Erasing history is no way to learn

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James Knell
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In the centre of Ethiopia’s grandiose capital Addis Ababa lies the imposing Tiglachin monument – a memorial to Ethiopian and Cuban soldiers who lost their lives defending the country after neighbouring Somalia launched an invasion in July 1977. This monument is located at one end of the city’s longest and most important thoroughfare, named not after African liberation hero Haile Selassie or anti-colonial folk hero Zerai Deres but Winston Churchill. Churchill Avenue, so-called in honour of his instrumental role in putting an end to Italian occupation, has retained its name without much controversy since 1941.

Despite Churchill’s record as a colonial administrator in Africa – remarking that concentration camps where 28,000 Boers lost their lives had produced a “minimum of suffering” and writing that black Africans were “primitives” infinitely better off under London rule – no city councillor in Addis Ababa has called for the renaming of the avenue. Since 1941, not a single march has occurred in the city to impress upon the authorities’ public outrage that the capital’s most important street retains the name of an unapologetic defender of empire. There is a lesson to be learnt here – if an African capital with a far greater moral and historic case to purge itself of any vestige of colonialism understands that historic figures are complex multifaceted individuals, we would do well to apply that same logic to Britain where we find ourselves mired in statue, monument and street-name related debate.

Politicians and organisations across the spectrum have thrown their weight behind groups seeking to remove statues where the figures in question were involved in colonial activities. But we do ourselves, and our children, a fundamental disservice by attempting to rewrite our history and by seeking to expunge from it the most uncomfortable chapters. These chapters are exactly where the very best and most affecting lessons come from – so horrified are we from the unspeakable brutality of slavery, so abhorred are we by the notion of racial prejudice in any form that these lessons have profoundly and irrevocably moulded our national consciousness.

History taken out of context provides carte blanche for the removal of virtually every statue and monument across the land because few historical figures could be judged favourably by the moral standards of today – even Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa would fall short. Feeling offended is not a sufficient excuse to sanitise history and the removal of culturally significant statues is not supported by a majority of the British people. Polling conducted by the CCS revealed six out of ten people (61%) agreed that “statues of historical figures in the UK, even if they are controversial, should be preserved rather than removed” – fewer than 1 in 10 thought they should be removed. In a poll conducted by YouGov, six out of ten people (59%) said that they did not believe a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes should be removed from Oxford University’s Oriel College.

So which path do we choose to follow? One is the path of the mob. This is the path of momentary euphoric jubilation where crowds cheer as the Cenotaph – our national war memorial – is defaced, Churchill’s effigy is graffitied, and statues are torn from their plinth and hurled into a river to jeering onlookers. The other path is one where we learn about and, equally as important, learn from one of the richest historical and cultural legacies in the world by keeping it intact – and, where appropriate, to be celebrated as a source of pride and, at other times, to be rigorously critiqued.

The relevance and importance of statues, monuments and road names constitutes an important national debate. Where people feel that the public display of statues such as those of Winston Churchill and Cecil Rhodes exacerbates feelings of grievance, they are perfectly within their rights to express that sentiment and to articulate a better alternative as they see fit. But the voices of those who would point out that history cannot be Disneyfied for fear of offence must not be drowned out either – to do so is to attack the very notion of freedom of speech under the pretext of the prevailing grievances of the day. That is why it is critical, for the sake of balance and impartiality, that London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s proposed commission to review the diversity of London’s “public realm” comprises a truly diverse group of members reflecting a broad range of feeling.

Informed common sense debate does not follow knee-jerk kowtowing to the siren call of the loudest and angriest voices. That is the domain of crowd-pleasing politicians and organisations that prefer to jump on the bandwagon of facile generalisations than to engage in the hard graft of critical independent thinking on issues fraught with complexity and nuance.

We should always look to enrich the great diverse canvas of our national history and we do that by celebrating the contributions of different people from different walks of life – it is right to have a conversation about how we can better do that. But to graffiti monuments and taking a bulldozer to those we find offensive makes it even harder to learn from our past and to understand who we are and where we have come from.  

James Knell

Research Director

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