The government’s commitment to surpressing the past

Robert Jenrick and Boris Johnson want status of slavers to be protected to "protect British history". But British history has been sanitised by governments for decades

Photo: PA/Ben Birchall

Whatever your political persuasion no one can deny that being a politician in 2021 is challenging. Covid-19, climate change, a global recession, adjusting to Brexit and working out the U.K.’s relationship with the U.S. post Trump are just a few of the challenges that are likely giving MP’s and their assistants sleepless night. With the world moving so fast it may come as a surprise that anyone’s focus would be statues. That’s exactly the case however, as writing in the Sunday Telegraph last Sunday, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick revealed government plans for added legal protections for statues against ‘baying mobs’. Last summer a statue of slaver and philanthropist Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protestors. There were also fears that the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster was under threat, which inspired patriots across the country to attend as counter-protestors to Black Lives Matter. Their main rationale for the defence of Churchill’s statue was that “Churchill killed Hitler” and stood against the fascism and racism that drove the Nazi party. Truly a noble cause. There were also people videoed doing Nazi salutes which sort of dilutes the proposed anti-fascism mission statement, but make of it what you will. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that we shouldn’t remove statues because we “cannot edit our past” and that to remove statues is to “lie about our history”. This is ironic because deceit has been the consistent theme punctuating the political and personal life of Boris Johnson, eclipsed perhaps only by incompetence. Nevertheless Jenrick and Johnson’s commitment to protecting statues of slavers is telling because it situates them amidst a long timeline of Britain’s ruling class, working hard to suppress the truth of British history to uphold white supremacy.

The point of this discussion isn’t the statues themselves. Whilst I think slave owners being publicly honoured is greatly offensive, it is totally on brand and reflective of my experience being raised in Britain as a Black man. What is more important to me is the debate that the removal of statues has highlighted: education. Jenrick, Johnson’s and other Conservative voice’s claim that the removal of statues would be an “attempt to edit history” implies that a statue holistically teaches someone the history of a person. If that was the case, those who apparently love Churchill’s statue so much would know that Churchill, like Hitler, was a white supremacist. As such opposing Hitler’s racism by proxy of defending Churchill doesn’t make any sense. It’s also worth noting that no one has a problem with Florence Nightingale of William Shakespeare’s statue because no one’s issue is remembering British History. It’s literally just that people don’t like slavery. In the U.K. around 80% of statues are of men. If MP’s actually believe statues are crucial to teaching history, why is the priority protecting statues of slave owners rather than having more women honoured? Why have around 800 public libraries where people can learn for free been closed down since 2010? Why have English schools been banned from using anti-capitalist material in teaching and why have there been calls to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory? Because the government aren’t actually concerned with the accurate teaching of history. Their primary concern is actually suppressing information to uphold racial hierarchy and consolidate power, whilst sanitising the legacies of people who did the same in generations gone by. Last year’s House of Commons House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights: Black people, racism and human rights found that across policing and medical care Black people are being treated worse than our white counterparts. Nothing has been announced to combat any of these findings. Instead, high on the agenda is new legislation to protect statues of slave owners who’s actions preempted our current subjugation.

Lying about British history is not an innovation of Boris Johnson’s government. People often like to conflate racism with ignorance, as if vehicles of white supremacy like the transatlantic slave trade or neo-colonialism could have happened without strategy. In the 1950’s Britain began Operation Legacy. After WW2 Britain had expended too much of it’s military resources to maintain it’s empire. As such they decided to go on a global crusade burning documents and any evidence of the horrors of their colonial exploits. Calls for education reform last summer didn’t fall on deaf ears. The government’s actions since have been subtle but calculated. They will, as they always have, do whatever they can to suppress history. 

Article by Martyn Ewoma


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