The City of London Corporation have voted that the statues of two politicians in central London will be removed due to their links to the slave trade. The statues of Sir John Cass and William Beckford are currently in Guildhall. The City Corporation has stated that they are to replace the statues and are considering commissioning a new memorial to the slave trade in the area.
This is of course following the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in the Summer during the Black Lives Matter protests, and the conversation and debate caused in the aftermath. In fact, the City Corporation’s policy chair, Catherine McGuinness, credited the decision to their Tackling Racism Taskforce set up last June in response to the protests. The co-chair of the Tackling Racism Taskforce, Caroline Addy, stated that she was “really pleased” the decision was taken, calling it the “correct response to a sensitive issue”.
Someone who likely disagrees with the decision is Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, who recently brought in new legal protections meaning historic statues will be removed only in “the most exceptional circumstances”, which is set to come into place on Monday. The new law states that if a council intends to remove a statue and Historic England objects, Jenrick will be able to have the final decision. This is due to the fact that, according to Jenrick, Britain should not try and edit its past.
This of course makes very little sense. This was not an argument when, for example, statues of Hitler were taken down in post-war Germany – his statue and icons were removed because he was responsible for the deaths and suffering of millions of people. When Jimmy Saville was outed as a pedophile and serial abuser, his memorial statue was removed, and this was not argued against. This is not censoring history, it is realising that upholding and celebrating evil is something that a supposedly progressive (don’t laugh) country should not be doing.
When it comes to discerning between whether a statue should be toppled or whether it should stay, it should be a matter of historical continuity. To elaborate – if the statue represents an oppression that can still be felt today, as slavery and racism clearly and blatantly can be, then it should be removed. The statues of Cass and Beckford clearly fall under this definition.
Therefore, anti-racists should celebrate the removal of these statues, and continue to push for similar cultural victories. But we must also be cautious to celebrate too quickly, as the destruction of a statue will never destroy an idea that the statue represents. We can only destroy racism at its roots – by defeating colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. But victories like this are a start.