Britain Struggles with Debate Over History

16 June 2020

Across Britain, statues of famous people are at the center of a public debate.

Activists say statues honoring some political or business leaders from the past should be removed from public places. But other people say these monuments should be kept, not destroyed, for the lessons they teach.

Many statues were put up during the years of the British Empire, between 1830 and 1914. Now, some of them are at the center of angry debates over culture and history. These arguments have turned violent and destructive in some cases.

Some monuments are being guarded to prevent damage from activists. For example, a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London's Parliament Square has been covered up to protect against damage.

In the town of Poole, police officers have been guarding a statue of Robert Baden Powell 24-hours a day. Baden Powell was the founder of the Scouts movement. For a short period before World War II, he wrote approvingly of then-German leader Adolf Hitler.

Last Saturday, there were clashes near the statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson in London's Trafalgar Square. Officers tried to separate far-right activists from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of the dispute was over statues and memorials to the past. Nelson was a famous naval officer.

Activists who say they oppose racism want many statues removed.

One example is the statue of Robert Milligan, a businessman from Jamaica who lived in the 1700s. He also owned hundreds of slaves. His statue was removed this month.

Earlier, activists in Bristol removed a statue of businessman Edward Colston, a slave trader, and threw it in waters at the city's seaport. Colston built schools and housing for the poor in the 1700s. But his trading company carried thousands of African slaves to Caribbean islands and the Americas.

FILE - The statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston falls into the water after protesters pulled it down during a protest against racial inequality, in Bristol, Britain, June 7, 2020. (Keir Gravil via Reuters)
FILE - The statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston falls into the water after protesters pulled it down during a protest against racial inequality, in Bristol, Britain, June 7, 2020. (Keir Gravil via Reuters)

For supporters of Black Lives Matters, the Colston statue was evidence of Britain's past ties to the slave trade. The killing of George Floyd by a white policeman in the United States fueled their desire to destroy the statue, which they said represents racial oppression.

In a dramatic move, one protester placed his knee on the bronze throat of the statue before it was thrown into the water. He appeared to copy the action of the police officer accused of killing Floyd.

Historian David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian newspaper: "The crowd who saw to it that Colston fell were of all races, but some were descendants of the enslaved black and brown Bristolians whose ancestors" were chained on Colston's ships.

Some want statues defended

Many Britons probably pay little attention to the statues of national leaders like Churchill or businessmen like Colston.

But some say the statues representing the past should be defended and even celebrated. Earlier this month, hundreds of people showed up in several cities. They claimed to be trying safeguard historic statutes and war memorials. Dennis Smith came to defend the statues. He told reporters, "If it wasn't for people like Winston Churchill, we wouldn't be here today speaking English." Churchill led Britain against Germany in World War II.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently wrote that the war-time leader "was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial." Johnson added, "We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations."

The statues teach us about the past "with all its faults," he said.

Johnson and his ministers are now talking about legislation that would make it a criminal act to damage historic and war memorials. But, that is unlikely to silence the debate about such public works.

That is because not only activists but reporters, politicians, historians and colleges are involved in a heated exchange about the statues and how best to teach history.

Changing history

James Holland is a historian. Writing for Sky News, Holland noted that, "Pulling down statues is nothing new, nor is the changing of street names or even those of cities and countries." He added that many people cheered when signs of Nazi Germany, statues of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein were pulled down.

But others argue that these are not fair comparisons.

Recently, Chris Paten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, defended the statue of Cecil Rhodes on Oriel College. He told students campaigning to remove the statue that they should prepare to accept freedom of thought or "think about being educated elsewhere."

Rhodes led powerful colonial mining interests in southern Africa in the late nineteenth century. However, many people say his ideas of race were unfair. His defenders note that he created the Rhodes Scholarships, which do not discriminate against race. Hundreds of the scholarships have been given since 1902, the year Rhodes died.

Daniel Hannan is a newspaper reporter and a former politician. He said Rhodes was far from perfect. But he criticized those targeting him and other historic persons. He said there is something easy and narcissistic about showing "moral superiority" over someone who died more than 100 years ago and who upheld the values of their time.

Times newspaper reporter Janice Turner noted that other generations were different and less likely to have friends of other races. She said "the youthful fire of demonstrators" can bring real change. But she warned that cultural disagreement "threatens to become a street battle."

Trevor Philips is a former chairman of Britain's Racial Equality and Human Rights Commission. He also warned about the current culture debate, noting it could become a "struggle for the right to describe the world without" being questioned or contradicted.

I'm Mario Ritter, Jr.

Jamie Dettmer reported this story for VOANEWS. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

lesson – n. an opportunity or activity that teaches something

far-right – adj. describes people or views that are extreme and opposite those commonly called far-left

dramatic – adj. attracting attention

descendants –n. someone who is related to someone who lived in the past

pretend –v. to act as though something is true when it is not

fault –n. a weakness or bad quality in someone

scholarship – n. an amount of money given by a school, organization or individual to pay for a deserving student's education

narcissistic –adj. thinking of yourself too much and too little of others

contradicted adj. to say something that is not in agreement with what others say