Should Councils consult on Statues?
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has many objectives, and it is unlikely that removing statues from the country’s streetscape was a particularly high priority. But in the strange way that the accidents of history frequently serve to change the agenda, suddenly Councils up and down the land are having to think seriously about some conveniently-forgotten embarrassments.
Statues were mostly a Victorian fashion, reflecting the glorification of Empire and are predominantly of military men. The redoubtable Ben Macintyre, writing in the Times says there are 828 public statues, and only 174 of these are of women – many being nymphs, caryatids or fictional figures. There are apparently 77 statues of Queen Victoria dotted around the country! Few statues are erected today, but recent ones such as to Mary Seacole (the first black woman to be thus commemorated) and Nelson Mandela clearly signal rather different values and motives.
The trouble with opening up a debate about statues is that it asks uncomfortable questions about a society’s memories and allegiances. Even the greatest benefactors had character flaws or business dealings which some people believe should disqualify them from public recognition. This is why the Colston statue removal in Bristol was closely followed by another in London where the slaveholder, Robert Milligan was parted from his plinth last weekend.
This issue goes much wider. Statues of politicians can split a community along party lines. For example, in Cardiff stands a statue of Aneurin Bevan. For the left, he is the adored founder of the NHS; for the right, he is a class-warrior who described the Conservatives as ‘vermin’. Achieving a consensus as to which statues should remain, and which ones carted off to a museum to be surrounded by more objective ‘interpretation’ will frequently be quite challenging.
So should local authorities turn to consultation as a way to manage a civilised debate?
There are plenty of reasons to hesitate. Divisive issues like this can easily degenerate into an unresponsive dialogue, with immovable, entrenched views forged in the febrile atmosphere of recent events. What one side sees as a self-evident case for its preferred solution is viewed by the other as an unwarranted attack upon its values, identity and view of the world-historic and current. At a time of profound national crisis due to the pandemic and the tough decisions arising from it, some will argue that it is diversion of effort and attention to focus public engagement on how racist, or how commercially culpable someone was two hundred years ago? They also question whether some of the BLM protesters might not themselves prefer to address more current causes of inequality? There is already tension; might consultation make things worse?
On the other hand, if we believe that community voices have a right to be heard before public bodies take decisions, we cannot confine the role of consultation to ‘safe’ subjects where controversy is limited and passions are firmly kept in check. Surely, councillors and officials will face criticism if they proceed to take those decisions without having heard various sides of the argument? Northern Ireland has more experience than most when it comes to symbolic emblems, and there, Stormont first minister, Arlene Foster is calling for a `balanced conversation’. Consultation is also particularly suitable where there are several options. A consultation could, for example, be about a single statue, about a statues policy, or about erecting new statues to remedy the imbalances and biases of the inherited collection. Or it could list all the current statues and seek views as to which should be retained, moved or disposed of.
One thing, however, is clear. As in other contentious issues, if there is to be a consultation – it has to be impeccable. Any serious deficiency in process or content will almost certainly attract a challenge from whichever side perceives to have been disadvantaged. The spectre of judicial reviews looms. Fortunately, there are Councils with excellent consultation professionals and a good track record of ensuring fair and respected consultations.
The Institute is, of course here to help. Our initial advice must surely be to think long and hard but to remember that in general, it is always better to have consulted than to impose a decision.