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Stop this Trashing of our Monuments — and of our Past
Monuments at risk: The Churchill statue on Parliament Square, London was twice defaced in recent riots, while nearby at the Cenotaph, someone tried to burn the flags. (Photo by Ben Brooksbank, Wikimedia Creative Commons)
London, 15 June 2020: The Cenotaph—Britain’s memorial in Whitehall to her dead of the two world wars—has been boarded up to protect it from desecration during the demonstrations this weekend. The monuments of Winston Churchill, Sir Robert Peel, Henry Dundas, Earl Haig and others have been defaced. A mob threw a statue into Bristol harbour. William Gladstone has been expunged from Liverpool University. Captain Cook, Sir Francis Drake, Clive of India: all and many more are under threat. The Mayor of London—never one to miss a chance for opportunistic grandstanding—is setting up a commission to remove more memorials, as are 130 Labour-led councils.
Robert Baden-Powell, the hero of the siege of Mafeking and founder of the Scouting movement, is under threat in Poole. Maps of the statues of other imperial heroes are being published on leftist websites to encourage attacks, and the museum curator Madeline Odent—a museum curator—has posted advice on the best acids for destroying bronze statues.
The culture war that many of us have been predicting ever since our imperial past started to be routinely trashed in our schools—one of the ringleaders of the Bristol mob was a teacher, unsurprisingly—has now begun in earnest. For decades now the left-dominated educational establishment have been intent on trying to make us ashamed of the British Empire, and to despise our forefathers for building and defending it.
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People who think this latest campaign is primarily about either monuments or the slave trade, and will therefore end once slavers’ statues are removed, are deluding themselves. King George III signed the legislation into law that abolished the slave trade over two centuries ago in 1807, yet there have still been calls to remove his bust from a churchyard in Lincoln. Cecil Rhodes—contrary to what one ignoramus on a Radio 4 vox pop recently asserted—never bought or sold a slave in his life, yet we have been given orders that he “must fall.” This is thus not principally about slavery, it is about a much wider issue than that.
Of course black lives matter greatly, but so does our national identity. They do not need to be in conflict. Nobody alive today knows anyone who knew anyone who knew anyone who was a slave of the British Empire, so this ought to be a discussion that can be conducted with rationality and evidence, not by anarchy and mob rule.
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The discussion about Churchill’s attitude to the native peoples of the British Empire, for example, is a nuanced one that cannot be summed up by three words spray-painted on his statue. He undoubtedly made remarks and the occasional joke about non-white people that today we would find completely unacceptable. It is worth pointing out that he also made equally or more disparaging remarks about Europeans too. Unlike Karl Marx, Churchill never used the N-word, which dyed-in-the-wool racists tended to in those days.
When Churchill was at school, Charles Darwin was still alive, and people believed that a hierarchy of races was scientific fact, however obscene and ludicrous we know that to be today. Yet throughout his life, Churchill fought to protect the non-white peoples of the Empire. He was proud of the way that Indians’ life-expectancy doubled and their population massively increased under British rule. He considered it his lifelong duty to try to improve the lives of the Empire’s native peoples. Black lives mattered to Winston Churchill. For Dr. Shola Mos-Shogbamimu to denounce “the way he used his privilege, power and influence to cause untold misery and atrocities on non-white nations” betrays an utter lack of understanding of the altruism that underpinned much of the imperial story.
To wrench historical figures out of their historical contexts and expect them to hold modern views on issues like race is anyhow absurd. People’s reputations are trashed for holding views that a large majority of people held at the time, essentially for being insufficiently woke. Even Mahatma Gandhi held what to us today are extremely offensive views about black Africans, describing them as “one degree removed from the animal.”
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How to reconcile all this? By using our common sense. “The past is a foreign country,” writes L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” If we allow our monuments and statues and place-names to be torn down because of our present-day views, and claims of people being offended by our built environment that has been around for decades and sometimes centuries, it speaks to a pathetic lack of confidence in ourselves as a nation. We are on the way to a society of competing victimhoods, atomized and balkanized into smaller and smaller communities, which ironically enough is something racists want too.
The inescapable truth is that throughout history nations build empires if they can, and that is not just true of white Europeans. The Hittites, Mongols, Aztecs, Zulus, Ottomans and many more built great empires and were not white Europeans. Yet where is the Zulu who is ashamed of Shaka? The Mongolian who bemoans Genghis? The Uzbeck who apologises for Tamerlane? The virus of self-hatred seems to be almost solely reserved for the English-speaking peoples.
Very often the facts used to justify tearing down monuments are faulty, and the reasoning against natural justice. William Gladstone did not own or trade slaves, so why should he be erased because of the sins of his father? The historian-turned-activist Afua Hirsch wants Nelson taken down from Trafalgar Square because, although he didn’t buy or sell slaves either, he didn’t oppose the trade when it was legal. Even then it was an unimportant part of his life. Politics is not the reason he was put on the column anyhow. It was because he saved the nation at Trafalgar. His memorialising has to be seen solely through the prism of race.
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The Chinese Cultural Revolution is not a warning for the British Left; it is a model, a template. The Left cannot believe its luck that Tories seem so unwilling to denounce this lunacy, and to fight back. So we must put up with this destructive movement, driven in large part by ignorant, angry, woke under-thirties who hate Britain’s past because they were never taught it objectively, snowflakes who can’t stand the fact that they live in a country full of history, some of it bad, most of it glorious. For nobody in modern British society is valued or respected any the less because of a monument that was put up to somebody a hundred years ago.
We do not have to agree with everything done by those who came before us, but we should try to understand them, just as we hope that those who come after will hopefully try to understand us.
Fortunately, most of the British people are shocked and repulsed by this assault on the nation’s monuments. So bring on the culture war, as even with the left-wing media, academia, teaching unions, and yobs with spray-paint against them, the British people will win, so long as the debate is conducted in a rational way rather than by the mob rule seen in recent days. Only then will we demand an end to this trashing of our statues and of our past.
This article is reprinted by kind permission, © The Mail on Sunday, 14 June 2020. Andrew Roberts is the Roger & Martha Mertz Visiting Reader at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His biography, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, is the only work meriting two book reviews on this website. See Larry P. Arnn, “Man of the Century” and Richard M. Langworth, “The New Churchilliad.”