Examining why this legislation would be problematic.
Over the past year, the Western world has seen many examine the sentiment and impact of statues in our societies. How we define, display and recite our heritage has thankfully taken on new significance, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, despite the criticism of these representations, the UK government’s stance has remained firm in support of their permanence. A newly proposed bill enacted by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick would block the ability for local councils to remove Historic England Artifacts without express permission. These new regulations would notify Jenrick of every request and ultimately, give him the final say in the matter of removal for over 20,000 listed and unlisted artifacts. The justification of this policy seems to be the adoption of the “retain and explain” model which safeguards both the “loved and reviled” representations of past events or figures. Jenrick, who studied history at Cambridge, suggests that censoring the past would be a great disservice to future generations.
In response to this claim, I would amplify the point that the lack of diverse representation within Britain’s protected heritage today is harming current generations. Within the database of the Public Monuments & Sculpture association a mere three figures are of named Black individuals, compared to over 600 White individuals. Several of these honoured White characters were responsible for the harm and suffering of generations of Black communities. We could take the now infamous Colston statue as an example. As an influential member of the Royal African Company he monopolised the slave trade, the damage he inflicted upon Black lives is incalculable. Although he was dragged from his plinth to the bottom of Bristol harbour in 2020, his initial position on a literal pedestal speaks volumes about the continued power these figures hold. To be celebrated despite all of his transgressions speaks to an already censored past, one which deliberately excludes Black narratives. Therefore, I would propose Jenrick’s argument that “we should not edit or censor our past,” is redundant because these monuments are already a result of selective, constructed histories. To protect this already privileged version of history would simply be maintaining an inadequate narrative for future generations.
Is it acceptable that one person, namely a White, privately educated male should have the final say on the station of this figure within a community he doesn’t even live in? I feel that the resources being spent on introducing this bill would be better spent on enhanced healthcare resources for BAME communities who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, or to make provision to ensure that a tragedy like the Grenfell disaster is never allowed to happen again. The new law seems like a response to the BLM protests of 2020 but one which is poorly considered, and which distracts from some of the other major problems impacting ethnic minority communities.
Despite this new bill and its aims to “retain and explain our rich history,” little has been done to outline how this will happen, with no word on educational resources or re-written inscriptions. There is a certain emphasis on preserving these objects for the education of future generations, although little has been mentioned about what is to be done when current generations express dissatisfaction about these narratives. In contrast to this, a different programme by the name of MD2689 – or to you and I, the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm – has been introduced. This Commission, created by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, intends to revisit the historical artifacts located in London, attempting to diversify the canon of celebrated figures and histories. It includes 15 panellists including art historians and activists with a broad range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This certainly seems to be a step in the right direction, although the government has vehemently undermined this Commission’s power, stating that they are purely an advisory board and the new law will still apply no matter what their findings are. It is abundantly clear from this interaction that Jenrick has little interest in seeking advice from experts about the capacity of these artifacts in contemporary culture. If anything, this bill only serves to further censor public and professional opinion.
Upon assessment, this blanket policy for retaining all types of artifacts is only helping to preserve the culture and heritage of selected histories. Ultimately, a bill that fails to address the lack of diversity and inclusion of all communities is a bill which solely serves those already well represented. It seems that this new proposal, which may be actioned as soon as March, is inadequate to deal with the reality of communities’ struggles for not only representation but reparation. Falsely identifying the removal of artifacts as damaging is problematic when the real harm comes from censorship of communities and a non-democratic system of cultural representation.