Don’t put them on a pedestal

Edward Colston - the empty pedestal

JVL Introduction

David Rosenberg reflects on the question as to what public statues and memorials are for.

Or, as Billy Bragg enquired: “Where are the statues to those who fought and struggled for the rights of the British people?”

Rosenberg calls for monuments to collective struggle – “such as the colourful and moving Cable Street mural, where you can almost hear the figures shouting and screaming” – monuments that honour ordinary people.

Those who took up the fight of the oppressed against the oppressors…

This article was originally published by Rebel Notes on Wed 10 Jun 2020. Read the original here.

Don’t put them on a pedestal

Last Sunday, slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was daubed with paint, pulled to the ground, jumped on by joyful protesters, rolled along to the harbour and dumped in the River Avon. The events caused quite a splash. As Colston sunk ignominiously to the bottom, what rose to the surface was a long overdue national debate about statues that grace or rather disgrace our towns and cities, and reinforce a dominant history.

Here is someone writing on this issue five years ago with  some comments that are very pertinent for this moment: it’s Billy Bragg, in his foreword to the first edition of my book Rebel Footprints, a book which I had conceived of as a memorialisation of past struggles, in order to allow them to live and breathe in the present.

Billy Bragg wrote:

“Half way up Whitehall, there’s a massive equestrian statue in the middle of the road. A rotund figure sits astride his horse, nose in air, wearing a cocked hat, a field marshal’s uniform and sporting massive mutton chop sideburns. Inspection of the plinth reveals this to be George, Duke of Cambridge. No, me neither.

“He’s one of a number of marshal figures impeding the traffic down Whitehall, few of whom would be readily recognisable to the British public. Recent years have witnessed a laudable attempt to democratise this space, with statues to those who fought and served in the two world wars, but this is still a thoroughfare peopled with memorials to those who defended the British Empire

“Where are the statues to those who fought and struggled for the rights of the British people? Their memorials are all around us: the universal franchise; the eight hour day; the NHS. None of these great monuments bear the names of those who battled to win them.

“The stories of those men and women have been largely overlooked by imperial history…”

Billy Bragg mourned their absence and what could have filled that void: “…the strong tradition of dissent that has shaped our history and made us who we are.”There are certainly some statues in London (and other big cities) that could do with coming down. And the sooner the better. Whether we need to replace them, by putting up other individuals to be revered, to be literally placed on a pedestal, is another question completely.

Bragg with Rebel Footprints

I, myself signed a petition on the very day that Colston’s statue came down, urging the local authority to replace it with a true local hero – Paul Stephenson (on the right in the photo below)– who led the 1963 “Bristol Bus Boycott”. Black workers in Bristol were refused work despite a worker shortage due to a resolution passed by the Transport and General Workers’ Union. The boycott of the city’s buses lasted four months until the company backed down and abolished their discriminatory policy.

At the moment I signed the petition, it had just over 350 signatures. Three days later, as I write this blog, it has more than 38,000. Edward Beeston, who launched that petition wrote: “It is time Bristol moves forward with its history in the slave trade, acknowledging the evil committed and how it can educate its citizens about black history.”

There can be very few people who would publicly state that they think Colston’s statute should be recovered, refurbished and re-mounted. I  suspect that if a question was put to the general public, about whether new statues of other more deserving people should be put up to replace the rogue representatives of a deeply oppressive history that is currently commemorated, a majority would probably support that.

I can think of  several exceptional individuals that I celebrate in Rebel Footprints, who would be suitable candidates for new statues in London. They came from working class and marginalised communities, such as: the Black Chartist leader William Cuffay; or union activist Will Thorne who helped to win the 8-hour day for Gasworkers in 1889; Mary MacArthur who founded the National Federation of Women Workers; Melvina Walker, a cleaner who was a dedicated activist for the East London Federation of Suffragettes.

But personally, I still react instinctively against statues that invite us to look up to what Maya Angelou describes as “our heroes and she-roes”.

IMG_3766I actually prefer monuments to collective struggle such as the colourful and moving Cable Street mural, where you can almost hear the figures shouting and screaming, or the artistic monument to Spanish Civil War volunteers in Jubilee Gardens, both of which celebrate those who challenged fascism. Or the mural on the bridge on Dudden Hill Lane round the corner to the Grunwick Film processing factory in Willesden, where a strike committee headed by Jayaben Desai led a courageous battle by mainly female Asian workers in the late 1970s against super-exploitative and inhumane employers.

These are monuments that invite you to directly identify with lives and struggles that were lived then, on matters that continue to plague the world in the present. These monuments honour ordinary people who who took up the fight of the oppressed against the oppressors. They inform, educate and give inspiration to those who will fight for a better world, where slavery, exploitation and oppression have finally been consigned to the past.

