On statues being pulled down and our response

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What should we do with people who tear down public statues? Apply restorative justice techniques.

As Liberal Democrats, I hope we all agree that the statue of Edward Colston should have been removed from its location a long time ago: it represented a very public promotion of someone whose wealth was built from vile acts.

In the back of our minds should be another question – what if a different statue had been pulled down? One where we didn’t quite agree whether it should still be there or not? Where the rights and wrongs of the person’s life weren’t as clear cut? Or where we didn’t feel there was a clear consensus?

More plainly: should we support those committing these acts being prosecuted or not?

We either take the punitive approach – a crime is a crime; or we allow it to pass, with the risk that mob rule ensues on any viewpoint that can get enough people together.

I don’t think we should take either view: we should apply a restorative justice approach to these acts.

In restorative justice, victims and perpetrators are, consensually, brought to together to discuss the act and what can come out of it. The aim is to find a better solution than punishment. There is evidence to show that, for a certain range of crimes, this approach results in much better outcomes for both sides and society.

How would this map onto the Bristol example? In normal restorative justice, the standard two sides in this case would be:

  • The perpetrator: the people who pulled the statue down
  • The direct ‘victim’: those responsible for the statue

Where it would differ from standard direction action is there would be more than two sides; to those you’ve got to add:

  • Black people’s collective consciousness: so some representation from the black community
  • The small-c conservative response: that it’s ‘mob mentality’ and it should be put back in some form

So we’d have to bring some representatives from all these sides together to discuss not just how the immediate act impacted on them, but also how the inaction impacted them in the first place.

This approach could be applied to numerous other areas: Extinction Rebellion’s road blocks and non violent direct action against airport expansion are but two examples that come to mind.

The important point is to avoid the division between “these people must be punished” and “action was needed” and to build a positive outcome together.

A colleague made the point to me that this issue goes way beyond just statues, into a “very discreet fabric that permeates our society”, one we need to constantly call out.

Together building positive consensuses for the future, acknowledging and tackling this fabric, is the best way out of a dark past.

* Ian Manning is a Liberal Democrat County Councillor on Cambridgeshire County Council, currently his group's lead on the Highways & Transport Committee, and was first elected in 2010.

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  • I understand that Baden-Powell’s statue in Poole is now in the cross hairs, so Ian was spot on when he wrote about less clear cut cases.
    In my view his approach, of bringing groups together to reach some kind of a consensus, is the only civilized way forward. My fear is that weak authorities, fearful of getting on the wrong side of “public opinion”, will tear down every statue of a person who led a less than perfect life and that this will provoke a right wing back lash. Who will benefit if in our haste to “do the right thing” we simply hand an opportunity to the Yaxley-Lennon’s of this world ?

  • Ian is right about ‘inclusive talking’ being the right approach; but that talking should happen instead of or before a statue is removed !
    I‘m not sure how criminal justice should deal with people if they take the law into their own hands. But I think the emphasis ought to be on making sure where that where removal happens it happens after some inclusive community process. I would be wary of implying it was ok just to do it and talk about it afterwards.

  • Joseph – I share the frustration you express at empty gestures, and I think the approach I outlined could well stop that being such.

    Several years ago I was working patiently to get the County Council into a position to divest from fossil fuels in its pension fund. This was a council with (then) Conservative and UKIP groups, and I was trying to subtely, and with their buy in, remove some of the fiduciary duty barriers.

    Was doing this with a sensible member of a local campaign group; unfortunately that group decided they wanted a headline grabbing stunt and went to the City Council and got both groups (Labour and LD) to pass a motion saying they’d divest. There were two outcomes:

    1) My efforts were nixed as the UKIP and Tories got wind of this
    2) Nothing was divested as the City council pension fund was administered by the County

    but still, they got a nice headline…

  • Peter Martin 11th Jun '20 - 2:36pm

    @ JoeB,

    Adding quotations is fine providing you have something to say for yourself. Your last comment is just about all quotations.

