Common Sense Champion: Robert Jenrick

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Mark Lehain
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Robert Jenrick – Communities Secretary and MP for Newark – is this week’s Common Sense Champion. He has been chosen for his calm and considered contribution to protecting the nation’s heritage in the face of mobs and activists.

Recent years have seen historical monuments and many other aspects of British heritage come under criticism or attack from a range of directions. It doesn’t matter whether it’s statues, street names or those of buildings, commemorative plaques, or objects on display in museums and galleries – professional grievance artists will find offence somehow, and demand removal or the like.

Now, let’s be clear – there are undoubtedly some pretty dodgy characters commemorated in places. Where people are celebrated whose main achievements go completely against values we hold dear now – like slave traders – it is entirely legitimate for people to ask if we want to reconsider things.

But let’s be honest – this is not what most activists go after.

Also, even if they did, and such people’s place in public are reviewed, it should be done so in a transparent and democractic manner – and not driven by an angry ideological mob. It should also be done with proper consideration of someone’s wider contribution to our heritage. Just because, say, Bristol doesnt like someone, it doesn’t mean their wider contribution to Britain should be overlooked.

This is why we feel that Robert Jenrick’s recent intervention in the debate around historical monuments is worthy of recognition.

He’s proposing to apply a policy of “retain and explain”, so that historic statues are only removed in the most exceptional circumstances, recognising that:

“They reflected the people’s preferences at the time, not a single, official narrative or doctrine. They are hugely varied, some loved, some reviled, but all part of the weft and weave of our uniquely rich history and built environment.

We cannot – and should not – now try to edit or censor our past… What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not removed on a whim, any removal should require planning permission and local people should have the chance to be properly consulted.”

This is such a common sense approach. It ensures a proper process is followed when these situations occur, and that a final decision can be taken with the whole country’s interests considered as well, not just niche or local ones. After all, we should build our history on the common ground – wherever possible adding to our heritage, not taking things out.

If the issue is that worthy people of different backgrounds or characteristics haven’t yet been recognised for their contribution to society, then the answer is to get them recognised on top of others, not in place of them. Celebration is not a zero-sum game – the more the merrier, we say!

Only by approaching these sensitive situations with clarity and a desire to bring people together can we find the common ground and sustainable solutions. Angry mobs won’t achieve this – last summer’s events showed that – but thoughtful intervention like Jenrick’s just might. It is for this reason that we think he is a worthy Common Sense Champion this week.

Mark Lehain


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