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14 October 2020updated 13 Sep 2021 5:07am

Why we should move all statues into a sculpture park and use blue plaques instead

Statues are nothing more than a stone supplement to the preposterous honours system – and they should be removed.

By Philip Collins

A dear departed friend of mine who once lived there pointed out, as we went through on the train, that Newark is known to many locals as “the amusing anagram town”. For some reason this springs to mind every time the town’s MP, the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, inveigles his way into the public eye.

In a fast race, Jenrick is bidding to be the most shameless member of an unedifying government. After surviving the imbroglio of unlawfully permitting Richard Desmond’s Westferry property development in east London, Jenrick has this week been doing the work of Newark again. The £3.6bn Towns Fund, which is distributed through Jenrick’s department, was created to benefit around 100 “left-behind” towns across England. Newark, which was ranked 270th in terms of priority according to the National Audit Office, has received the maximum grant of £25m. I do not begrudge the good people of Newark the money, but their MP is a loyal votary for a government that cares nothing for process so long as the outcome is desirable. This is the culture-war spirit and it was no surprise to see Jenrick turning up on the front line.

Every week anonymous government sources fire a salvo of nonsense in the culture war to pliant newspapers. Most recently, the anonymous briefer tried to litigate the past with the allegation that “statues of Britain’s heroes from Sir Francis Drake to Admiral Nelson are under threat from Marxist militants, working hand in glove with Labour councillors”. This was then followed by the announcement that, under forthcoming changes to planning guidance, ministers will be granted a veto over the removal of statues, plaques and memorials. The final say will rest with Jenrick.

The argument about statues is about the location of power. If Andy Burnham, the Cock of the North, wants to pull down Oliver Heywood and James Fraser, a forgotten philanthropist and bishop respectively, from their plinths in Albert Square in Manchester and replace them with Harold Evans and Johnny Marr, why should he not have the authority to do so? The slight hint of cultural vandalism in that thought raises the second, and more interesting, way in which statues embody power. As the historian David Olusoga has said, statues are about adoration. A statue is a reward for historic service. It is an indication of what a given society thought to be meritorious, at a given moment in time.

Statues are themselves historical artefacts that were important exhibits in the invention of tradition that took off in the second half of the 19th century. Most of the statues to which people take exception were erected between 1889 and 1919. The erection of a statue is itself a verdict on history, not just a neutral note. That is why we erected a statue to Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square in 2018. It is because we approve of her, not only because she was remarkable.

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It then follows that the statue’s appearance of stone permanence is an illusion. The greatest statue poem in the language, Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, is about the evanescence of power. The statue is a forlorn attempt at permanence, which in politics, says Shelley, is impossible. Look on my works, ye mighty and despair, as Heywood and Fraser no doubt once thought, or as Jenrick probably says to himself.

If we think of statues as part of the history they purport to teach we realise there is no need to defend a statue, erected in Bristol in 1895, of Edward Colston, a slave trader who died in 1721. We don’t have to defend Robert Clive outside the Foreign Office, or Oliver Cromwell outside the House of Commons. Laurie Magnus, the chairman of Historic England, was too alarmist when he told the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee that “our collective past is going to be just torn away slowly, piece by piece”.

There really is no reason to think that. It is reasonable to take down a statue that we now regard as inglorious. It will be more common, in fact, to take down statues that glorify events and people we now regard as boring and irrelevant. As David Lowenthal writes in his revision of his great book The Past Is A Foreign Country, “we are surrounded by monuments and relics we can barely comprehend”. There are, in fact, other and better ways to keep the past close to us without any culture-war contest on who counts as good enough.

Statues are an obtrusive exhibition of vanity, a stone supplement to the preposterous British honours system. The debate could be ended by gradually dismantling the lot. I really wouldn’t mind if all the 800-plus statues in the UK (less than 3 per cent are of historical, non-royal women) were taken down and put in a museum. In Moscow the Muzeon sculpture park is known as “the graveyard of Soviet-era statues”. Felix Dzerzhinsky was the first statue to be moved there, and Lenin and Stalin soon followed. The past is preserved but placed at a respectful distance. As Theodor Adorno noted, museum has more than a phonetic association with mausoleum.

Let’s throw all the statues into a sculpture park and use blue plaques and artistic mementos instead. Near where I live there is a plaque on a residential home that reads “Casanova may have breakfasted here”. That’s the level of humility we should be aiming for. Then pass a law allowing an exemption for fictional characters. Let Paddington Bear stand sentry over his station and leave Eleanor Rigby on her Liverpool bench. There is something glorious about the statues of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx in Dundee. But as for the rest, in the words of Prospero – who you can see on the BBC’s Broadcasting House – let the insubstantial pageant fade.

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?