    If you are of the opinion that tearing down public statues is a bad thing, or even that the perpetrators deserve some jail time, that is of course fair enough. But at least have the courage to explain why in your own words, rather than deferring to someone else!

  • Peter Martin 11th Jun '20 - 3:15pm

    I noticed the phrase “headline grabbing stunts” in Joe’s quotations. The argument is that real problems are being ignored while we all are sidetracked talking about sodden statues.

    And yet, since the forced removal of the statue, we’ve more discussion of problems of poverty and racial disadvantage in a the last four days than in the last four years. This time last week hardly anyone outside Bristol would have heard about the Colston controversy or his statue, or about the same about Rhodes, Baden Powell or Robert Clive. We’ve all spent far too much time being obsessed with Brexit to the exclusion of everything else. That has been the real distraction.

    It’s only not been a good thing for those who don’t really want the problem tackled effectively. It’s been swept under the carpet for many years, and that’s where they want it to stay. But, of course they can’t say that so they have to come up with some other angle!

  • Brian Edmonds 11th Jun '20 - 4:22pm

    @ Peter Martin:
    Wrong: The discussion of the real and pressing issue was prompted by the huge and largely peaceful demonstrations. The statue stunt simply got people talking about pulling down statues. Incidentally, the photo at the top of this article proves conclusively what I said in my comment on David McKenzie’s piece: the perpetrators in Bristol were not those with a right to be offended, but a bunch of white males. When will everyone admit that they are just the usual suspects – happy to ride the bandwagon of vicarious outrage. They clearly arrived tooled-up for the task, ready to harness their appetite for a good scrap to an otherwise just cause. How on earth can their actions be morally valid?

  • Peter Martin 11th Jun '20 - 6:40pm

    @ Brian,

    Of course the question of peaceful demos vs direct action is a matter of opinion. I personally doubt we’d have had half a dozen posts on LDV, plus lots of mainstream media attention, if we’d just seen the former. We’ve seen plenty of them and they are usually quickly forgotten. The memory of the statue being thrown into the river will be with us for ever.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “the right to be offended”? Are you saying that only people of colour are entitled to feel offended by racism? And that we “white males” should stay out of it?

  • It’s regrettable, in my opinion, that so much energy has been diverted into discussing the rights and wrongs of pulling down statues … rather than paying greater attention to the underlying racial injustices which motivated the protests in the first place.

  • Hi Sean, part of the point of my suggestion is it allows for that discussion to happen.

  • David Evershed 11th Jun '20 - 9:36pm

    If the Liberal Democrats support lawless mobs deciding which public monuments to destroy then they will have lost what’s left of their electorate.

  • Genuine question – who is the victim when those “responsible for the statue” may have long gone? For someone like Baden-Powell, perhaps the Scout Association? What about Gladstone? Is it us perhaps, the Conservatives, neither?

    Aside from that I agree with the questions asked here and Chris Cory’s post. While I don’t think anyone is shedding a tear for Edward Colson’s statue there are so many less clear cut cases and I worry that authorities will take the line of least resistance to avoid upsetting the mob, only to cause a right wing backlash.

  • Tony Greaves 11th Jun '20 - 10:31pm

    This thread seems somewhat lacking in any understanding of the deep problems and ethnic, historic and cultural grievances that lie behind the astonishing wave of reactions and actions following the murder of George Floyd. These reactions and actions are not about the USA, they are about this country, its imperial history and continuing treatment of its citizens and residents. If we do not understand that and make radical changes now, we will have only ourselves to blame when matters get worse.

  • The only poll taken since the weekend shows the Tories 6% ahead again. My guess is if there are anymore attacks on the police, statues and public buildings this weekend that will rise. Meanwhile the Labour leader is seen taking the knee and a Lib Dem council leader is trying to organize the removal of the Baden-Powell statue. I’ve just heard that Churchill’s statue and the Cenotaph are being boarded up and that Baden-Powells statue is being protect by ex-scouts/guides. If you are on the side of the people attacking these monuments you are very unlikely to win elections.

