The campaign to remove the nation’s statues of slavers and imperialists has continued this week and it’s making me feel increasingly uneasy because I fear it’s divisive and we will all be poorer for the experience.
A school curriculum classic for decades, George Orwell, in his novel 1984, wrote how the regime constantly destroyed or falsified records, rewrote books and renamed streets and statues to enable history to be stopped with the aim that “nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right”.
We’re not in this dystopian loop yet, but I hope you can see the danger.
I understand the toppling of statues has been a time-honoured way to express outrage throughout history but, most often, it has been at the end of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union.
Britain does not fit these criteria, and some of its citizens wanting the removal of statues and road names they now find unacceptable is, I believe, a wrong turn in the road.
If we remove the statues of all the slave owners and imperialists from our public spaces, we risk removing them from our consciousness and we risk losing their ability to inform (with the right educational focus) future generations.
This view doesn’t undermine the Black Lives Matter campaign, which I very much support. I think - if we draw a breath for a moment - it actually complements it and will allow a wider debate about how we can address injustice.
These statues are part of the educational experience if we are to truly confront the outrage and wickedness that is slavery and other wrongs too, as uncomfortable as that is for everyone to admit. They are in our cityscapes and they are part of all our histories. They should instead be amended to tell a more balanced narrative and help us acknowledge wrongs and confront all injustice.
If we remove or destroy them, I fear the damage to our shared understanding. No statues of slavers in our land and, in time, no slavers, no slaves, then no war heroes, no war; no holocaust, no Auschwitz extermination camp in what would become, slowly, 'an endless present' as Orwell predicted? Can people forget? Yes, they can and quite easily.
We could put these statues in museums, and perhaps that’s a compromise, but I don’t think it is as good as leaving them where they are. As I said, they need to be adapted with extra information about what these men did, why they did it and how it affected others. Much could be added with help from local communities.
Another more practical reason to leave them in place is that a lot of people do not visit museums, but everyone walks the streets. The scope to educate is enormous. It is possible to make these statues, that were once a celebration, into a warning, an education and a beacon for progress.
However, the idea to keep these statues and use them to educate, cannot work without much more effort being put into highlighting the achievements of many others who were oppressed or overlooked in our recent history.
Nothing would please me more than to see a statue honouring the Windrush generation, for example, for the tremendous contribution they have made to this country.
All this is a more nuanced way forward and one that will take time – most things good and enduring usually have to be. It’s something that Nelson Mandela recognised when he sought out reconciliation at every turn of his incredible life.
Putting up new statues, recognising the once oppressed, while acknowledging the stories, both good and bad, behind the ones already in existence can bring us together. Removing statues stifles important future debate and understanding and divides us.
I would rather have history that offends, provokes debate and inspires change than no history at all.