It comes as no surprise that in Britain increasing numbers of people are genuinely shocked that protests in London and other cities about racism and police brutality across the Atlantic have turned into an attack on their own country’s history and culture. Violent demonstrations have resulted in attacks on the police and destruction of property. These have been condemned by political and police leaders - and serious clashes in London this past weekend have been described as racist thuggery, with activists of the organization Black Lives Matter facing counter-protests from far-right factions. The Cenotaph in Whitehall and, among many others, the statue in Parliament Square of Winston Churchill had to be boarded up to stop them being damaged.
Some people now regard the situation as so serious that the UK is being held to ransom by a lawless mob and that, if this is allowed to continue, the country could even sink into anarchy. At the same time, most agree that peaceful demonstrations, led by Black Lives Matter in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, are legitimate, even if they break the UK’s rules for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. But the disturbances have ignited controversy about the nation’s imperial past which has included condemnation of individual historical figures.
Even though they lived hundreds of years ago, such figures are now accused of racism and abuse of power during the colonial period including links with the slave trade, however tenuous. So there is a growing demand by protesters for memorials and statues all over the country to be torn down. In addition, perhaps three months of confinement during the coronavirus lockdown has contributed to people’s outpouring of anger about the perceived discrimination still being suffered by black people in Britain.
As legitimate and understandable as protests in the UK about racial discrimination may be, there is evidence they have been hijacked and exploited by Left-wing activists and agitators who are fomenting division and turmoil. It is claimed such people are intent on destroying western core values and restructuring the country with militant groups and far-left ideologues in positions of power – and all the while treating Britain’s history and heritage with contempt and ignoring the truth that for centuries the nation has been a beacon of liberty with a reputation for pluralism, moderation and openness. These important traditions are now under threat, as is the country’s reputation for discipline and good order – two qualities that explain in part why people from all over the world want to live there.
Nonetheless, it remains the case that racial discrimination persists in Britain even though there has been, in the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, much progress in fighting it. There is considerable room for improvement, but the nation has made huge strides in eradicating it as people become increasingly blind to the colour of someone’s skin so that the issue has become more one of social class and economic inequality – and many believe that, since their children and grandchildren do not see race and colour, it is important to look to the future.
Be that as it may, amid the current divisions there is also controversy about the separate issues of history and lawlessness. It is said that a nation which forgets its past - good or bad - has no future since its history shapes its attitudes. We cannot pretend to have another history and we cannot lie about it or change it to fit with current moral standards. Of course, historians are always reinterpreting and re-evaluating the significance of elements of the past but the basic facts are unalterable.
Furthermore, if you airbrush the past, nothing is safe because you enter the territory of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ where nothing counts except the Party which is always right.
People are generally proud of the achievements recorded in Britain’s history even though, in common with every other country, it is far from perfect. It is unrealistic to apply our present-day views to people in the past or to judge the merit of past activities using today’s values because those concerned were making judgments based on different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong in accordance with standards and norms considered reasonable at the time. The old maxim that yesterday’s orthodoxy is today’s heresy applies in this debate. Standards and values change and develop so it is illogical to wrench historical figures out of their context or expect them to have had modern views on issues such as race – and, what is more, people living today cannot be held accountable for the actions and transgressions of previous generations.
All that said, however, it is perfectly reasonable in a democratic society to review statues, monuments and plaques – as well as street names - and determine, for example, whether relocation to a museum might be called for to make way for new ones. Such an option should always be available. But that is quite different from allowing minority mobs unilaterally to determine, outside established procedures, what is going to be displayed and what is not - and vandalising structures in the process.
The main concern surrounding the riots in Britain has been the breakdown of law and order; for, as has often be said, if you don’t have law and order you don’t have a country!
When a lawless mob was recently pulling down the statue of Edward Colston in the centre of the city of Bristol in the southwest of England - on the grounds he was involved in the slave trade in the 17th century - the police failed to react to this criminal vandalism. Permitted lawlessness only encourages more of the same. So the police set a bad example and the consequence has been further mob rule in the defacing or destruction of monuments and statues elsewhere in the country.
