Updated: March 2021
In June 2020, in a response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling by protestors of a statue of Edward Colston [Ref: BBC], the Mayor of London set up the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm [ref: Wikipedia]. The aim of this commission is to ensure London’s monuments, plaques and street names reflect the diversity of the city today [ref: London.gov.uk]. Reviews of statues are being planned in other cities too, including Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle [Ref: Sky News]. Edinburgh City Council has convened a review group to look at public monuments, street or building names which have links to slavery and colonialism [Ref: Edinburgh Evening News].
The appointment of these commissions is the latest chapter in a long-running debate about historical monuments, with campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall having argued for some time that such statues and public landmarks are more than just a symbol of past oppression – they represent the institutional racism which continues to exist today [Ref: BBC News]. ‘Protesters’, says one columnist, are ‘compelling entire nations to confront their present through a new understanding of their past’ [Ref: Guardian]. Some, however, worry that there is a tendency to ‘cleanse’ history of unsavoury – even appalling – elements. In the words of historian Mary Beard, ‘statues offer different challenges to our view of history … and remind us of our own fragility in the judgement of the future’ [Ref: TLS]. Others argue that history has now become ‘the most active front in a new culture war’ and that ‘actions are being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past’ [ref: Policy Exchange].
At its heart, the debate is about our relationship with history, and whether removing statues and monuments has a role to play in reappraising historic wrongs, or whether they encourage us to airbrush out difficult and contentious parts of our history, rather than engage with and understand them. But it also a public policy question about who gets to decide whether monuments to controversial figures remain and on what basis such judgement are taken. Do government commissions have the authority to remove controversial monuments?
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
Do historical monuments matter?
‘Public statues are intensely political’, [Ref: Spectator] notes writer Martin Gayford. He outlines the nature of public memorials and statues, and observes that over time, our appraisal of individuals changes, for instance as with the thousands of statues of Lenin and Marx brought down after the fall of the former Soviet Union [Ref: Spectator]. From this perspective, historical monuments do matter as they can be seen as symbols of norms and values we agree to commemorate, as historian Professor Christopher Phelps argues. He says: ‘History is one thing, memorials another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations… [they] bestow honour and legitimacy.’ [Ref: Chronicle Review]. But what changes when a monument is removed? As someone who participated in the removal of Soviet statues reflects: ‘Waging war on bronze men doesn’t make your life any more moral or just.’ [Ref: New York Times]
Thus, the moral value of historical monuments is fiercely contested. For critics, in removing these statues we are in danger of symbolically removing distasteful aspects of history which allow us to understand the present. As one South African student notes in reference to Cecil Rhodes: ‘Removing him omits an essential part of the institution’s history that has contributed to everything good, bad and ugly about it.’ [Ref: Guardian] In the case of the Rhodes statue at Oxford, some argue that statues serve as a repository of history, good and bad: ‘A salient fact about the Oriel statue of Rhodes is its date: 1911. It is an echo in stone of a different time.’ [Ref: New York Times]
Why do people want to remove them?
Advocates of removing statutes of controversial figures suggest that these monuments represent individuals whose actions and legacies should not be celebrated or memorialised. Since the Black Lives Matter protests of June 2020, almost 70 memorials have been renamed or taken down in what some historians have called an ‘unprecedented’ public reckoning with Britain’s slavery and colonial past [Ref: Guardian]. But others have argued that the connection between the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism is often wrongly attributed. According to historian, Dr Zareer Masini, it ignores the fact that ‘slavery was almost universally practised across the globe until the British empire and navy stamped it out in the mid-19th century’. [Ref: Spectator] These commentators believe that the campaigns to remove monuments to controversial historical figures have been ‘rushed through without democratic consultation or due process’ and welcome new government legislation to ‘protect monuments and statues from mob iconoclasm’ [Ref: Spectator].