  • Andrew Daer 12th Jun '20 - 5:04am

    There seems fairly broad agreement that this bout of iconoclasm misses the point about present day racism. I would go further and say we are projecting our own guilt into the object we dump into the water, which is satisfying at an unconscious level, but not of much practical use in the external world. The perpetrators looked extraordinarily joyful, considering their gesture was aimed at a man who is hardly likely to change his business model now, having been dead for two hundfred years. Telling black people we definitely think 18th Century slavery was wrong could be regarded as a bit unnecessary (it was outlawed in 1811) but it does reinforce the message that black lives matter. In that particular case, the statue is going to go into a museum with a sutably worded message to visitors, but I wonder what will really have changed. Prior to this, visitors didn’t flock to Bristol to glorify the former slave trader, and those of us who live here know full well that the city was built with money from the slave trade.
    Our nation has a history, not all of it good. We can’t erase it.

  • Andrew Daer 12th Jun '20 - 8:32am

    If those protesters had dropped their iPhones into the floating harbour they would have shown solidarity with living people in China, slaves who are out of sight and out of mind. However, that would have meant real personal sacrifice, rather than a short, jolly romp.
    I’m also dubious about reminding black people they used to be slaves. Saying it was morally wrong to transport people across the sea in chains is a long way from saying we admit they are just as good as us white Brits. Very recently enough of us voted for Farage’s white British supremacy message to put the Conservatives into power.
    The legacy of 18th Century slavery, and the continuing discrimination which exists in modern Britain, is a black population who are still underperforming in most spheres. Teachers, employers, government officers and all opinion-formers need to tackle that problem rather than the rest of us looking for symbolic gestures.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jun '20 - 8:43am

    @Andrew Daer
    “Very recently enough of us voted for Farage’s white British supremacy message to put the Conservatives into power.”

    You assume there is one simple “us”?

    Count me out!

  • @Andrew Daer

    “Very recently enough of us voted for Farage’s white British supremacy message to put the Conservatives into power.”

    That’s just not true. Farage has many faults but he his not a white supremacist.

  • Brian Edmonds 12th Jun '20 - 10:03am

    ‘Direct action’ in this case is presumably a euphemism for ‘illegal action’ – there may be a justification in totalitarian regimes, but in Britain who really thinks lawbreaking is a matter of opinion? Nice try, by the way, for a glib moral point, but of course I was talking about being offended by the statue. Everyone should be outraged by racism, but Colston did not wrong those white men’s’ forbears, and the idea that Britons of African heritage need or want white men to act for them is just patronising.

  • Denis Loretto 12th Jun '20 - 10:37am

    In this morning’s Guardian I see “In Bristol ….bleach or similar corrosive substance is suspected to have been thrown over a memorial to Alfred Fagon, a black playwright, poet and actor.” Is this sort of thing not the inevitable path we are starting down if we support mob action?

  • Peter Martin 12th Jun '20 - 11:16am

    @ Brian,

    You seem reluctant to answer the question ” Are you saying that only people of colour are entitled to feel offended by racism? And that we “white males” should stay out of it?”

    ” Colston did not wrong those white men’s’ forbears”.

    We don’t know exactly who he wronged but he was a member of the ruling class which did wrong white people too. Their attitude the the white working class wasn’t exactly philanthropic. There was widespread oppression in the Mills and Mines with executions and deportations for anyone who stood up to them.

    Probably their reasoning was that black slaves were needed in the Americas, not because of any perceived racial inferiority, but because white workers wouldn’t survive long in the hot climate.

    And white workers haven’t always stayed out of it. During the American civil war Lancashire cotton workers took a principled stand against the US Confederacy and British mill owners who wanted an end to the blockade of the South so they could import their supplies of raw cotton.

    This wasn’t the patronising act of a white elite. It was an act of international solidarity by poor working class white people who could ill afford the personal sacrifice involved.


  • All three leadership candidates appear to support the Bristol protesters and the removal of other statues.

    Expect another contest where they don’t disagree with each another on any substantive issue.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Jun '20 - 5:11pm


    “The only poll taken since the weekend shows the Tories 6% ahead again.”

