Over the past eight years there have been many times that I have sat at the foot of a monstrous old statue in Guildhall.
A tall male figure, from the Eighteenth century stands prod, bedecked in his finery, one hand raised, flanked by two seated, female guardians who seem almost bored to death by the text on his plinth – despite it being his great paean to the ancient liberties of London.
That monument is to William Beckford. He was simultaneously a local hero to many of our forebears in the City – as defender of our freedom – and tyrant to hundreds of their contemporaries in the Caribbean. He was twice our Lord Mayor and forever their slave owner.
Beckford was a man whose achievements were enabled by the profit he gained from the shackling, torture and murder of many, many people. His name was written in blood and, perhaps, his monument should be a mountain of bones.
So, you might expect me to welcome the recent decision of my colleagues in the City of London’s Policy and Resources a committee to remove his statue – it is after all a testament to the sins of our past. Moreover, it has been celebrated by the City’s Press team, who noted the fact of our recent broad public consultation and our noble wider efforts to tackle racism.
Far from it though. I spoke against that decision and seconded the motion by our Chief Commoner that we should think again. I remain convinced that the Committee’s decision to push ahead with removal was a mistake. Why?
To give some context, I know that many times before statutes have been removed. The Egyptians and Romans did it liberally and most us have seen the images of tyrants like Stalin being toppled from their plinths by crowds celebrating their new regime. No monument deserves the right to remain untouched.
Moreover, the City’s review was prompted by the horrific killing of George Floyd and creation of the Black Lives Movement. We set up a Racism Taskforce and I supported that. We consulted widely and aimed to channel raw emotions toward deliberated policy.
Most of the recommendations brought by the taskforce delivered on that wonderfully. Most of my colleagues will assert that so did the recommendation to remove Beckford’s statue. But, respectfully, they are wrong and I hope that the full Council, or external authority will beg reappraisal.
The toppling last year of Colston’s statue in Bristol was evidently wrong. A mob took affairs into their own hands. Local authority should have decided the fate of the statue. Crucially, though I believe they should have done so in consultation with their local stakeholders.
The City of London did consult. We had a flood of responses. Over 1,500 people gave us their view.
Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority wanted statues like Beckford’s to remain where they are – ‘contextualised’, or just as they are now. The public might have erred but our public spoke and we ignored them.
That is not a great precedent to set – which is why a handful of us wanted reappraisal and a fresh consultation before proceeding. We should have set a more specific question and pondered our options better. Instead we acted precipitously.
At the risk of a bad pun on a grave matter, we have little base for our action but our own visceral discomfort. Our moral indignation led us to take an action at odds with the determination of our own consultation. This is not how we should make policy. Either we should not consult or we should listen to the consultation.
Finally, it will also beg a question. If we are so firm in wiping the slate of our own troubled history – so justifiably appalled by historic slavery that we cannot follow a better process – why do we not shrink from the embrace of the Chinese government?
The Chinese government’s friendship is treasured in the City, because it enriches us. The Chinese Communist Party has enslaved millions of Uighur in camps, glorified factories of human misery. They are the shackled of today, just as Beckford’s slaves were the shackled of history.
If we deplore slavers of the past why do we embrace those of our own age?
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