But for some, this ‘reckoning with history’ is more about ensuring the public realm represents the diversity of life in the UK now. For Aindrea Emelife, a 27-year-old art historian and a member of the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity, the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol marked a turning point, particularly when a sculpture of a young black woman was put in its place. Emelife says, ‘that reinvigorated the idea that public art should mean something. I saw little black girls looking at that statue and it made me wonder if I saw that when I was younger, how it would have inspired me.’ [Ref: Guardian]. Other commentators, such as Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, consider the idea of diverse representation in the public realm as a distraction. ‘My worry too is that this new culture war risks distracting us from the practical steps that need to be taken to make a real and lasting practical difference to the lives of BAME people in this country.’ [Ref: Express]
Of course, many dispute that removing statues really represents a historical reckoning at all. One cultural critic insists it is a ‘moral crusade to cleanse history’, and that ‘preserving material (be it inspiring or appalling) allows us better to understand our history and society today; it helps us make judicious decisions about what is right for our future.’ [Ref: Spiked] Yet, as some counter, is removing statues not as much a part of the historical process as keeping them? Commentator Matthew Parris insists: ‘Far from [toppling a statue] being a “writing out of history” it was a writing in of history. History is what happened.’ [Ref: Spectator] Indeed, our understanding and interpretation of historical norms and values changes over time: ‘To reconsider, to recast, is the essence of historical practice. Altering how we present the past is not ahistorical… it represents a more thorough coming to terms with the past and legacies, a refusal to forget.’ [Ref: Chronicle Review]
But how is this process of reconsideration to take place? In the case of the Bristol statue of Colston, Prime Minister Boris Johnson lamented that democratic decisions were replaced by criminal acts [Ref: BBC]. Indeed, a survey conducted in early 2021 showed that only 16% of black Britons believed toppling statues was a permissible form of protest [Ref: The Sunday Times].
However, the Mayor of London’s commission, as well as those being created across the UK, are seen by many as a way to ‘work with their local communities to look at the “appropriateness” of certain monuments and statues on public land and council property’ [Ref: Dorset Echo]. But does this imply that removing statues is right whenever a democratic majority says so? [Ref: The Atlantic] Are democratic decisions made in the present, about our past, susceptible to contemporary political trends? And do government commissions run the risk of taking action for the sake of being seen to ‘do something’? Would a more pragmatic approach be to ‘retain and explain’ the complex history of more controversial figures, as the government has suggested? [Ref: The Times]
A battle over history?
Of course, such debates are never just about the statues themselves but are a tussle over history, too. As the Oxford-based philosopher Amia Srinivasan argues, the ultimate goal of campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall is ‘to “decolonise” the university, a broad campaign – of which changing public symbols is only one part’ [Ref: London Review of Books]. But the historian David Olusoga, despite being broadly in favour of removing such statues, argues the discussion about statues can be a distraction: ‘If forced to choose between a proper national debate on racism or the statue wars, which is it to be? … [S]tatues are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.’ [Ref: Guardian] Similarly, writer Kenan Malik suggests that such debates are part and parcel of distracting ‘culture war’ issues: ‘Rather than ask “What are the policy reasons for the lack of housing and stagnating wages?” or “What are the social roots of racism and what structural changes are required to combat it?”, we look to blame the Other, demand recognition for our particular identity and tussle over symbols.’ [Ref: Observer]
Aside from arguments about subjecting historical figures to modern standards of moral judgement [Ref: Guardian], and questioning what good removing a statue of Rhodes will do in a practical sense [Ref: The Conversation], opponents of toppling statues worry that our relation to the past is becoming fraught or superficial. For these critics, the act of understanding history relies on recognising how the past informs the present, and not editing out parts we don’t like. Allowing monuments to stand isn’t to legitimate the views of nineteenth-century slave holders or imperialists or Confederate generals, but rather, it is part of the ‘challenge of history’ to debate the moral questions the monuments may present, and confront them head-on [Ref: New York Times]. For some, the destruction of monuments is emblematic of a wider contemporary fixation with pathologising the past, ‘treating history as a source of psychological trauma’. [Ref: Spiked] But if ‘anti-racism is a battle for memory’, then history very naturally becomes a battleground [Ref: Jacobin].
In light of the arguments on both sides, should monuments of controversial historical figures be removed, or does this do a disservice to history, and make us victims of history rather than subjects who can understand and engage with it? And who should take these decisions? Are government commissions truly representative of the population as a whole and do they have the authority to take these decisions on behalf of the population today, and populations of the future?
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Want to help defeat racism? Here’s how you can use your power for good
Trevor Phillips The Times 9 June 2020
Towards Britain’s Year Zero
Alexander Adams Spiked 11 June 2020
Mary Beard TLS 11 June 2020
The trouble with people who lived in the past
David Mitchell Guardian 16 March 2016
Must Rhodes fall?
Matthew D’Ancona New York Times 28 January 2016
Statues: the UK’s plan to ‘retain and explain’ problem monuments is a backwards step
Katharina Massing The Conversation 9 March 2021
Tearing Down Statues Doesn’t Erase History, It Makes Us See It More Clearly
Ernesto Traverso Jacobin 24 June 2020
In praise of statue-toppling
Matthew Paris Spectator 13 June 2020
Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes statue must fall – it stands in the way of inclusivity
Yussef Robinson Guardian 19 January 2016
Removing racist symbols isn’t a denial of history
Christopher Phelps Chronicle of Higher Education 8 January 2016
Why ‘democratic’ approaches to removing problematic statues often fail
Chloe Chaplain The i 14 June 2020
Culture wars risk blinding us to just how liberal we’ve become in the past decades
Kenan Malik Observer 21 June 2020
The history wars
Richard J Evans New Statesman 17 June 2020
The ‘statue wars’ must not distract us from a reckoning with racism
David Olusoga Guardian 14 June 2020
How can nations atone for their sins?
