CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning’s papers.

1. Like Canute, we can't turn back the WikiTide (Times) (£)

The history of the human race shows that information will always spread as power shifts from group to group, says Daniel Finkelstein.

2. WikiLeaks – Mervyn King is consistently wrong: now his hawkish dogma has been exposed (Guardian)

Polly Toynbee writes about how WikiLeaks has exposed the Bank of England governor's central role in pushing an agenda of harsh cuts on successive governments.

3. Secrecy makes the world go round (Financial TImes)

WikiLeaks risks forgetting the value of diplomatic "back channels", warns Robert Baer. Secrecy has its drawbacks, but sometimes there is no choice.

4. WikiLeaks: Do they have a right to privacy? (Daily Telegraph)

The candid diplomatic information revealed by WikiLeaks is embarrassing, but it could also cause real harm, says Malcolm Rifkind.

5. We need to save more lives – with less (Independent)

Bill Clinton warns that momentum in the fight against Aids will be lost unless new ways are found to fill gaps left by funding cuts.

6. Liberal Democrats: the student debt trap (Guardian)

This leading article says that graduates are less vulnerable than the frail and impoverished, but the indignation of students who took to the streets was justified.

7. A fairer pay gap between top and bottom (Financial Times)

Capitalism at its best is the most reliable generator of wealth we know, writes Will Hutton, as his interim report on fairness in public-sector pay is published.

8. This self-serving coalition is ripping up our constitution (Daily Telegraph)

The Lib Dems' determination to end collective responsibility in the cabinet will end in chaos, argues Simon Heffer.

9. Iran's isolation (Times) (£)

The most important WikiLeaks disclosure is of the consensus that opposes Tehran's nuclear adventurism, says this leading article.

10. Tehran's hubris may now know no bounds (Financial Times)

Iranian leaders have been given a copy of their opponents' playbook, writes Suzanne Maloney.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia