Crashing Symbols

20th June 2020


Protesters make their view of Churchill known

There are many arguments for and against the withdrawal from public view of symbols of imperialism, racism and slavery across the UK.  The most pressing and obvious is that these statues memorialise men who made vast fortunes from the ‘ownership’ and enslavement of others and should not, in accordance with our current realisation and values, be on display.

Another view suggests that we should leave the statues in situ but revise the interpretation associated with them, so that people can understand why they may have been regarded as ‘great men’ in their day but should be viewed differently now.

A third option suggests gathering such statues and symbols into a national museum of slavery, as a means of educating the public about these individuals and the role of Britain in initiating and sustaining the international slave trade.

The statues however are the tip of a substantial iceberg and the issues beneath the surface are beginning to show.  Oriel College, Oxford this week backed the campaign to remove the statue of white supremacist, Cecil Rhodes, from outside the college.  The Rhodes Must Fall campaign have welcomed the move, with some caution as the college have been down this road before and not removed the statue, but recognise that it is a step in the right direction.

Simukai Chigudu, an associate professor of African politics at the University of Oxford and a founding member of the campaign said,

“This statement bears some resemblance to the first statement they issued in 2016, but it includes the crucial, additional detail that the governing body itself has voted for the statue to be removed.  I think that’s a substantial shift.”

This contrasted with the opinion of Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, who called the campaign “short sighted” adding that we should “remember and learn” from the past rather than “edit” it.

Donelan will no doubt be aware that her view chimes neatly with that of her boss, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who wrote in The Telegraph earlier in the week that,

“If we start purging the record and removing the images of all but those whose attitudes conform to our own, we are engaged in a great lie, a distortion of our history”.

This is of course classic dissembling from Johnson, setting up a view that no-one is suggesting, then knocking it down in defence of his own opinion.  No one is suggesting that the record is purged but it is vital that the record is set straight.  That is not distorting history, it is correcting the current distortions, which glorify those who benefited from exploitation and slavery while ignoring the voices of the victims.

Not even Johnson however is concerned about the condemning of slave traders and acknowledging the injustice and brutality of the trade they were engaged in, even he would sign up for that.  His defence of Winston Churchill however is more telling, with Johnson fulminating that it was “absurd and deplorable” that Churchill’s statue should have been defaced and that,

“He was a hero, and I expect I am not alone in saying that I will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square, and the sooner his protective shielding comes off the better,” he said.

Churchill’s heroics are based upon his World War 2 record, where he was one of three leaders, along with Roosevelt and Stalin, who were allied against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan in the fight to defeat fascism.  While Britain played its role in the defeat of Nazism there is little doubt that the lion’s share of the struggle to liberate Europe was borne by the Soviet Union.

Churchill’s record as a politician in the early twentieth century was a died in the wool anti-working class imperialist.  Churchill’s role as Liberal Home Secretary in 1910, in sending troops to break a strike of miners in Tonypandy in South Wales, is hotly contested but he was never a supporter of trade union rights.  His role in relation to women’s suffrage during this period is also ambivalent at best.

There is no doubt that Churchill’s opposition Conservative Party did not support the setting up of the NHS following WW2, resisted the key nationalisation of coal , rail and steel as part of the post war reconstruction effort and was  instrumental in escalating the coup d’etat planning against the democratic government of Iran in 1953, while continuing UK support for the US intervention in Korea.

Churchill is just one symbol, the one that Johnson chooses to defend.  What Johnson really fears is that, once the surface is scratched, the whole edifice of the British state begins to unravel.  Is there any aspect, from the Royal Family to the Church of England to the House of Lords which is not built upon exploitation, expropriation and oppression?

How about a history which reflects the history of class struggle, the major engine of progress which has seen the franchise extended, trade unions established and working class representation in Parliament?  How about a history of the struggle for the emancipation of women, the fight for equal rights and against sex discrimination?  How about a history of the black and ethnic minority experience of life in the UK from slavery to the Irish starvation, from Windrush to Black Lives Matter?

Some histories are still deemed to be more important than others, precisely because they are the history of the class in power, and the statues and symbols they choose to erect are memorials to that power.  Some of that history is causing them embarrassment now because it is being challenged but they would not be questioning it otherwise.

Without that challenge there will not be change.  If that means a few more statues end up on riverbeds then so be it.  Hopefully it marks the beginning of a more significant re-evaluation of history, a correcting of distortions which reinforce class power and, ultimately, a challenge to the system itself.  Only then will history be on the right track.



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