By Ellie Taylor
We all saw the images from Bristol last week when Black Lives Matter protestors pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dragged it to its watery grave. The statue was pulled from the docks the next day, but the poetic justice of the moment is hard to deny.
Responding to Bristol’s action, Sadiq Khan announced plans to review statues and street names, with links to slavery being noted and dealt with accordingly. Days later, a statue of Robert Milligan, a man who held people in slavery, was removed by authorities from outside the Museum of London Docklands. There appeared to be general consensus that statues of people who had benefitted, or indeed been involved in Britain’s slave trading past, ought to be pulled down.
Yet leading Cabinet figures, far from acknowledging the unjust and abhorrent fact that Black people had been forced to walk past a statue of a man complicit in enslavement, murder and the theft of generations-worth of labour, knowledge and skills appeared more concerned with the act of pulling down the statue itself. Home Secretary Priti Patel alluded to ‘hooliganism’, whilst Boris Johnson’s Twitter account astonishingly deemed the phrase ‘thuggery’ appropriate in relation to protests across the country.
‘Britain’s Great Leader’
Then, images emerged of the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square. Under his name, a protester had sprayed ‘Was a Racist’ in bright red paint. It is worth noting, at this point, that the statue is vandalized at every protest that passes through Parliament Square – May Day protests, anti-capitalist marches, protests about astronomical student rent. However, somewhat predictably, Union Jack Twitter lost its rag. A lot of British people seem to harbor a borderline pathological attachment to this man – he is at once a war hero, an honorary grandfather, Britain’s one great leader. In a social media statement, the Prime Minister asked why protesters had attacked the statue:
‘It was […] frankly absurd and deplorable that the statue of Winston Churchill should have been in any plausible danger of attack […] What has the world come to when one of this country’s greatest leaders – perhaps our greatest – has to be shielded from the mob?’
With calls for these statues which celebrate and glorify the dark past of colonial Britain, instead, many people of colour in Britain are calling for an acknowledgment of systemic racism in a country where many white people ignorantly insist there is not a race problem. Black Lives Matter – and indeed anyone with a conscience – is bound to be troubled by some of the purported remarks of Churchill, Britain’s ‘great leader’.
Outrage tactics and culture wars: distraction and dismissal
Yet the right-wing press and the government are doing something sinister with the so-called ‘statue debate’. It is a tale as old as time – outrage tactics distract from the real issues. The demands of oppressed “minorities” are painted as outrageous; an affront to British culture and history, and the opportunity for intelligent discussion is lost.
Culture wars rely on a rhetoric which labels supporters of equality and fundamental rights for minorities as easily offended ‘snowflakes’. We see it in headlines which imply the transgender community is demanding that the packaging of sanitary products to cease to be pink. We see it when right wing commentators wind up baby-boomers by announcing that the LGBTQ community want a ‘rainbow poppy’ for Remembrance Day. We are seeing it right now, where think-pieces discuss whether it was really necessary to remove Little Britain and its portrayal of blackface from Netflix.
It is not that these demands would be unfeasible or unreasonable – it’s just that statues and gestures of this kind are secondary to bigger discussions about discrimination, prejudice and power.
In her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge discusses similar diversion tactics during the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign at Oxford University. She describes how critics of the movement complained that the campaign was an attempt to erase history which impinged on ‘free speech’.
This is what we are seeing right now, with the debate surrounding statues of people with ties to the slave trade or known racist views. Forget about the numerous biographies, films and documentaries about Winston Churchill – the absence of a statue will, according to critics, erase him from Britain’s history altogether. Seems unlikely.
But this is exactly the point – the conversation has shifted to a man who has been dead for over 50 years, instead of engaging in meaningful conversations about racism in modern-day Britain.
This week, Oriel College voted in favour of removing the statue. Yet it has taken 5 years for those in positions of authority to make this historic move. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign fell foul to commentators who insisted that the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes was an attempt to discourage free speech in the university’s community – rather than simply an attempt to discuss whether the university ought to be celebrating a man who described the British as ‘the finest race in the world’ as a way to justify his displacement of native Africans in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Eddo-Lodge sums up perfectly what happened in 2015, and what is happening right now:
‘Couching opposition to anti-racist speech and protest as a noble fight for freedom of speech is about protecting white people from being criticized.’
The government’s discussion of unlawful removal of statues, along with Boris Johnson’s insistence that Churchill’s legacy be protected, and his implication that discussion surrounding Churchill’s statue has become dangerous and absurd, simply adds fuel to the fire. It is detracting from a conversation which has, for far too long, been sacrificed on the altar of ‘free speech’ and ‘important historical events’.
A majority white Tory government has no experience of any tangible discomfort moving through the world, and thus it makes sense that they would weaponise abstract concepts in a culture war to discredit the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Winston Churchill’s statue is so very, very secondary to what is happening in the world right now. Please do not let it distract you from tangible and positive change. If you really, really want to watch Little Britain – which in my opinion was not very funny in the first place – then just buy a box set and stop complaining on social media. And thank God that your struggles are with a streaming platform or a block of stone, rather than a very real and pertinent structural racism.