November 29, 2019

As the art historian Kenneth Clark once remarked, if you wish to discern the values of an age, there is less utility in reading a thousand speeches by state functionaries than in simply studying the monuments that that society erects. And no monuments are as boastful of the values and virtues of the age than statues.

Yesterday in Plymouth one such statue was unveiled of Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Common. Viscountess Astor had won the constituency of Plymouth Sutton in 1919, and after Sinn Féin’s Constance Markievicz had refused to take her seat the previous year, became the first woman to sit in the House.

Both the former prime minister Theresa May and her successor Boris Johnson posed by the statue of the former Tory MP, who held the seat until 1945; Mrs May said the whole country should be “proud of the great strides Nancy Astor made for equality and representation”.

But the unveiling is not just an opportunity to commemorate the centenary of women being involved in Parliamentary politics in the UK. Its erection — like that of any statue — reveals several interesting facets of our age.

In recent years Britain, like the United States, has had an ongoing set of “statues wars”. In the decade before this, while he was Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (sadly so often ahead of his time) had an outburst when he chose to dismiss some of the plinth-dwellers of Trafalgar Square.

In 2000 Livingstone explained that the statues of Major General Sir Henry Havelock and General Sir James Napier should be removed from their plinths because “I have not a clue who two of the generals there are or what they did”. Needless to say, Livingstone saw the fault here as being Havelock’s and Napier’s, rather than his own. By contrast generations of schoolchildren yet unborn can be expected to sing choruses and roundelays about the noble endeavours and accomplishments of Ken Livingstone while Mayor of the capital.

By the time that Marc Quinn’s statue of Alison Lapper Pregnant was unveiled half a decade later it was perfectly uncontroversial to say that the likenesses of Havelock and Napier should be removed because they had been responsible for imperialist oppression and that Trafalgar Square should have no room for such imagery.

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Without any explicit governmental announcements an important transition had already taken place within the nation, and “diversity” had replaced heroism as the most celebrated virtue in British society.

The ensuing years have embedded this impression. During this decade Britain has seen the arrival of a Gandhi statue in Parliament Square and a campaign to pull down that of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. As with the statue wars in America none of this is completely new, since such effigies have always come and gone. But the question of who goes up and who goes down — or at least who’s targetted for pulling down — reveals an interesting cross-section of our current priorities.

The figure of Gandhi must have seemed like a godsend to the Conservative Government that announced and oversaw its construction. It was also a useful little diplomatic tool; the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, found it diplomatically helpful to announce the memorial while on an official visit to India in 2014. But Gandhi’s arrival in Parliament Square was definitely helped by a wider sense that the statuary in the centre of London needed to be “diversified”. The statues of the nation must — like everything else — be less male, stale and pale.

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Yet even if this is the main impetus, the determination with which we are holding to it also tells us something more about our current orders of priorities. Nancy Astor, for instance, was a very remarkable woman: determined, witty and accomplished. She was also the beneficiary of considerable privilege, through birth and marriage — none of which is generally looked on with forgiveness in our age.

More significantly, in her day she also had views which we would not ordinarily now encourage. She was, for instance, intimately bound up with the upper-class appeasement movement of the 1930s. And as Harold Nicholson (among others) noted in his diaries, she was perfectly willing to indulge in the kind of ugly, reflexive anti-Semitism that was thought to be “smart” in aristocratic circles in those days.

None of this is to take away from Astor, or to indulge in the kind of gleeful hindsight-presumption that now laces nearly all writing about historical figures. But it is interesting, because ordinarily in the current era people are neither admired nor forgiven — let alone celebrated — if they are deemed to have been racist. Ordinarily when any tribute is paid to a dead person — however great their accomplishments — a slew of critics emerge to counter that said individual had bad opinions which must neither be overlooked nor celebrated.

Gandhi — whose statue happily strides aloft his plinth in Parliament Square — was also a type of racist. As students at the forever right-on Manchester University noted when a bust of him was given to their city, he had views about black Africans which would not be forgiven in a person today. In his early writings while in South Africa, he had repeatedly referred to Africans in highly derogatory terms.

So perhaps the choice of statues reveals something which, if accepted, could be potentially helpful for our current era — that perhaps our society has a better understanding of human complexity than we are currently willing to let on. In the present day we are obsessed with “cancelling” and otherwise lambasting people if they have got even one thing wrong in their life, even if that “wrong” thing is something that everyone used to get “wrong”.

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But with some historical figures perhaps we recognise that things are messier than that. That good people do bad things, and that there are more complex weight and balance systems than the loudest voices in our societies might now like to pretend. If that is the case, then it might be worth trying to learn from it, and discover how an air-pocket of subtlety around the past might be extended into the present.

More likely is that there is simply a pecking order among the priorities of the age — as in every age before. A woman may be celebrated even though she had racist views. An Indian may be forgiven even if he had racist opinions. But it seems unlikely that any more statues will be going up to a heterosexual white male who had a single abhorrent thought in his life.

And that is not just because there are enough pale, male statues already. It is a simple demonstration of the fact that we are keener to stress diversity than any other value in our age — even anti-racism. The importance of celebrating women in politics or Indian political figures in London supersedes everything else; the virtue and goal of the age is diversity, and it turns out that — like the gods of previous ages — it will be pursued whatever the contradictions: indeed in spite of them.