I applaud the Bristol protest

I feel compelled to write this article after reading an opposing op-ed around ‘mob rule’ regarding the toppling of the Edward Colston statue last weekend. I personally haven’t commented on the actions of the Bristol protest thus far, today I want to say I applaud and stand with those who acted on Sunday.

Let me be honest and frank; at first, I was in two minds about the actions of the protest. I wasn’t sure if these were the ‘correct’ actions on the day, then I realised something, and it’s something we all have to…It’s not my place as a white male to dictate how anyone should feel about a statue of a man who profiteered from the slave trade.

For the people spouting its historical significance in the media, let me say this. We record history in books and museums, statues are built with one purpose to venerate and glorify its subject. I personally don’t see there’s a debatable position on this; he profiteered from the suffering and enslavement of people! I really couldn’t care if he subsequently bequeathed said ill-gotten gains to parts of Bristol…it’s blood money, pure and simple!

Civil disobedience has an important place when all other methods fail. It’s why we honour the Suffragette movement, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. After all Dr King said, ‘One has a moral duty to disobey unjust laws.’

The people of Bristol had campaigned vigorously for years to have the statue removed, and it remained in place. The reality is unless it was removed by force, it was never going to come down, and these actions have spurred real action and real debate into our statues and historical whitewashing.

This is just the start; we must come to terms with the legacy of the British Empire, and we have to begin to teach our role in the world accurately.

Here’s the good news, we now have an excellent opportunity to replace on that plinth someone worth our admiration and reverence. Someone perhaps who led the charge in fighting racism, I’ll leave that decision with the people of Bristol.

* I'm a Liberal Democrat member having joined last year from Labour, I was previously Chair and Founder of the YF Devolution and Local Government Committee

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28 Comments

  • Tom O’Brien 10th Jun '20 - 1:56pm

    Like you I am in two minds when it comes to breaking the law. But in Bristol there has been a campaign to remove the statue for some time and as far as I know Colston’s claim-to-fame was his wealth built on the slave trade. I have no problem with removing the statue. That is was down by a mob is a consequence of the fact that representations did not work and the specific circumstances and emotions around #BlackLivesMatter. That should not mean that suddenly all statues of people with some connection with slavery, or who just lived in a time when slavery was a substantial element of economic activity around the world. Francis Drake May have started his life trading slaves; he was also a pirate, albeit under license of the crown. Yet he has also undeniably performed a great service to the UK by defeating the Armada. Lord Nelson served as a naval officer in the Caribbean defending a slave-based sugar industry against the French and bands of former slaves, amongst others (he also tried to marry into a plantation family). These were the circumstances of his times. Should we now tear down Nelson’s Column because of that?

    Slavery was the basis of ancient “civilisations”, if the development of Islam, of life in Africa, Russia, and elsewhere. I don’t want to equate the particularly nasty aspects of the Atlantic slave trade with other forms of servitude, but humans have exploited other humans for eons. Attitudes to humans suffering have changed relatively recently. Empathy of others outside ones family and close acquaintances really only become more widespread 250 years ago. It seems more useful to use our relatively recently developed empathy for others to understand mistakes of the past and to work to improve the welfare of people today.

  • John Marriott 10th Jun '20 - 1:59pm

    How many more articles are we going to get about iconoclasm? Yes, I’m sure many people feel a whole lot better for what happened in Bristol and might yet happen in Oxford. However, as I wrote in another thread, gestures are no real substitute for positive action. Well, I suppose it takes some of our minds off the virus, the lockdown, the economy, why our children can’t go to school, and why we can’t have a pint in the pub, go to a football match or jet off to the sun. I’m just waiting for the right wing backlash, which is bound to occur sooner rather than later. It’s all so predictable.

  • Simple answer do not build or erect any future statues fro as sure as night follows day future generations will look upon us as backward and inhumane, such is life as it moves on. Avoid hostages to fortune.

