Of all the various aspects of stupidity that have followed on from the tragic death of George Floyd, it seems to me that the statues issue ranks high, and bids fair to be the stupidest.
In the wake of the charged anti-racist protests — which may well have had as much to do with frustration over Covid-19 lockdown as genuine desire to support the Black Lives Matter campaign — we have seen, in the last couple of weeks, a campaign to pull down statues in Britain.
The statues — almost all of men, of course — are largely the legacy of Victorian Britain, a way of honouring royalty and philanthropy, without, usually, paying attention to how the subjects achieved their prominence in public life.
I will lay bets that 98 per cent of these statues have received almost no public attention in the last 100 years, at a minimum. I used to walk past an equestrian statue almost every day near my office, and I still couldn’t even tell you who was being remembered, let alone whether he was a good person.
The exceptions are two men who made their fortunes from slavery and racism —Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes. Colston’s name permeates the city of Bristol and has been a contentious issue for decades. Successive Labour councils — and, indeed, the current mayor of Bristol, who is Black — have sat on the attempts to remove Colston’s statue, until people took the law literally into their own hands and pushed the edifice into the harbour.
Rhodes, whose name, of course, is given to the prestigious squad of foreign high-achieving scholars, is another difficult case, and there have been numerous attempts in Oxford, where the Rhodes Trust is based, to rid Oriel College of his memorial.
Given that I am not Black, I have not the slightest inkling of what it might be like for a Black person to walk past a statue which celebrates the life of an unashamed racist. And we, as Jews, are fortunate that in this country, at least, there are few effigies of those who hated Jews more than strictly necessary.
There are no statues, that I know of, of Sir Oswald Moseley, the 20th century Fascist politician and professional Jew-baiter. Nor, to take a ludicrous example floated this week on social media, is there a statue of Adolph Eichmann in Golders Green, to which I would certainly be opposed if such a thing existed. But it does not.
What does exist, however, are two vile examples — Simon de Montfort, whose name is all over Leicester — and Edward I, the king who expelled the Jews from mediaeval England. De Montfort spent considerable time and energy in cancelling debts owed to Jews and in 1265, killing many numbers of them.
In 2001 Leicester City Council issued a formal statement rebuking de Montfort for his blatant antisemitism. I am not sure what good this may have done other than to assure the very small Leicester Jewish community that de Montfort’s legacy no longer meant anything in the city. His statue remains in place.
Edward I — or Edward Longshanks, as he was known on account of being six foot two inches tall —issued his Edict of Expulsion against the Jews in 1290. His memorial in London consists of a seated statue erected in 1903, high on a building and looking out over the traffic in Holborn. Do I want his statue removed? I do not: and the primary reason is that eight centuries after he tried to get rid of us, we are still here, and he is largely forgotten.
It seems to me that most of those honoured with statues were, at various times in their lives, less than honourable men. A sense of proportion would be a good idea at a time like this, and the statues, if they are to go anywhere, should go into a Museum of Disgrace.