July 2020

To whom would you put up a statue?

Statues have been very much in the news of late, and great deal of stuff - some helpful, some balderdash - has been written and spoken on the subject.

One remark I found especially disturbing came from the Prime Minister who said that taking down statues was ‘an attempt to rewrite history’, as if ‘the History’ is now to join ‘the Science’ as some great transcendental deity to be followed without question.

The truth is that both History and Science change, and they change as people’s views - the way in which they see the world - change. When the understanding of scientific observation changes, then science changes with it, and when our understanding of the past changes, then history changes with it. To quote a comparatively trivial example, Edward VII was regarded as a somewhat wayward king, unfit for office - as his mother thought - but recent biographies (can I recommend the one by Jane Ridley?) have shown him to be an inspirational king who revolutionised the monarchy and enhanced the standing of his country worldwide

Our understanding of the past changes not just by how much more we can know about it, or even just by the way our distance from past events gives them a sharper perspective, but also by the way our values change, and what was regarded as preeminently admirable in the past might possibly be regarded as just a tad embarrassing now.

What function do statues perform? They allow people of a particular generation - or rather rulers in a particular generation - to honour those who they feel deserve respect. And that is fine. And some of the people so honoured will doubtless pass the test of time. But not all of them will, and there will inevitably be statues around of people - usually men - who represent values which are now rejected or people of whom frankly most of us have not heard.

I find two related things worrying in the current debate: first the idea that anyone honoured in the past has got to be honoured now, no matter what that person represents, and secondly the apparent paucity of people of our own time whom we want to honour now. Both those factors are related, in that they both are indicators of a country with an alarming lack of self-confidence, a country clinging to any reminders they might have of a past of which our collective knowledge is at best hazy while unwilling to recognise the gifts, talents and achievements of people of our own time.

In Ancient Rome, one of the first acts of a new emperor would be to melt down any statues of his predecessors in order to make coins out of them. I suppose the closest we get to that is when someone falls out of favour or the limelight, and his or her model in Madame Tussauds is melted down in favour of someone more ephemerally popular.

Of course, our churches used to be full of statues. There would be memorials, images of saints, all sorts of things, but every church would have three specific images. On top of the screen in front of the choir there would be the crucified Christ with Mary his mother and John the Evangelist on either side. All these statues were destroyed during the Reformation, with any lingering ones dealt with by that iconoclast Oliver Cromwell, whose own statue stands with devastating irony in Parliament Square, a visible reminder to any passing Irishman or woman of the man personally responsible for the deaths of so many of their forebears.

The sad fact is that, were anyone to suggest the introductions of statues of saints, or even of Christ, into our churches now, that could well provoke the cry of ‘Popery’. There is an extraordinary strand of anti-Roman Catholicism in this country: the monarch may be an affiliate of any denomination within Christianity apart from the largest one world-wide. And this leaves us with the bizarre situation that people might object to there being a statue of Christ in a church but also object to the removal of a public statue of someone who may well have helped the economy in Victorian times, but who did so thanks to his use of slaves.

It would be good if, during this period of enforced time for pondering we were to ponder on such questions as: Who from history or from now best represents what I value most? Who from history or from now represents the message I try to hear? Who from history or from now do I recognise as the one I try to follow? If I need statues of anyone else, would I rather they were of those who try or tried to follow the same person? If not, why not?