How should we react to the removal of the Edward Colston statue?

Here’s my latest piece from the Liberal Democrat website:

It’s no surprise that reactions to protesters’ removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol have included liberals worrying about the rule of law. The outrage, not at the statue honouring a slave trader, but at its removal by a ‘mob’ rather than by democratic means without visible legal ramifications, has been notable.

The rule of law, after all, is central to liberalism. Right? Not quite.

What is vital is the equal application of fair laws. And these protests were born out of anger that the law and police treatment have not been equally and fairly applied to many black people and communities of colour.

Since 1990, there have been 1,741 deaths following contact with the police in the UK. This, of course, is a problem in itself. But when paired with the fact that black people are twice as likely as white people to die in police custody, the very unsettling reality of the unequal policing of black people is hard to ignore.

Of course, not all of these deaths will have involved wrongful or illegal behaviour by police officers. But even if you assume that a very low proportion of those 1,741 deaths were in some way caused by police misconduct, you would expect a fair number of cases to have resulted in the successful criminal prosecution of an officer.

So how many officers have been prosecuted following the investigation over 1,741 deaths?

Zero. Not a single prosecution, for the loss of 1,741 lives.

Where’s the rule of law in those situations? Why aren’t we, as liberals who believe in the fair and equal rule of law, up in arms about this?

This is why we need to care about the rule of law all the time. Not just some of the time, or when it matters to us, but as a critical, non-negotiable part of our beliefs. The contrast between shouting about the illegal removal of an offensive statue, whilst staying quiet about the unequal treatment of black people by police and in the legal system, has made that clear.

We need to be honest with ourselves – about how easily we liberals can slip into only worrying about the rule of law some of the time. I’ll be the first to say that, scrolling back through my website and social media postings, I’ve made a mistake in how little I talked about the unfair legal and penal issues facing people of colour.

All history is rewritten; the choice is over how to do it

I am a historian by training, so you might expect me to instinctively favour of arguments about how 'we mustn't airbrush history' and 'we mustn't edit history to meet current values'. more

If that’s true for you, too, let this be the start of a learning curve. Across the globe, we’re seeing Black Lives Matter protests, the largest protests against police brutality and racism since the civil rights protests in the 1960s. This is a pivotal moment in history. There’s never been a more important time to reassess the connection between the rule of law and race.

We certainly need to get our history right. Many have claimed that the removal of Edward Colston’s statue is a whitewashing of history. In fact, Edward Colston’s statue itself was an attempt to rewrite history long after the events, not being put up until over a century and a half after his death. Those who put it up knew full well the horrors of slavery. Yet they put on a plaque that he was, “one of the most virtuous and wise”. They were not trying to preserve or explain history; they were airbrushing history.

Campaigners have long tried to have the statue removed through democratic channels, with little success. Overwhelmingly white decision-makers may not have felt the urgency or desperation of those campaigners. For a white person, Edward Colston might just have been a statue. For a black Bristolian, it might be a daily reminder of the suffering generations before them had faced, a monument to the racism that unfortunately persists in British society.

A key part of reassessing our relationship with the rule of law is acknowledging the lack of diversity in those who make, change, and uphold the law.

Only 9% oppose Britain's role in slave trade being taught in secondary schools

Polling from Ipsos-MORI shows strong support for teaching school children about Britain's role in the slave trade. more

In all areas of society, we need to foster diversity. The Edward Colston statue debate is a prime example of why this is so important. Outside of the specific democratic bodies that should have allowed for the statue to be removed legally and safely, a debate has been sparked about whose voice is heard in the retelling of Britain’s history. Many institutions are now reassessing the historical figures they choose to honour with statues and other commemorations.

It’s vital that we have those conversations, but what’s even more important is that we make a range of voices heard in them. We need to ensure that our museums and public spaces properly record and explain all the parts of our history, not just those in power in the past would like us to know.

Whatever mix of new statues, removals of old or relabelling of remaining statutes that may mean, in making those decisions, the voices of those – such as the chair of the Liberal Democrat Campaign for Racial Equality Roderick Lynch, whose ancestors were enslaved people from the Caribbean paradise island of Saint Lucia – must be clearly heard.

