We will save our history from “Woke” Militants

Colston replaced – Source: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Robert Jenrick has launched his campaign to protect our “National Story” by providing that any decision to remove heritage assets may become subject to the planning rules. These ultimately require the approval of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – currently no less than the very same Robert Jenrick MP.

His article on 16 January in The Telegraph suggests that his primary concern is the possible changes to monuments and street names, some of which are currently being reassessed where they commemorate some of the less glorious moments of our national story. He said:

Latterly there has been an attempt to impose a single, often negative narrative which, not so much recalls our national story as seeks to erase part of it. This has been done by the hand of the flash mob or by the decree of a “cultural committee” of town hall militants and woke worthies.  

I may be wrong, but the nearest example to a flash mob precipitating change of this kind took place in Bristol last Summer. Edward Colston was finally removed from his plinth, to be temporarily relocated in the Floating Harbour. He has since been retrieved, to be rehoused in a museum. In this particular case, Jenrick’s concern that “Local people ought to have the chance to be consulted on whether a monument should stand or not” may ring a little hollow. The public subscription to put the statue up in the 1890’s was met with overwhelming indifference. In contrast, the campaign to have him removed started 25 years ago and an argument about rewording the inscription on the plinth had been going on for several years. There were pretty clear signs that Colston had overstayed his welcome and now there is little appetite to restore him.      

The question is, why do we have statues in the first place?

Statues tell a simple story: people on plinths are role models. Mainly, they are there to celebrate people whom we regard as heroes to emulate and who demonstrate qualities that we should follow. But it is two edged. Donating considerable sums to charity, as Colston did, is obviously good: but making your money by slave trading is rather less so. Which aspect does that statue commemorate? As soon as it suggests the negative association, then we should be reconsidering its place in the pantheon.

The problem with history is that it must consider different interpretations of an event or a person, resulting in a range of perspectives. The same people can be traitors or freedom fighters, depending on where you stand. In 1688, James II, the lawful king, was deposed by William of Orange in what English history describes as the “Glorious Revolution” and one of the significant moments in “the national story”. There is perhaps a hint of irony that the Jacobite cause, which promptly become treasonable from 1689, flickered on until the rebellion of 1745, supported by a political party known as the Tories. That, of course, is not part of the National Story.

The trouble is that the “National Story” is less about history and more about mythology. It is the version of history that tells us what we like to hear about ourselves and it nurtures a self-image with which we feel comfortable. Problems arise when that image becomes increasingly detached from reality.

As a nation we delude ourselves

A middle ranking offshore European nation that thinks it still has an Empire is deluding itself. It will get a particularly unpleasant surprise if it takes those delusions back to its former colonies and expects to pick up where it left off. A nation that thinks of itself as populated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants but depends heavily on ethnic minorities and other immigrant groups for its key workers, may risk losing them – rediscovering the significance of the term “key worker”. A nation that thinks that it stood alone 80 years ago and saved mainland Europe will be upset to discover that those same nations on the mainland have become the richer and more socially minded. And it may come as a real shock when the nation itself begins to fragment because some parts of it were becoming increasingly alienated by a mythology to which they cannot relate.

It may seem a contradiction in terms, but history moves with the times. Churchill wrote sweeping visions of the rise of a British Empire on which the sun never set. That reality has well and truly changed as we watch Gibraltar join the Schengen and we leave Northern Ireland outside the UK single market. The “Woke” agenda, whatever that may be, may scare our current Government, but reality is inevitably going to overtake the mythology at some point.

Back in Bristol, in the aftermath of Colston’s removal, the Bristol History Commission has been set up to look rather more fundamentally at the sort of history that the city might wish to memorialise in its streets and statues. In the meantime, can we look forward to Mr Jenrick adding a new portfolio to his responsibilities as Minister for National Mythology?

Ed: Read what Eric wrote at the time of the statue toppling here.