Ivan Krastev and Leonard Benardo Prospect 14 July 2020
A healthy society does not destroy its monuments
James Heartfield Spiked 17 June 2020
Amia Srinivasan London Review of Books 31 March 2016
The real meaning of Rhodes must fall
Amit Chaudhuri Guardian 16 March 2016
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Statement from the Mayor of Bristol
Martin Rees Bristol City Council 15 July 2020
In Russia, They Tore Down Lots of Statues, but Little Changed
Andrew Higgins New York Times July 7 2020
The Case for a Statue of Limitations
Yasmin Sherhan The Atlantic June 25 2020
The statue-topplers are obsessed with white men and white history
Tanjil Rashid Spectator 20 June 2020
Toppling statues of bygone tyrants forces British people to face present-day racism
Owen Jones Guardian 11 June 2020
Why Hitler’s house should be destroyed
Jamie Aspden Redbrick 16 November 2016
Why the Austrian government’s plan to demolish Hitler’s birth house is contentious
Luke Fiederer Archdaily 1 November 2016
The terrible problem of Hitler’s earliest home
Jessie Guy-Ryan Atlas Obscura 10 April 2016
Cecil Rhodes colonial legacy must fall – not his statue
Siya Mnyanda Guardian 25 March 2016
Removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans is the right thing to do
Stephanie Grace The Advocate 21 March 2016
Not all racist monuments should be torn down
Zachary Fine New Republic 10 March 2016
Rhodes hasn’t fallen, but the protesters are making me re-think Britain’s past
Timothy Garton Ash Guardian 4 March 2016
New Orleans says goodbye to its Confederate status
Economist 4 February 2016
Students who say Rhodes must fall should be celebrated – not sneered at
Dan Hodges Telegraph 4 February 2016
History is not a morality play: both sides of the Rhodes must fall debate should remember that
Cheryl Hudson The Conversation 30 January 2016
Racism at Oxford goes deeper than a statue of Cecil Rhodes
Dena Latif Guardian 4 January 2016
Finally! Oriel College should have stood up to Rhodes Must Fall long ago
Harry Mount Telegraph 29 January 2016
Will Rhodes must fall fail?
BBC News 18 January 2016
Defending Robert E. Lee
Barry D. Wood Huffington Post 11 January 2016
A short history of statue toppling
Martin Gayford Spectator 9 January 2016
Topple the Cecil Rhodes statue? Better to re-brand him a war criminal
David Olusoga Guardian 7 January 2016
Never mind Rhodes – it’s the cult of the victim that must fall
Brendan O’Neill spiked 28 December 2015
The statue of Cecil Rhodes like that of Saddam, must fall
Chi Chi Shi The Times 26 December 2015
Message to students: Rhodes was no racist
Nigel Biggar The Times 22 December 2015
Cecil Rhodes and Oriel College, Oxford
Professor Mary Beard Times Education Supplement 20 December 2015
Cecil Rhodes was racist, but you can’t readily expunge him from history
Will Hutton Guardian 20 December 2015
Confederate monuments will come down in New Orleans
Kevin M. Levin Atlantic 17 December 2015
Don’t tear down Confederate monuments – do this instead
Jack Hitt Reuters 23 July 2015
Why we shouldn’t pull down all those Confederate memorials
Alfred L. Brophy Newsweek 10 July 2015
The University of Cape Town is right to remove its Cecil Rhodes statue
David Priestland Guardian 13 April 2015
Hitler’s old house gives Austria a headache
Bethany Bell BBC News 29 December 2014
IN THE NEWS
London’s new diversity commission ‘not about removing statues’
Aamna Mohdin Guardian 9 February 2021
Sir Thomas Picton: Statue of ‘sadistic slave owner’ to be removed in Cardiff
Emily Goddard Independent 24 July 2020
Tributes to slave traders and colonialists removed across UK
Aamna Mohdin and Rhi Storer Guardian 29 January 2021
Edinburgh appoints Scotland’s first black professor to lead review of statues and street names linked to slavery
Ian Swanson Edinburgh Evening News 11 November 2020
Philip Larkin statue placed on secret racism review’s list following Black Lives Matter protests
Craig Simpson Telegraph 6 March 2021
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.