    You are presumably referring to the Survation poll from 9–10 June. This isn’t particularly great news for the Tories: to shows them 1 point up from the previous Survation poll, which is within the margin of error (±3%). The fall in Labour share (from 39% to 36%) is just about statistically significant, but it seems to have gone to Tories, Lib Dems and Greens. It’s one poll, and on its own cannot be taken to mean that Tory support has picked up again, any more than I would use the 1-point rise in Lib Dem support to mean Lib Dem fortunes are reviving.
    Currently the story from polls (for what they are worth when there are no elections) is still that the Tories have squandered their honeymoon, Brexit and crisis bonuses.

  • Alex Macfie 12th Jun '20 - 5:12pm

    For “Greens”, read “SNP” in my last comment

  • @David Evershed
    “If the Liberal Democrats support lawless mobs deciding which public monuments to destroy then they will have lost” what’s left of their electorate.”
    I’m not sure anyone is suggesting this, are they?

  • Paul Murray 12th Jun '20 - 6:05pm

    It might be interesting to see how Trump’s approval numbers shift in the next few weeks. I have no doubt that he, Bannon, Breitbart and Fox News will be keen to cast what is currently happening as a culture war. The decision to rename Fort Bragg and Fort Benning – passed by the Republic-led Senate Armed Services Committee but requiring Trump’s signature – is an obvious starting point.

  • Steven Whaley 12th Jun '20 - 6:26pm

    I know this is a statement of the obvious but we’ve got to maintain an objective perspective as a society and make sure we can all differentiate between statues of people who acted in ways we would consider to be evil today and those people who were or are (merely) subjectively divisive. There’s a world of difference between a slave trader and a bog-standard marmite politician/writer/philosopher/artist etc. Like I said, obvious, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near the danger stage yet but we have to keep a watchful eye that neither left nor right turn this issue into an ugly battle.

  • @ Paul Murray “It might be interesting to see how Trump’s approval numbers shift in the next few weeks”.

    I’m sure he’ll be delighted to have it as a diversion from his generally terrible record, and in particular his appalling record on covd-19.

    I’m also reminded of the phrase coined by James Carville in the Clinton campaign in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid”….. it’s going downhill rapidly. I just wish Joe Biden was 10 years younger……. but who will be his running mate ?

  • Paul Murray 13th Jun '20 - 9:41am

    This morning I saw an excellent interview with Professor Neil Oliver discussing these events. He made the point that the world is still full of people who are in slavery, and made the pointed comment that all those people filming the tearing down of the Colston statue were using cameras with batteries made with cobalt that was almost certainly mined by child slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And that many of them were wearing T-shirts made in sweatshops.

    Perhaps if the Liberal Democrats want to achieve something more useful from this episode than engaging in futile tokenism, they should use it as a chance to refocus on modern-day slavery and to campaign for stronger and more effective legislation on the sale of products produced using slave labour. Perhaps calling for a boycott of the next FIFA world cup – in stadiums built with what is effectively slave labour – would be a start.

  • @nonconformistradical – 13 million out of the 45 million on the electoral roll voted for Brexit last December. Under our corrupt electoral system, that put the Tories in power. My phrase “enough of us” wasn’t intended to suggest someone with your impressive pen-name was among the guilty. If you thought that, I’m sorry.

    @malc – Farage is first and foremost a narcissist. You only have to listen to him for a few minutes to realise that. I could be persuaded that having seen how many people were motivated by the fear of foreigners, or “immigrants” as they are politely described, he chose that path purely to gain followers; he needs to have adulation and approval. I have genuine sympathy for people who suffer from narcissism because they have to surround themselves with admirers in order to stave off mental breakdown. So having said he might have been promoting the ‘Brits rule OK’ message quite cycnially, to pander to that section of the public, I suspect his personality type makes him likely to use the delusion of racial superiority to counter his feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness – the factors which are at the root of narcissistic personality disorder.
    You rightly point out that he’s usually quite careful to avoid overtly displaying a belief in white racial superiority, but we both know that people are capable of hiding things if they think it is in their best interest.

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