  • John Marriott 10th Jun '20 - 2:42pm

    Paul,
    I wonder just how many people of any ‘colour’ walked past that statue and knew precisely who Mr Colston actually was and what he did. I also wonder how many of them, even if they actually knew, were that bothered and, indeed, had other things to worry about.

  • Andrew Toye 10th Jun '20 - 4:16pm

    The decision to erect the Colston statue in 1895, many years after his death, says a lot about the late Victorian period, and was itself an attempt to erase history. His philanthropy was emphasised rather than the slave trade, and for the poor to be grateful for the small mercies of Tory paternalism rather than aspire for better wages, working conditions and a welfare state. Colston replaced a statue to Edmund Burke at the same location. Times change.

  • “It’s not my place as a white male to dictate how anyone should feel about a statue of a man who profiteered from the slave trade.”
    Well, it isn’t your place to “dictate” to anyone how they should feel period. You may want to persuade someone if you think their emotional response to something is not sensible. From your piece I’m not sure if you would consider yourself entitled to engage if you were to meet a black man who wanted to maintain the statue, would you be prevented from attempting to change their mind on the basis of your skin colour?
    What we do in the UK is have law that “dictate” the limits of action. It is important not to conflate the two.

    “The people of Bristol had campaigned vigorously for years to have the statue removed, and it remained in place.”
    No, a campaign had existed and most people if asked would have liked it removed. Apparently it was owned by a local society, who had resisted removing it. In all seriousness removing a statue even, if it is privately owned, is something a council could have achieved legally with sufficient drive to do so (even if it can be a legalistic administrative pain in the backside). Tellingly both Labour and the LibDems have controlled Bristol Council and neither found sufficient will.

  • Douglas beckley 10th Jun '20 - 7:19pm

    The LibDems can’t really do much about the past. You can grizzle about it and pull symbolic stunts like knocking down a statue.

    Tell you what.

    Epiphany time.

    Why not as a party, declare war on present-day slavery instead? By that, I don’t mean, get cross, issue a strongly-worded statement, really-really-really disapprove of it. Or, have an international conference leading to commitments to future cooperation to investigate ways in which you can talk about having a really effective future conference issuing another strongly-worded statement ‘with our partners and allies’.

    Courageous politicians did it in the past. It can happen again. As a party, put your blood, sweat and tears where your alleged principles are, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty on this one. Make it plain unambiguous policy you will fight to end present-day slavery wherever it exists on the globe? Don’t wait for ‘allies’ to join in. Just do it. You were searching for a flagship policy after all?

    Unless waffling on about statues of people barely anyone has previously heard of is, y’know, cutting-edge activism, of course?

  • Brian Edmonds 10th Jun '20 - 7:44pm

    I’ve seldom read more self-important tosh, even on this forum. Invoking Dr King is a facile and disgraceful misuse of a serious point – what laws were in play to keep the indefensible statue in place, and exactly what does the author think is unjust about the law of criminal damage? The events in Bristol were the actions of a mob, and counter to all the best principles we stand for as a society. It is so easy to ride a bandwagon of sanctimonious outrage, but recourse to violence in demonstrations says everything about those who perpetrate it – and those who jump to sanctify it – and nothing about the cause itself.
    Talking of white males, when will someone notice that the first to jump on the downed statue in Bristol were, yes, white males. We know who they are, the usual suspects: they were camped in a tree at the new by-pass; at the hunt sabotage; the animal testing lab; the sit down at St Paul’s; the climate protests, and every other chance to harness their appetite for a good scrap to the latest expression of justifiable indignation.
    It’s very disappointing that the editors considered this piece worthy of posting. At its heart is the simplest of fallacies – attempting to use the justice of the cause to validate the protestors’ actions. We need mature, thought -through ideas, not more excuses to ride the warm glow of paraded virtue.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 11th Jun '20 - 9:04am

    Supporting the destruction of the Edward Colston statue panders to the Tory’s current doctrine that we live under the rule-of-instinct and not rule-of-law. Dominic Cummings was right to go to Durham because he was following the instinct of a father. The protestors were right to pull down a monument because this was their instinct as activists. What other rules will be broken on the grounds that one personal instinct or another supercedes the law? British cities are littered with monuments to racists and colonial monsters, depicted as conquerers and civilisers strutting the global stage. Britain should now follow the example of India which took them down and put them in Coronation Park in Delhi, open to the public, while replacing them with figures more suited to the Indian mindset. Monuments are important, but they do need to be routinely refreshed.

