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30 September 2022

Should we have a statue of the Queen in Trafalgar Square?

It’s not as straightforward as a culture war between Sadiq Khan and right-wing royalists.

By Peter Hughes

Grief compels us to memorialise those we have lost. In a Belgian cemetery, the artist Kathe Köllwitz built Grieving Parents, two granite statues of a man and a woman watching over the graves of 25,000 German soldiers killed during the Great War. One of the soldiers was her son, whose death left “a wound in our lives that will never heal”. 

For millions of people, the death of the Queen gave them a connection to their own grief, a way to remember their own wounds. She reigned for longer than most of us have lived and stood as a constant in the background of our lives, a stoic witness to our celebrations and our sorrows. The intimacy many felt for a woman they had never met is a deeply human response to her life and her death.

Yet, at a time when Mary Poppins, skyscrapers, gardening and babies mark fault lines in the culture wars, it’s not surprising that demands for a statue of the Queen have been weaponised. The detonator was Sadiq Khan’s refusal to allow a statue of the Queen to be built on the Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square. 

The plinth had stood empty for 150 years before Prue Leith, then deputy chair of the Royal Society of Artists, made it a site for installations of contemporary sculpture. Installations have included Alison Lapper Pregnant by Marc Quinn, One & Other by Antony Gormley, where 2,400 members of the public were invited to spend an hour each standing on the plinth, and Michael Rakowitz’s recreation of a statue of an Assyrian deity that was destroyed by Isis in 2015. The current installation depicts the controversial anti-colonialist pastor John Chilembwe, whose uprising in Nyasaland in 1915 may have motivated as much by his precarious financial situation as his utopianism. He is due to be replaced in 2024 by the faces of 850 transgender people.

In 2013 Commander John Muxworthy suggested turning the Fourth Plinth into a permanent memorial to Margaret Thatcher. Norman Tebbit supported the campaign, observing that “Nelson could keep an eye on her”. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, objected, saying it was his understanding that “the fourth plinth is being reserved for Queen Elizabeth II”.

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Now that the Queen is dead, Sadiq Khan clearly does not share Ken Livingstone’s understanding, maintaining that the programme of temporary installations should continue. He has received support in this from Leith and, perhaps surprisingly, from Simon Heffer, the historian and Telegraph columnist. Leith defended Khan on the grounds that the plinth “has become part of the national curriculum for children to think about public art” while Heffer argued that the Fourth Plinth was too inconsequential and that the Queen “would be overshadowed by Nelson”.  

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What, then, is to be done? 

There will be those, like the American professor Uju Anya, who wished the Queen to die “in agony” and who would topple any statue erected in her honour. Such is the terrifying certainty of those that look at the past without nuance and the present without mercy. The stoic dignity of the Queen deserves better. In 1999 the first occupant of the Fourth Plinth was Ecce Homo, a life-sized Jesus Christ sculpted by Mark Wallinger. He wanted to depict a man not a deity, “just a guy being handed over to the lynch mob”. We must ensure, whatever the fate of the Fourth Plinth, that a woman with a deep and gentle Christian faith doesn’t suffer the same fate.

[See also: Notes on a mourning nation]

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