Last week in this column, I covered the issue of criminal vandalism of statues and monuments in Britain and stressed the need for the police to enforce law and order. I return to the subject today because of a more recent development that, in the view of many, has reached a new low of craven submission by authority.
The governing body of Oriel College, Oxford has voted to remove a small statue of the 19th century diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, who attended the college and has been its major benefactor, from the entrance to its building in the centre of the city. Many regard that as an act of cowardice by those concerned who have been intimidated by a vociferous mob demanding the statue should be torn down. The college authorities have rolled over to appease the mob by agreeing to obliterate history to satisfy the feelings of an unrepresentative minority – and this in a place of learning that is supposed to teach the importance of logic and rational argument.
First, however, a brief look at the background. People wonder how demonstrations about racial injustice and discrimination against minorities in Britain - in the wake of the killing of an unarmed African-American by the police in far-off Minnesota - can have turned in to controversy about vandalised statues, the nation’s imperial past and its involvement in the slave trade. How is it, they say, that within the space of a month these demonstrations have been taken over by political activists and seem to have become an assault on society as a whole.
Justifiable as the original protests were, they have escalated, through the organisation Black Lives Matter (BLM), in to demands for the toppling of statues across the country – including, to name just a few, those of such notables as former prime ministers Winston Churchill and William Gladstone, Clive of India outside the Foreign Office, Francis Drake who defeated the Spanish Armada, Robert Peel who established London’s police force and Horatio Nelson, the nation’s most famous admiral whose column towers over Trafalgar Square in central London.
As for Cecil Rhodes, it is interesting that some four years ago Oriel’s own students voted to keep his statue in place. He made a lot of money and was a generous benefactor, though no saint. He was clearly an aggressive empire-builder in acquiring land for his mining operations both in the Cape Colony of South Africa – of which he was prime minister for six years - and later in Rhodesia, the territory that carried his name. But historians say his declared motto was equal voting rights for all, white and black alike, subject to being able to write one’s name and having property or a job. Moreover, when he established the Rhodes Scholarships in his will, he stipulated that no student should be qualified or disqualified on account of race. To link him to apartheid is patently absurd since he died in 1902 and that evil regime was not imposed in South Africa until 1948.
Overall, it is surely unrealistic to apply a sort of retrospective morality to someone who lived 150 years ago, but the protesters have little interest in such arguments because they claim they are offended by people like him and that, in order to build a more diverse and inclusive future, the country has to get rid of symbols like Cecil Rhodes.
Throughout Britain, there are statues of politicians, generals, admirals, merchants, artists, philanthropists and others which are now under threat – and, perhaps most sinister of all, is the establishment by the Mayor of London of a ‘Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm’ to review all the capital’s landmarks for their so-called politically correct acceptability. But the big question is who will sit on such a commission and what criteria will it use?
Where does this collective madness end? For example, what about royal statues and war memorials? Will there be calls to tear those down as well? Even the Rugby Football Union is considering stopping the traditional singing of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ at Twickenham because of its connection with slavery.
Then, what about books, plays, paintings and journals that are deemed not to be politically correct? Already, the classic film ‘Gone with the Wind’ has been dropped because of its racial overtones and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ is said to be under threat.
The staid and traditional Bank of England is removing the portraits of 11 former governors who were said to have profited from slavery. Other British banks were also involved in financing the slave trade as were major companies of the period. But nobody mentions that it was Britain herself who outlawed the Atlantic slave trade at the start of the 19th century and used the Royal Navy to stop it.
As a result of all this, some are now saying Britain is teetering almost on the brink of a cultural revolution - shades of China in the 1960s and ISIS’s destruction of relics of the past in the Middle East.
BLM UK claims to be campaigning against systemic racism that still exists in parts of British society, with ethnic minorities affected by economic and social inequality. But it is clearly not the case that the nation is dominated by bigotry and race hatred. Thus, many people consider claims of oppression and exploitation in order to justify a wave of cultural vandalism are unwarranted – and, in the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it is better to stop focusing on the symbols of racism and discrimination and to look instead at the wider situation in order to improve it. But BLM’s GoFundMe webpage reveals that it has a far-Left agenda with other goals besides lobbying against racism – for example, among others, being committed to dismantling capitalism, abolishing the police and closing prisons. So it appears to have been infiltrated by political ideologues and agitators with a more dangerous agenda.
What is now happening is against Britain’s traditions of pluralism, tolerance and freedom. The nation’s history is complex – some good and some less so with episodes of glory and shame. Generally, the majority of people are quietly proud of their country - its history and culture - and have no appetite for extremism which is the antithesis of democracy with its acceptance of dissenting opinion and the right to speak out freely and fearlessly. They do not want to destroy capitalism and the structure of society. They do not like ideological fervour and the sort of bullying fanaticism that is now playing out. However, it seems that minority activists are being allowed to set the agenda; and the supreme irony is that removing reminders of the country’s past will do nothing to address genuine social injustice that could even be made worse by today’s extremism.
