Toppling statues, the rule of law and the failure of democracy

I think I understand where many people are coming from when they look at the news of the removal of Edward Colston’s statue* and say, ‘perhaps it should have been removed, but not by a crowd; it should have been done by democratic means’.

I think I do understand, because the legal option is my very strong preference default too. Indeed, my own family history from the first half of the last century is a reminder of how precious the rule of law is – and how awful the consequences are when it is absent.

But here’s the thing.

Don’t stop once you’re expressed a preference for decision-by-democracy over action-by-crowds.

Carry on with that train of thought.

Because democratic means had been tried to remove that statue and failed. We only got action-by-crowds because democracy failed.

So if you don’t like action-by-crowds, we need to redouble our efforts to tackle racism through democratic means.

So roll up your sleeves and help our democratic system do just that.

(And if you’re a Liberal Democrat, joining the Lib Dem Campaign for Race Equality is a great way to help.)

P.S. https://twitter.com/markpack/status/1269736945007177732

* As with many of the controversial statues in the US South, this one too was put up many years after the death of the person it depicts. Colston died in 1721. The statute went up in 1895. Those who put it up knew fully of the evils of the slave trade. Slavery had already long been illegal in Britain at the time they decided to honour Colston.

12 responses to “Toppling statues, the rule of law and the failure of democracy”

  1. I think you have put your finger on the nub of this important issue Mark – extremely well done. It would have taken me all night, so I hope you have had some sleep !

  2. There’s also Colston Ave/Close/Court/Place/Parade/Hill/Road/Street/Yard, Colston Tower, Colston School, Colston Hall to be dealt with. So now the process has started the Mayor needs to lead a public debate on what to do with all of those.
    As for the statue, now residing at the bottom of the harbour, perhaps it should be retrieved and ceremonially melted down, then recast into paving slabs so that those so minded can walk or dance on him.

    • What will you say when that nice stephen yaxley-lennon starts to tear down statues of say Wilberforce, Gladstone, Mandela, Mill and Gandhi?

      • The Bristol slaver made money from the misery of others and then gave some of it to charity. His charitable work was directly dependent on him profiting from evil. That’s very different from those others you mention.

  3. I agree with everything Mark says, but would add that if crowds whose views we are generally sympathetic to can do it, so can the “nasties”: all the more reason to make democracy work.

    For me, the trouble with tearing statues down as an act of rage and of atonement is that sure as eggs is eggs, succeeding generations will see things we do as reprehensible. We should not be too ready to condemn retrospectively; the past can’t improve its behaviour. On the other hand we can and we should consider the past in a way which allows us to learn from it.

  4. If we condone crowd rule in such circumstances we should be aware that the next crowd and maybe the one after that may have quite illiberal motives, as Dr Steve Hills points out. Clearly democratic action to deal with the offending statue should have been taken long ago. Were the local Lib Dems active in this regard?

  5. Yes, peaceful change is better than violent change. But peaceful change didn’t happen.

    Yes, fascist thugs can do tomorrow what BLM protesters did yesterday. But, since when did fascist thugs wait for anyone else to give them permission for their thuggery?

    Sometimes, history is made, and can only be made, when people rise up to overthrow injustice. That is what happened in Bristol, and if we genuinely want to diminish* racial inequality, we should rejoice.

    (* – I could have said “eliminate”. That would have been the conventional thing to say. But it would be false. Racial inequality is huge, pervasive, and entrenched. Let’s not kid ourselves that it can be eliminated any time soon. Toppling one statue is just one small step forward.)

  6. I’m afraid that Gladstone isn’t totally on the side of the angels. He helped his father get the compensation for slave owners that the government of the day organised as a way of getting the anti slavery bill through Parliament. The loan to do this was only paid off in 2015.
    I’m glad the Colston statue has gone but I think it should be replaced with a monument explaining just why it was removed.

  7. I agree entirely with Mark’s comments.

    Liverpool has apologized for its part in the slave trade. Is it not time that Bristol did so?

  8. Prof Kate Williams has explained on Twitter at length the history of the moves to have a plaque erected, moves which however came to nought. Surely either Bristol City Council or the executive mayor had the power to put an end to the argument and simply authorise the removal of the statue, so why didn’t it happen?

    • The Merchant Venturers – who still exist, btw – had the right to veto the plaques/removal under the original ‘gifting’ to the city. They admitted their first BAME member this year, and their first female member as I understand it was Maggie Thatcher. If that gives you an idea of their politics …

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