Judging from reactions in the UK press, the vast majority of Britons - known as the silent majority - fail to understand why a mob was allowed to get away with lawlessness in Bristol, though it is clear the police took a tougher stance at last weekend’s riots in London.
Civil disobedience is not the way to bring about change. The country cannot be dictated to by mob rule so there needs to be a real crackdown on those who incite or perpetrate violence. Let us hope that in the UK there will not be a long hot summer of mayhem and civil unrest.
Let’s leave Columbus where he is - but tell the whole story
In light of the events involving statues and monuments in the UK, I have found it particularly interesting to follow the current debate locally about the possible removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus from the front of Government House. Controversy about this seems to have been reignited by the terrible police brutality in Minneapolis and by new pressure in the U.S. to remove confederate statues.
Discussion of the issue is not new, of course, and many contend it is not possible to judge the merits of a prominent person being memorialised in this way by comparing his past actions with today’s attitudes and values. Even if it can be assumed that those who decided to honour Columbus with a statue at Government House in 1830 were aware of his full story - including both his achievements as an explorer who discovered the New World and accusations against him of alleged brutality and other wrongdoing - they were making judgments at a different period in the nation’s history.
Inevitably, however, attitudes will change with the passage of time. So it appears that more recently a growing number of people have ceased to revere Columbus as a brave explorer. Some now regard him with a mixture of resentment and disapproval as a plunderer, obsessed with finding treasure and acquiring land, who was allegedly responsible for horrendous atrocities and who also introduced slavery.
As I understand it, Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, appears on the shield of the Coat of Arms which is the national Symbol of The Bahamas. No doubt the significance of this will be a factor. It is also interesting that in 1992 - the Quincentenary Jubilee - it was decided that in order to commemorate Columbus’s first landfall in the Bahamas a one dollar bank note should be produced bearing his portrait.
According to reports, the PLP is in favour of the removal of Columbus’s statue and more than 8,000 people have signed a petition supporting this. But, since it has been in place for so long, its removal should surely only take place after a full discussion among those concerned and a collective decision to that effect. Perhaps, too, consideration should be given to erection of statues of those credited with the abolition of slavery.
I wonder whether an acceptable way forward might not be to leave Columbus’s statue in place with an informative educational notice alongside it explaining in detail the history of his achievement in discovering the New World - but, at the same time, recording reprehensible actions on his part which have been condemned so that all concerned have a full picture of what happened so long ago and formed the basis of our nation.
Congratulations to the Duke of Edinburgh - standing tall at 99
On June 10, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh celebrated his 99th birthday with The Queen at Windsor Castle where they have been ‘isolating’ because of coronavirus. This represents another notable achievement for Britain’s Royal Family because the Prince has become the third oldest royal in the nation’s history – after the Queen Mother at 101 and The Queen’s aunt, Princess Alice, at 102.
He withdrew from public life three years ago, and, in his own inimitable way, made light of what was clearly a major decision when, in response to a well-wisher who expressed regret that he was ‘standing down’, told him ‘well, I can’t stand up any more’ – though the truth is the Prince has stayed in remarkably good health for a nonagenarian.
Aides are now saying that he looks ‘incredible’ for his age with a ramrod straight back and not an ounce overweight. They ascribe this to an abstemious life style – eating little but often, drinking alcohol sparingly and not smoking. He is also said to be committed to exercising daily.
Prince Philip is the longest-serving royal consort in British history and there is general agreement that The Queen could not have been so effective as head of state without him by her side. As the politicians come and go with alarming frequency, she continues to provide the stability and continuity that underpins the nation’s democracy.
Many people will have been happy to see her never-ending commitment to duty this last weekend when, with the COVID-19 lockdown still in place, she presided over a socially-distanced and scaled down version of Trooping the Colour to mark the monarch’s official birthday. This was held with a military ceremony of drills, salutes and a marchpast in the grounds of Windsor Castle. It was an appropriate setting for it and it took place in glorious sunshine. Watching the event on TV, my wife and I were reminded of how well such pageantry is done in Britain - even in today’s exceptional circumstances.
Meanwhile, congratulations to Prince Philip on reaching a memorable milestone.