I heard one young demonstrator shout out in front of a TV camera that ‘if you are not with us, you’re racist’. In other words, no debate, no reasoning and no respect for an alternative or opposing view. That about sums it all up. But why, people ask, is more not being done officially to rein in the activities of what looks to be a minority seeking to destroy society. That is a debate for another day.
MERGER SHOULD NOT AFFECT UK’S CONTRIBUTION
The major announcement by the British Prime Minister last week of the merger of the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been received with praise and criticism in almost equal measure.
Mr Johnson said this merger would unite diplomacy and development, bringing together Britain’s international effort in a new super-department called the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. It will be an opportunity for the UK to have a greater impact on the world stage as the country recovers from the coronavirus pandemic and to place it in a stronger position as it holds the presidency of the G7 next year and also hosts a major UN climate change conference.
Aid will be given prominence in the country’s new ambitious international policy and spending on it will now be in line with Britain’s priorities overseas. The nation will continue to be a leader in the international development community and will stick to its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of its GNI (Gross National Income) on overseas development, a target that has been enshrined in UK law. However, with a contraction of the UK economy following the coronavirus meltdown, a reduction of the aid budget may follow.
In typically robust and colourful language, Mr Johnson commented separately that for too long UK overseas aid had been treated like a giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any real reference to the country’s interests and that large sums of taxpayers’ money should not be spent in this way without greater accountability.
Since DFID was created more than 20 years ago with the aim of alleviating poverty and promoting sustainable development, Conservatives have wanted it to be reabsorbed into the Foreign Office - and many consider this is timely when Britain is reshaping its role on the global stage post-Brexit.
Nonetheless, critics have accused the government of jeopardising Britain’s global standing because DFID was seen as the world’s leading aid agency and enhanced the nation’s reputation accordingly. Predictably, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) like ‘Oxfam’ and ‘Save the Children’, which receive significant funding from DFID, have reacted with horror saying the merger is a brazen challenge to the aid sector.
Many believe bilateral developmental aid should be linked to foreign policy strategic objectives and priorities since it makes no sense to be spending taxpayers’ money without considering what Britain is trying to achieve overall in relation to the recipient country. But bilateral aid is, of course, separate from the UK’s contribution to multilateral bodies like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) whose aims are to eradicate poverty and to improve the global economy.
I imagine the merger will not affect Britain’s contributions to multilateral organisations, nor to her emergency aid in response to disasters which is so important on the world stage. One has only to look at Britain’s impressive response here in The Bahamas in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in September last year - orchestrated so effectively by new High Commissioner Sarah Dickson - to appreciate the value of such humanitarian assistance to countries in distress, particularly fellow members of the Commonwealth.
Dame Vera, a force for good in every way
In this column in late March, I took the opportunity of congratulating Dame Vera Lynn on the occasion of her 103rd birthday. Famous as the Forces’ sweetheart during the Second World War, she had become one of Britain’s best-loved singers and entertainers and was regarded as a national treasure.
Now, some three months later, the nation is in mourning after she passed away last week. The outpouring of public grief, mixed with praise and adulation, has been extraordinary but thoroughly deserved because this iconic figure had captured the hearts of the British people as a beacon of decency, kindness, compassion, love and hope. The Queen, who was said last week to be ‘very, very sad’ to learn of Dame Vera’s passing, led the tributes to her and, reportedly, sent a private letter of sympathy to her family – and, significantly, Her Majesty had quoted her most famous song “We’ll Meet Again” during the monarch’s poignant nationwide address at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in April.
It is generally agreed that people warmed to Vera Lynn because she was seen as being genuine and caring. During the war she bravely travelled to places like Egypt, India and Burma giving outdoor concerts in war zones to the troops - the lonely boys overseas - who were encouraged and helped to keep going by the message of love and hope she gave them about returning home at some time in the future and meeting family and friends again. She herself was quoted as saying that hope remains even in the most difficult of times.
Amid Dame Vera’s large repertoire, in addition to “We’ll Meet Again”, two other patriotic songs are especially well known -- “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “There’ll Always be an England”, together with the love song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. Her music may seem tame and dated to the modern ear accustomed to rock bands, but her music lived on and found new audiences, and that was evidence of her enormous success.
As I mentioned in the article in March, I was fortunate to have met Dame Vera when I was running the civilian side of the VE-Day 50th anniversary events in 1995 and I can attest at a personal level to what a wonderful person she was. At the age of 78, she played the main role in a concert to mark the occasion and gave an amazing performance, leaving many in the huge audience in tears with a mixture of joy, sadness and nostalgia but also deep gratitude and appreciation.
Among so many tributes, the Prime Minister is quoted as saying Dame Vera’s ‘charm and magical voice entranced and uplifted our country in some of our darkest hours’. She will surely be remembered as someone who was quite simply a force for good in every way.