Comments (10)

  • Pete Winstanley says:

    My letter in today’s Northern Echo:

    Congratulations to the 500 young people who turned out in Durham to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstration in response to the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by a US police officer.
    At the same time, a different group gathered in Durham Market Place, mistakenly believing there was a threat of vandalism against the statues there. They were joined by far-right extremists, who had falsely claimed that BLM protestors intended to attack the statues.
    There was no such threat, and the BLM demo was at Palace Green, not in the Market Place.
    The DLI memorial statue in the Market Place, unveiled in 2014, is superb and moving.
    But I’d be glad to see the back of the “man on the hoss” – the statue of Charles Vane Tempest, 3rd Marquis of Londonderry – though I’m not advocating its removal by force!
    Here’s what “Horrible Histories” author, Terry Deary had to say about him:
    “When the miners went on strike [in 1844], he said “get out of your cottages!” because they were tied houses, and “If anybody in the shops dares to supply the striking miners, you’re out too.” But who created all the wealth? It was the miners! Where’s their statue?”
    I’d like to see the Londonderry statue removed to a museum, where it belongs, and replaced by a statue of a miner with his family. Failing that, there should be a plaque on the plinth, explaining what Vane Tempest really stood for, with the miner’s family statue elsewhere in the Market Place, maybe in front of the Market Tavern, where the Durham Miners’ Association was founded in 1869.
    Pete Winstanley

  • Graeme Atkinson says:

    Worthy of public commemoration, IMHO:

    Aneurin Bevan
    May Hobbs
    Betty Tebbs
    Jennie Lee
    Ellen Wilkinson
    Sylvia Pankhurst
    Arthur Horner
    AJ Cook
    Michael Fenn
    Paul Robeson
    Will Paynter
    Michael McGahey
    David Jones and Joe Green
    Peter Heathfield
    Benny Rothman
    Sam Lesser
    The International Brigades
    The Pentonville Five
    Wal Hannington
    Chris Braithwaite
    Mohammed Taj
    Maurice Ludmer
    A.Sivanandan
    James Connolly
    John McLean
    Ida Hackett
    Ruth & Edmund Frow
    Peter Fryer
    Kevin Gately
    Blair Peach

    It will never happen, of course.

  • RH says:

    I can’t help feeling that the drowning of the Colston statue wasn’t particularly meaningful. You can’t erase history by feel-good party gestures.

    What you can do is change the perceptions of the present and future.

    Wouldn’t it be more effective to keep the statues as a reminder : and modify their context with imaginative addition?

  • Paul Smith says:

    ‘exceptional individuals’: How about Robert Wedderburn?

  • Dee Howard says:

    I do think the tearing down of Colson made a lot of people feel a lot better, after fighting to have it removed legally for some time without result. The ruling class have had it their own way for far too long. The time for a monument revolution is now as to quote a frequently heard call on demos in the past ‘The people united will never be defeated’..

  • Billie Dale Wakefield says:

    For Bristol I would suggest

    Mary Carpenter who set up a ‘ragged’ school in Bristol
    George Muller founder of Muller’s Orphanage
    Anthony Wedgewood Benn who served Bristol as an MP and changed the law regarding the ability to renounce a peerage
    A depiction of the Bristol Riots of 1834 which regarding the vote and removal of rotten peerages

  • Mike Scott says:

    I have to say I have a slightly different view to most socialists: I fully support pulling down statues of nasty people and could knock up a long list quite quickly. However, I don’t think they should be replaced, not by statues of other individuals, anyway.

    After all, it’s not only statues that have “feet of clay”. Even socialists have dark secrets and have done things they really shouldn’t have. There are no perfect heroes.

    As socialists and democrats, we shouldn’t be putting anyone on a pedestal, either actually or metaphorically – the good things we do ought to be enough recognition. As time moves on, our successors will replace us in the struggle for a better world and it’s right they should, though hopefully they will remember us as their forerunners.

    Who now can tell us who the most statues are? Who knows (or cares) why a school or public building was named after someone or other, however apparently deserving at the time?

    Let’s just ditch the whole statue/building name/birthday honours list, etc. now!

  • Janet Crosley says:

    I agree with Mike Scott. Most people are not completely good or bad. Groups of people also have a mixture of opinions, Just loose the statue culture, and fill it with art and gardening. Argue about that!

  • Eileen Stapleton says:

    We don’t need statues of anyone. Town museums and other public buildings are places where the endeavours of local people should be recorded and displayed, whether they were for the people or against. In Rochdale, where the Co-operative Movement was born, the original shop and museum tells a much better story than any monument could, attracting visitors from all over the world. It also continues the Founders’ ethos by reaching out to the community in times of need.

  • Horace Wilson says:

    Graeme Atkinson’s list contains some of those whom I have never heard of. Perhaps he elaborate upon their contribution to mankind.
    I notice he leaves out Jeremy Corbyn.

Comments are now closed.