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Jun '20 - 9:22am

    @Humphrey Hawksley
    “What other rules will be broken on the grounds that one personal instinct or another supercedes the law? ”

    When the law clearly applies to everyone and not just to particular sectors of society there might be less justification for breaking it in some circumstances. As it is people are being expected – by the likes of Dominic Cummings – to folow the principle of “don’t do as I do – do as I say”. Which stinks.

    “British cities are littered with monuments to racists and colonial monsters, depicted as conquerers and civilisers strutting the global stage. Britain should now follow the example of India which took them down and put them in Coronation Park in Delhi, open to the public, while replacing them with figures more suited to the Indian mindset. Monuments are important, but they do need to be routinely refreshed.”

    Yes

  • John Marriott 11th Jun '20 - 9:23am

    Not “patronising”, Paul, just being realistic. Of course Prof Olusoga would feel that way, I’ve seen his programmes on TV and recognise where he’s coming from, and I’m sure that many people of various ethnicities would feel the same way. I stand by my original remark. Sorry if it doesn’t fit into what Germans call your ‘Weltanschauung’. As my old dad used to say; “It takes all sorts…….”.

    The death of George Floyd at the hands of that Minneapolis polIce officer was disgusting, as was, for example, that of Christopher Alder in that police station in Hull a couple of decades ago as are all deaths in custody and elsewhere at the hands of people, who are supposed to be protecting us. However, at a time of crisis from a far more potentially lethal foe than racism, now is not a good time to get agitated. It’s time to get your priorities right.

  • Zigurds Kronbergs 11th Jun '20 - 9:58am

    I agree with Brian Edmonds and continue to be astonished how many Liberal Democrats approve of the attack on the Colston statue. Don’t we believe in the rule of law? Is it really acceptable for individuals to damage or destroy private or public property simply because they disapprove of whom or what it commemorates? What will you say when hard-right demonstrators start trashing statues or monuments of which they disapprove?
    Is there racism in this country? Yes. Should we take serious steps to eradicate it? Yes. Should we waste time on statues? No.
    But then I’m only another white male, and middle-aged to boot.

  • John Marriott 11th Jun '20 - 10:04am

    And another thing. ‘Black lives matter’, ‘Take back control’, ‘Get Brexit done’ – just a few of the slogans that have resonated in the national psyche and yet really have little substance behind them any more. Perhaps we could add slogans like ‘Stay alert’ to that pantheon of platitudes. ALL lives matter, that’s why we had lockdown. We have ‘control‘ already, the problem being that many of us don’t know how to exercise it, because we can’t be bothered to vote. Brexit will never be ‘done’; its legacy will haunt us in different, often very subtle, ways for decades.

    Sorry; but the same applies in my book to pulling down statues and clapping for the NHS, arguably noble acts in themselves that, however, do little to solve the problem. What we really want to see is a change of attitude towards all races and all forms of discrimination and a willingness to fund our public services properly.

  • My first reaction is that we have laws in this country. This means there is a machinery for deciding guilt or innocence as part of due process. The process of course involves a decision by the appropriate people whether to prosecute. I am unhappy about people wanting to prejudge on the basis of what they see on television.
    However having read the contributions I read the one referring to modern slavery. I very much welcome the idea that eliminating this should be a priority for us. We should start with slavery in this country. Cases are periodically brought to our attention in the media. We need to face the fact that we do not have a civilised society while the conditions which allow this to happen persist.

  • Robert (Bristol) 11th Jun '20 - 11:27am

    Maybe it is time we stopped putting up statues to named individuals in the first place. Sooner or later something dodgy about them may come to light and make the thing inappropriate. We could for instance mark the scout movement without overly venerating Baden-Powell.

