Andrew Lilico is Executive Director and Principal of Europe Economics.
Statues in public places are sometime pure art, but are often there to commemorate or celebrate, or to make a statement. When they are statues of individuals, the intention is sometimes to be a memorial of that individual’s life, sometimes to help us remember some particular event or events with which that individual is associated.
We are rarely interested in all of an individual’s life. On Westminster Bridge there is a statue of George Canning, the former Prime Minister. Of all the many folk that look at it each year, my guess is that zero gaze upon it and think: “Ah, yes – George Canning, composer of the moderately good Latin poem The Pilgrimage to Mecca.” He is memorialised in his capacity as a politician, not a poet.
Even when a statue recalls someone’s life in the round, that rarely should be taken as implying approval of everything done. No-one looks upon Michaelangelo’s David and thinks “They have a statue of David – I guess that means they approve of the murder of Uriah the Hittite.”
Few, if any, great figures of the past led unblemished lives. All of us are sinners, and great men and heroes are no different. Another Westminster bridge statues is of Boudicca and her daughters. During her famous rebellion, Boudicca’s forces impaled the noblest women they captured on spikes, with their breasts cut off and sewn to their mouths. Should we tear down her statue lest folk think that is what we are celebrating about her? (Actually, in her case, it kind of is…)
What about Nelson? He was a flawed man in many ways. Indeed, his adultery with Lady Hamilton is notorious. A Guardian article on Tuesday said we should tear down his column because in the Lords he opposed parliamentary measures to curtail slavery and the slave trade. But quite obviously Nelson’s column is not there to celebrate or approve of his being an adulterer or a supporter of slavery. It is to commemorate his role in the navy, especially (though not solely) at the Battle of Trafalgar, our defeat of the French and the defence of our lands from over-run by hostile invaders.
None of this means that no statue can ever be removed, whether for simple convenience, aesthetic reasons or because we no longer desire to celebrate or commemorate what it recalls. In the US there is currently a great debate about Confederate monuments (about which American historian Chris DeRose wrote for this site on Thursday). This is not a matter of one or two famous statues — in the style of our statue of Churchill (another deeply flawed man) in Parliament square. There are thousands upon thousands of fairly cheaply mass-produced statues of Robert E. Lee and various other figures from the Confederacy. Little of artistic merit is at stake in the removal of these statues. The vast majority of them were erected in two periods — between 1900 and 1920, and in the early 1960s.
There were doubtless a number of factors explaining why they were erected in these periods. Whereas in the period immediately after the US civil war the South was treated rather roughly, in addition to the terrible things that happened there late in the war itself, by 1900 there was more of an effort at reconciliation and reintegration. Rather than rubbing the noses of the defeated in the dirt, America allowed itself to indulge the myth of the Lost Cause (whereby self-determination was at least as much a factor for the Confederacy as the defence of slavery). There was also a re-invention of key figures in the war, with Lee in particular lauded as a man both sides could admire for his military skill. The period 1900 to 1920, as well as covering the 50th anniversary of the war also covered the hundredth anniversary of the birth of various important figures — e.g. Lee was born in 1807. Surely the First World War also stimulated military monuments of all kinds.
But in addition to these, another factor (perhaps the single biggest factor) was surely the growth of “Jim Crow” laws, beginning in 1896. Many — perhaps most — of these statues were there to tell the African American and non-African American populations who was in charge. Similarly, though the hundredth anniversary of the US civil war may have again been a factor, many of the statues erected in the early 1960s were surely partly anti-civil-rights statements.
Perhaps Americans always knew the Confederate Statues were partly reconciliation and partly racist. And perhaps in the 1920s they thought the balance of importance lay more with reconciliation. Well, perhaps today the more important form of reconciliation is that with the African American communities mal-treated for so long. Statues can serve their purpose and then be taken down when we move on.
If, in the UK, we have statues of that kind, where they once served a perhaps-useful purpose but now constitute a statement of the opposite, we should be reasonable in considering their removal. But that should not be a matter of pointing at this or that failing of the historical character.
Sure – Churchill in the early 1920s used gas attacks and carpet-bombing of civilians in Iraq. Sure — Nelson supported slavery. Sure — Boudicca tortured prisoners for sport. Sure — David murdered one of his own bodyguards to cover up his adultery. In some of these cases we have statues to remember these terrible deeds though not to laud them. In other cases we have statues to remember other great deeds these people did despite their flaws.
Britons have engaged in fell deeds throughout history. We have learned from them and hope to be better now. But we are not ashamed. Perhaps there are statues we should remove. But, by and large, ours is a history to be proud of — for all its many flaws.