The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.
Should we bring Britain’s heroes tumbling down?
Afua Hirsch certainly thinks so. This telegenic ‘assassin-with-a-smile’ claims that Britain’s official history – apparently transmitted to an unwitting, unquestioning and passive public audience through statues – ignores and sanitises the toxic pasts of our most cherished and lionised heroes. Nelson is the glorified martyr of the Napoleonic Wars, Churchill the wartime saviour of Britain, and Cecil Rhodes the philanthropic patron of Oriel College, Oxford.
According to Hirsch in The Battle for Britain’s Heroes – a documentary shown on Channel 4 on Tuesday night – these official narratives neglect a more nuanced and uncomfortable truth. They were not saints gilded in glory; no, they were humans, and, as humans, were, in many ways, deeply flawed and often displayed both sentiments and acts one could describe – at least by today’s standards – as cruel and inhumane.
Nelson supported slavery, for example; Churchill encouraged the use of poison gas to kill Arabs, refused to help dying Indians during the 1943 famine and described black Africans as savages; Rhodes, moreover, was the epitome of the white supremacist, determined to expropriate land from his racial inferiors. They were undeniably flawed and, as I say, by today’s standards, both callous and cold-hearted.
But should they be any less revered, as a consequence? And, more importantly, should their statues be torn down, as is implied by Hirsch, even if she does half-heartedly concede that their removal could be divisive? (Indeed, on this point, she never says, during any part of the film, that she doesn’t support pulling them down. A previous article, titled Toppling Statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next, encouraged the practice.)
To the first question, my answer would be perhaps. We should not uncritically lionise figures from the past. It is unhealthy and, all things considered, un-British, too. We aren’t a Stalinist state that forbids the rigorous dissection and investigation of our political leaders, both past and present. It is up to informed subjects to decide if the good deeds outweigh the bad.
What we should not do, though, under any circumstances – unless we want to become a totalitarian state only too willing to erase history – is vandalise our past by pulling down statues, even if they only offer, by nature, an incomplete narration of the individuals they represent. If one wants to educate people about the less positive aspects of our heroes’ lives, that’s fine, but this laudable aim can’t be realised by destroying statues that celebrate their achievements.
I fear that the current campaign, invigorated by people like Hirsch, doesn’t seek to educate people; it seeks to replace one skewed, incomplete narrative with another – that our heroes were in fact monsters. Notice how her ‘nuanced approach’ and desire to ‘show balance’ didn’t stretch to Nelson Mandela’s statue, despite his support for violence at one stage in his life. Will she ever countenance the destruction or relocation of his statue because of his chequered past? I suspect not.
Alas, when one considers her willingness to remove, destroy, erase from history, one can only conclude that she has another, more sinister agenda. She seeks to censor the glorification of Britain’s past and promote its – our – historical crimes and misdemeanours. I have no problem with the latter – a self-confident nation can be introspective and self-critical – it’s the former I object to. That’s not balance, it’s propaganda; and it aims to demoralise the British people and deprive them of their national heroes and pride.
All this said, I’m not entirely convinced by Hirsch’s assertion that Britain has an official, sanitised history anyway. Okay, our statues tend to emphasise past glories; but our school history curriculum is replete with British imperial misdeeds, Churchillian mistakes and the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade – and I should know, I teach the stuff. In addition, if you ask any 13-year-old who Nelson’s column glorifies, they’ll say Nelson Mandela, not Horatio, and they wouldn’t be able to proffer a balanced view on him, that’s for sure. He’s a hero; no questions asked. That’s not a country basking in the glories of Trafalgar; it’s one scared to mention them.
So, not only is Hirsch wrong when she advocates the removal or destruction of statues that glorify Britain’s heroes; the entire basis of her argument – that we have an official history that celebrates these people whilst neglecting their misdeeds – is wrong, too. We need a balanced island story that celebrates our heroes whilst recognising their faults.