  • Peter Martin 11th Jun '20 - 12:47pm

    “to replace on that plinth someone worth our admiration and reverence. Someone perhaps who led the charge in fighting racism…..”

    How about an ex-MP who represented a Bristol constituency for many years and has a good record in this respect? How about Tony Benn ? 🙂

  • We, mostly, ‘have’ the history we were taught at school… At school my textbooks paised ‘Clive of India’ as a hero..

    It came as a surprise to read “hen Robert Clive, who established British rule in India, died by his own hand in 1774, he was widely reviled as one of the most hated men in England” His body was buried in a secret night-time ceremony, in an unmarked grave, without a plaque. Clive left no suicide note, but Samuel Johnson reflected the widespread view as to his motives: Clive “had acquired his fortune by such crimes that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat”.
    Clive’s death followed soon after two whistleblowers had revealed the scale of the devastation and asset-stripping of Bengal under his rule. “We have murdered, deposed, plundered and usurped,” wrote Horace Walpole. “Say what think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three millions perished, being caused by a monopoly of the provisions by the East India Company?” That summer, a satire was published in London lampooning Clive as Lord Vulture, an unstable imperial harpy, “utterly deaf to every sentiment of justice and humanity… whose avarice knows no bounds”.

    So much for the ‘hero’ and my knowledge of history!

  • @ expats You’ll be visiting Shrewsbury then, Expats ?

  • David Raw 11th Jun ’20 – 1:37pm…………[email protected] expats You’ll be visiting Shrewsbury then, Expats ?……………

    No plans, at the moment, David…However, such information puts things into perspective…I’m not offended by his statue but I can understand that someone raised in Bengal and taught about their famine could feel less than enthusiastic about him ‘staring’ down every day from a place of honour..

    Too often Shakespeare’s, ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.’ is the opposite of what happens..

  • I applaud the Bristol protests too. It’s good to see people getting behind calls for justice. Mind you if they had shunned social distancing to have a barbeque on a beach or something all the headlines would have been about lockdown flouters

  • @ Joseph Bourke “Clive of India was a sociopathic thug”. Well, just fancy that, Joe.

    I wish they’d told us that at Birkenshaw Church of England Primary School, circa 1947-52.. especially when we ‘celebrated’ Empire Day, most of the Map was pink, we sang God Save the King, and got tested on our knowledge of the Catechism.

    They didn’t, of course. They gave us G.A. Henty to read, told us how brave Clive and Wolfe of Quebec were, how and how much the native peoples of the Empire loved the King. No wonder so many folk ended up voting Brexit.

    I wish the penny would finally drop with some folk that the agenda with the Tories is always going to be, ‘it’s the rich wot gets the pleasure and the poor wot gets the blame’.

    Just can’t wait for Boris to say one more time , ‘This great country of ours’……. when, and if,he ever turns up that is.

  • Tony Greaves 11th Jun '20 - 10:42pm

    Good posting. Like David Raw, and not so far away, we learned about the Imperial heroes such as Clive and Wolfe, though oddly enough Rhodes had to wait for secondary school some years later. But in 1960 when I turned up at Oxford to read geography we still had to go to lectures on the “History of Discovery” of Africa. We did however learn at secondary school about the slave trade, though it was hidden under the euphemism of “Triangle Trade”. And despite the patronising and white supremacist explanation of how “trinkets and baubles” were used to bribe simple-minded local African chiefs to gather up and hand over whole families to be forcibly transported across the Atlantic, we were able to make up our own minds (with the help of some admirably progressive staff) of the ethical basis of it all. Are kids nowadays taught about the slave trade at all (other than more British heroes who campaigned to abolish it?)

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jun '20 - 6:26pm

    Further problems today, in London. The mayor is trying to calm things down. What would a previous mayor have done? What would a candidate for mayor have said or done? Winston Churchill’s daughter has commented, but where would we have been without him? He did make a case for having a long political career without taking a peerage.

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