“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Far in the south of Vietnam lies the city of Can Tho, sitting near the mouth of the Mekong delta, the muddy brown waters of that majestic river washing past a hot humid city. Once a sleepy river port, Can Tho is now a fast-growing city of over a million people, the fourth largest city in Vietnam. On the banks of the Mekong, right in the heart of the city, a mighty golden statue of Ho Chi Minh towers over it. This statue, the tallest statue of Ho Chi Minh anywhere in the world, tells the city that was the last to surrender to the Viet Cong exactly who is in charge.
Statues are intensely political symbols. They are designed to be permanent statements to the people of authority and values. Forever, is, as Prince wisely observed, a mighty long time. That means that you either need to be very sure that your power is going to be permanent or that your statement is going to be permanently accepted, or at least acceptable, if you want your statue to stay up indefinitely.
All around the world you can find the traces of toppled statues. A statue of George III was pulled off its pedestal in Manhattan in 1776. The Bolsheviks destroyed the monument to Alexander II in 1918. Salazar’s statue in the city of his birth was blown up with dynamite in Portugal in 1974. The Taliban destroyed statues of Buddha in 2001. Saddam Hussein’s statue was torn down in 2003. Cecil Rhodes fell in Cape Town in 2015. In each case, opponents had achieved sufficient power to clear the hated icon from public space.
Pulling down statues is often not conducted by public vote, but by brute force or mob rule. Why is this? Statues are designed to be permanent. Public spaces are the responsibility of public authorities. Public authorities operate within the orthodoxy in which that assumed permanence was established. It is relatively rare for public authorities to shift so dramatically in their points of view that they abandon allegiance to a previously-held orthodoxy without a discontinuity in the powerbase of that authority. In other words, if a new political force has not swept to power at an election (or by other means), any action taken in relation to statues is going to have been taken on an impromptu basis – ie by a mob.
So what we saw in Bristol is, in the context of statue-toppling, pretty normal. It’s also a sign that something has gone very wrong. For it shows that Bristol has been unable to reach an accommodation that satisfies a broad consensus of its civic society sufficiently to deal with the matter in an orderly way. This assault on the statue of Edward Colston did not come from a clear blue sky: there had been a long-standing campaign against it, to which the city authorities had paid little regard.
There was absolutely no sign of any meaningful attempt to address the reasoned concerns of campaigners, or even to give reasoned objections. There had been discussion about updating the inscription on the statue, but even this modest step had been stymied. The Monument, when erected, was inscribed with an anti-Catholic conspiracy theory. This was chiselled out in 1830, following Catholic emancipation. But Bristol in 2020 was not as able to move with the times as 19th century London.
If the statue had not been tossed in the water this week, it would probably have stood there indefinitely. You might well think such direct action is not just unlawful, but wrong. But if, as the protesters no doubt sincerely believed, the statue was a standing affront that was not going to be dealt with, this was an opportunity too good to be missed. If not then, when?
In a democracy with a complex and long past, how should we approach our civic public statements? We need to differentiate between what is already installed and what is under consideration. Public sculptures under consideration should at the very least command the acceptance of a broad section of the public and not be actively offensive to a substantial minority. This is not a difficult test, though it risks blandness or a retreat into meaningless abstraction. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has been successful precisely because it has been able to confront public perceptions for short periods. There is much to be said for impermanent public art.
Meanwhile, Britain is already strewn with public statuary erected to figures distinguished, undistinguished and sometimes completely forgotten, of varying qualities of artistic merit. Much of it spoke to a Britain that long since vanished. The great age of statue-erecting in Britain was the late nineteenth century. Empire was something that Britain’s inhabitants did, not something that was done to them. Many of those honoured then would nowadays struggle to pass vetting for a UKIP parliamentary candidacy.
What test should we apply when deciding which statues we should retain? I suggest that the test we should apply is whether someone’s fame is directly derived from what we now regard as crimes or whether their crimes are merely incidental to their achievements. Heroes may have feet of clay. They cannot be corrupt to the core.
Applying this test to some of the statues argued about this week, Rhodes must fall and Clive’s statue should be moved, but Churchill, Nelson and Earl Grey would all survive. Cromwell and Smuts would need to be argued over carefully. Cromwell would perhaps appreciate the irony, given his own rule coincided with England’s most intense period of statue-destruction. At least we should be able to move the most controversial statues to designated parks and museums where their historical context could be considered coolly.
Curiously, one man who would probably have been satisfied with his fall from his pedestal was Edward Colston himself. In his will he had stated that he wished to be buried simply without pomp. He shared this wish in common with Ho Chi Minh, who also did not want any statue erected of himself. One day, no doubt, Uncle Ho will get his wish too. The dead should be left to rest in peace.