Letter from London: A sense of proportion is critical for proper debate

A sense of proportion is critical for proper debate

Paul Finch, 22 June 2020

The mayors of Bristol and London, black and Asian respectively, have acted with some dignity in relation to the vexed issue of statue removal; both have criticised (to an extent) illegal removal, but have nevertheless expressed support for the sentiments that set off the debate about them. There is a strong case for removal of some statues from their public realm locations in my view, but there needs to be a proper discussion about how to proceed, rather than leaving it to head-bangers enjoying a summer punch-up.

The review of all statues and monuments in London will be a fascinating exercise, not least because the public has little knowledge of, or interest in, many of those memorialised. When he was mayor, Ken Livingstone suggested that a number should be replaced because they were military figures he had never heard of. Creating policy on the basis of ignorance seemed unwise.

Most people outside Bristol have never heard of Edward Colston and wouldn’t have been able to say one way or the other whether he made is money from slave-trading. His statue exists because of his philanthropic work for Bristol and its citizens, not because, as it were, he won the ‘Slave-trader of the year’ award. Most Bristolians have plenty to think or worry about rather than angsting about a statue that has been there a long time.

Nevertheless, if a significant part of the local community finds it offensive, then there must be case for its removal – probably to another home. As some black commentators have noted, complete destruction serves no great purpose, becoming gestural and rewriting history only in the Stalinist manner: if somebody vanishes, they don’t count. But Colston was an important figure whose history needs to be understood.

Destruction of monuments regarded as politically incorrect has, most recently, been the province of Isis terrorists, with their mindless removal of artefacts of extraordinary cultural value to historians of past millennia. This is a miserable precedent for a policy of extreme vandalism masquerading as principled behaviour in respect of our own memorials

The current statues debate and its context again remind of Macaulay’s dictum, quoted here only recently but worth repetition: ‘We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.’ This has resulted, among other things, in the sick-making behaviour of white careerists jumping on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon, with statements and apologies generating a catalogue of unctuous cant.

Always beware virtue-signallers, the first in line to sign up, sport a badge, even ‘take a knee’. Harvey Weinstein was a leading supporter of women in Hollywood until he was uncovered for what he was.

Let’s have a proper debate about statues, while noting that they are a side issue to real questions about equality of opportunity and the concomitant dilemmas of  meritocracy, even if it is colour-blind. Happily, we can have the discussion with contributions from a Labour Party freeing itself from the poisonous anti-Semitism of Momentum and its political frontmen.

The PRIBA should do the right thing

The Alan Jones affair, it turns out, was pretty much a storm in a teacup and should have been handled differently by all concerned. Unfortunately, that includes the president himself, who on his own admission was less than frank in his initial account to RIBA officers of what occurred.

Although back in office, the president is soiled goods and will spend the rest of his term, if he concludes it, under a cloud.

He could do the institute and members a final service: hand over to the new president-elect in the autumn and quietly depart.

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