Cast your mind back to those shocking police figures. 1,741 dead. Black people being twice as likely to die in police custody. Every one of us needs to evaluate what the equal and fair rule of law means to us. Think about what those protesters were aiming to achieve; action on disproportionate policing of black people, to take a stand against global systemic racism, to raise awareness of the persistence of the scourge of racism in British history and its lingering effects in today’s society.

I hope that all of you, like I do, want to be more voluble about the laws protecting the lives of black people and communities of colour than the laws protecting inanimate stone.

So yes, as a liberal I believe in the rule of law.

But no, that’s not the thing to focus on about events in Bristol.

10 responses to “How should we react to the removal of the Edward Colston statue?”

  1. The group of people seen removing the statue was not all black and male, this was a cross-cultural move by what would appear to have been a representation of that large crowd surrounding and encouraging them. Apart from this there was no violence or aggression in the whole of the demonstration, and no one took the opportunity to break any windows or loot any shops.
    I believe that the removal of the statue was long overdue, and the direct action by a group, on behalf of the rest of us, is simply a symptom of the failure of our democracy.
    Yes, there were ‘culprits’ who came equipped with ropes etc, but the crime is with the City Council in not having dealt with it long ago.

  2. I’d never heard of Colston before this week but when exactly was the first objection to the statue raised ?

      • Actually there were attempts from citizen groups to get the statue removed in the 1920s, barely 30 years after it was put up. It has never been a popular or wanted statue among Bristolians.

  3. So the statue did not become an issue for Bristol’s black population for at least two generations then ? We need to be careful not to unquestioningly accept the assertions of young BLM militants that they’re speaking for their whole community.

    • It’s been widely controversial for a long time, with many previous debates over it but even such a modest step as adding an extra plaque that highlights his role in slavery. Removing the statue was in the last Liberal Democrat council manifesto too. Opposition to it has been much wider than ‘young BLM militants’. It’s also worth bearing in mind that things can be unpopular and disliked by a community for a long time before they become a wider controversy.

  4. I came to Bristol in the 70’s and Colston’s statue was being discussed then.
    Not sure where Michael lives, but before coming to Bristol I was barely aware of Brunel.. although having grown up in Coventry I knew all about Lady Godiva, Earl Leofric and Peeping Tom.
    But he highlights a valid point that the history we learn is blinkered by one’s individual capacity to hear/read and absorb things in our growing years, and the limitations on group learning in oversized classes at school.

  5. I am not overly concerned about any statue although I note that many would consider them works of art but possibly famous sculptors.
    However the 1741 deaths you mention is a tragedy so we should be looking at the reasons why twice as many Black people are likely to be arrested and die. Without figures I can only surmise that they are more likely to commit crime and get arrested. That would lead me to wanting more money into education to show that there is a better way than crime.
    Were the police involved all white or were some black? What was the proportion of white people who died with black police?
    We need these figures not to justify but in order to explain when challenged.
    Emotional arguments stir the people but often lead to incorrect conclusions.

    For me this is a failure I have had for forty years to convince people that integration does not work but assimilation does. All the time we have distinct separate groups we have the potential for friction. When we are all one group ie assimilated, then everyone gains.

  6. What worries me most about this debate is it views slavery as a matter of how we react to slavery in history. Whereas the reality is that globally there are far more people in slavery now than at any time in history. The majority of these are women and a significant number are children. Here in Britain there are thousands of women working in brothels and saunas who have been trafficked here, have had their passports removed and forced to work for no pay by offering their bodies to strangers. It is easy to pull down a statue but it requires far more political will and resources to free the millions globally who are trapped in slavery in the 21st Century.

  7. The fact that the statue did not become an issue for two generations that it does not mean that it was not a cause of ‘hurt’ & ‘anger’.

    It is right and proper that the vestigages and the spoils & riches that were founded on the back of ‘slaves’ is put in its right historical context and removed from the world where 400 years of subjigation and a lack of equal rights must be espunged.

    All lives matter but from the time of liberation the seat at the table of progress, equality and success has not been equal. The fact that all seated at the table are fed first and there are no seconds means that some will be left unfed – this is an injustice because we are all hungry. The movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) brings to the fore that we are also hungry and have been for a period of over 400 years … we now demand to be fed at the same time and at the same table of those who have been privileged to have been fed first.

    The fact that this discourse needs to be stated is an indictement on how far we have not come…there is still a long way to go and this is a start.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.