Edward Colston toppled in Bristol. Credit: Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty

June 11, 2020   5 mins

Whenever people ask, I say I’m from Bristol. No one’s heard of where I’m really from (Burnham on Sea – just down the road). Besides, Bristol has always felt so much cooler. My tired old, windswept, provincial coastal town is rather embarrassing by comparison.

Until now. While the tearing down of the Colston statue may have superficially burnished the city’s hip, progressive credentials, it also illuminated the city’s dark side: a history of brutal imperial exploitation, worker rebellion and rampant inequality that never went away.

The city, in 1889, just before the statue was erected, had been described as “a seething centre of revolt”. Britain was in its imperial pomp, but the servants’ quarters were in revolt. The subversive creed of socialism was gaining ground among the West Country’s working class. Respectable Victorian society sought to counter that spirit of rebellion by promoting philanthropists and the paternalistic values of ‘great men’ – men like Edward Colston, who now finds himself sitting in the bottom of the marina while a new generation of rebels cheer.

Today, Bristol is a ‘cultural hub’ in that rather hackneyed term. The artist Banksy, another Bristolian, is a representative figure when it comes to the pseudo-revolutionary aesthetic that seems to emanate from the city’s pores. It is beloved by a stratum of the upper middle class – which is smug, complacent, and not quite as revolutionary as it would like to think.

Because the poor are still very often airbrushed from the city’s public image. Behind the street art, cobbled lanes, ludicrously expensive housing and overpriced drinking dens is a city where many residents struggle to make ends meet.

This is an image carefully curated by the city’s last mayor, George Ferguson. Known for his bright red trousers, Ferguson’s agenda was notoriously light on substance. He created a buzz around the city, while increasing inequality and gentrification — as well as the hole in the city’s finances. Pedestrianisation, tree-planting and the promotion of high-profile festivals were all celebrated achievements – and largely preoccupations of an outer-suburban middle class who made up Ferguson’s voter base.

But five years ago, he was ousted by Marvin Rees, the son of a Jamaican father and British mother. He couldn’t have been more different from Ferguson; Rees was brought up by a single mother in the deprived areas of St Pauls, Lawrence Weston and Easton.

Rees won by focusing on two policy areas which had been neglected for decades: housing and transport. Back in 2016, when he was elected, house prices were increasing by 17%  a year. Great news for existing homeowners but less so for the city’s low income residents — and nearly a quarter of Bristol children (21%) live in low-income families. Rees has, since his election, overseen the building of 200 council homes with a further 900 currently being built. But it’s still not enough. There are 13,000 families currently on the council’s housing waiting list in Bristol.

And yet the image the middle classes cling to is of high levels of life satisfaction. In fact, Bristol was recently voted the happiest city in the country to live by its residents; but, tellingly, it has also been voted the worst city in which to use public transport. And public transport is vital for those commuting from the deprived outer boroughs into the city centre. But services designed for the poor, are generally poor services. Buses are late or don’t turn up. And for those travelling to work, a frequently late bus can be the difference between a warning and a sacking.

Bristol is certainly a diverse city — 16% of the local population belongs to a black or minority ethnic group. Yet the fact that a statue of Edward Colston stood for 125 years ought to temper the idea that the city is some exceptional progressive ‘hub’.

Indeed, much has been made, since the toppling, of the importance of removing offensive monuments consensually. But that approach had already been tried in Bristol — over and again. The most recent stalemate was over a contextual plaque intended for Colston’s plinth. The Merchant Venturers — the organisation to which Colston belonged — engaged in filibustering pedantry in an attempt to water down the wording. Meanwhile,Tory councillor Richard Eddy, who said on Sunday that he was “horrified and appalled by the rank lawlessness” of those who threw Colston’s statue in the river, had encouraged pro-Colston vigilantism, saying in 2018 that vandalism of the new plaque “might be justified”. In other words, the status quo in Bristol has its own militant wing.

There was, of course, an element of revolution as play at work among those who romped around central Bristol at the weekend. A few of the white arms pulling down Colston’s statue were doubtless attached to hemp-shirted, dreadlocked out-of-towners who came to Bristol for the ‘vibe’.

To focus on them, however, and to obsess about “process”, is to ignore the fact that Bristol’s social problems run a lot deeper than statues, concert halls and road signs. Yes, black locals hated that statue — and for good reason. But they have other pressing concerns, too. A 2017 report by the Runnymede Trust ranked Bristol as the seventh worst local authority for racial inequality out of the 348 in the UK – and the worst ‘core’ city (self-selected core cities are: Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield).

Growing up poor in Bristol is hard. And growing up poor and BAME is a constant battle, despite the popular image of the city as ‘open’ and ‘tolerant’ and [insert woke corporate buzzword]. Bristol has 41 areas in the most deprived 10% in England. Despite graduates of Bristol’s prestigious university earning above the national average three years after graduation, Bristol was ranked in the bottom third of all local authorities in England by the Social Mobility Commission.

Because political activism is dominated by university students, more deep-rooted inequalities are sometimes passed over by campaigners in favour of headline-grabbing stunts. Spectacular public actions can galvanise opinion. But race equality campaigners will want to ensure that superficial change is not a substitute for what has been correctly identified as structural and institutional racism. Too often mere cosmetic change is a feature of liberal identity politics: the diverse boardroom but the overwhelmingly black, poorly paid shop floor. That isn’t equality; nor is the act of pulling down an objectionable statue in a city where residents from Black African and Black Caribbean families have persistently high levels of unemployment.

Another bleak irony about last weekend’s protests, was that so many protesters seemed complacent about the spread of a virus which, while perhaps not affecting them, has been disproportionately killing the old, the infirm, and, yes, black people. To point this out while protests were taking place was frowned upon as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘insensitive’ — further proof perhaps that we live in a shallow and unserious culture where raw feelings are given much too much credence.

Bristol at times encapsulates our culture’s contemporary shallowness. The city has a propensity to sate itself on its own progressive reputation – while simultaneously ignoring glaring inequalities that exist just beneath the surface. We must hope that the carnivalesque removal of Edward Colston from his plinth at the weekend will not adhere to this familiar Bristolian type: a self-satisfied pat on the back that quickly slips into complacency about the city’s more deep-rooted inequalities.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.