by Aris Roussinos
Wednesday, 10
June 2020
Idea
07:00

Statue-toppling shakes the foundations of ‘Britishness’

Removing imperial monuments could have a surprising effect on UK identity
by Aris Roussinos
Edward Colston’s empty plinth in Bristol

Right about now the divisions of Brexit, a sort of soft civil war in which Britain’s relationship with the European Union served as a symbolic proxy for both class conflict and concerns over immigration, were supposed to be healing. Instead we seem to be diving straight into another culture war, this time over the monuments to Britain’s imperial legacy.

Unlike Brexit this one is expressly centred on racial and ethnic difference, and that is not good news for political stability.


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The American political scientist Donald L. Horowitz, drawing on studies of post-colonial conflicts in Africa and Southern Asia, characterises the outcome of these disputes as one where:

…rather than merely setting the framework for politics, [group relations] become the recurring subjects of politics. Conflicts over needs and interests are subordinated to conflicts over group status and over the rules to govern conflict. Constitutional consensus is elusive, and the symbolic sector of politics looms large.
- Donald L. Horowitz

This seems like a reasonably accurate depiction of the politics of the United States, where the symbolic sector has become the central battleground of political disharmony. The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, for example, aims to re-centre American history around the institution of slavery, replacing one national myth with another in an act of symbolic politics rather than of journalism as conventionally understood.

Within the UK, the most potentially momentous political divisions were already those of ethnic politics, though not hitherto those of race. The very existence of the United Kingdom is placed under threat by nationalist independence movements in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and to a lesser degree in Wales. The survival of the British state should not be taken for granted.

The irony here is that the monuments to British imperialism threatened with removal, by either mobs or by clipboard-wielding functionaries, are also symbols of the shaky British state itself. The United Kingdom was created by the empire as much as the other way around, imperial expansion being the shared project that tied English and Scottish elites into a unified whole.

Irrespective of the morality of their actions, statues of Clive of India or of early modern slave traders are symbols of the historical process by which black or Asian Britons exist as communities in this country. Churchill, arch-imperialist though he was, has really become a symbol of the post-imperial state, with Britain’s resistance to Nazi Germany becoming the central plank of postwar British identity, equivalent to national liberation movements in other countries.

Britain’s BAME communities share with Ulster Protestants the rare distinction of identifying themselves as British first and foremost, yet mostly reside within a nation, England, that primarily identifies itself as English rather than British. The eclipse of Britishness by Englishness as a political identity is a relatively recent and vastly under-discussed process, and its endpoint is unknown.

If there is to be a national debate on Britishness, race and identity, then, it should take into account the broader political faultlines of the United Kingdom. Britishness is already seen by many as a more inclusive identity than Englishness: the long-term effects of expunging the symbols of the British state in such a heated and emotive manner may be unpredictable, and not necessarily positive.

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Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
2 years ago

You are wrong to state that, “The eclipse of Britishness by Englishness as a political identity is a relatively recent”
Growing up in Birmingham, I ( and my contemporaries) would have called myself English, not British.
The use of the word British to describe the English has occurred in my lifetime and is indeed relatively recent.
The term British (or just Brits) was used abroad to encompass a mix of Scots, Welsh & English.
Where you may be correct, is in thinking that the English are becoming cross when they are treated as second class citizens. I still remember being annoyed when I had to fill in a Government form that had no box for the English, but did have one for the Welsh, Scots etc. Apparently I was no longer English, but white British.

The push of identity politics, is of course, a well known tactic of the left wing and was pursued by the Labour party by granting a parliament to Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland, but not the English. These divisions may well result in the breakup of Britain, much to my dismay.

The present problems are mainly another push to divide with identity politics, using the slave trade as a motivator. A slave trade has existed – with written evidence – for thousands of years. Whilst we now rightly condemn any slave trade, one would have to condemn the Greeks, Romans, Africans, Arabs etc., not just the English.

Perhaps, we now need statues to commemorate the British, who did so much to ban slavery worldwide. An especially large one to those sailors of the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron who died in the push to stop slavery.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

I have a plan forming in my head for a statue that shows the entire history of the slave trade, from adoption to abolition. The angle you stand at when facing the statue determines whether you see slave traders giving life saving sugar to english workers (the pro-slavery view), or slaves herded like cattle from African slave forts (the anti-slavery view). I might have a bit that shows african societies trading slaves, but at a less industrially brutal rate than the europeans. End with the West Africa squadron shutting it down and the use of gunboats to shut down slavery in the West African interior.

Question is, how much does it cost to set statues up?

Amanda Whittaker
Amanda Whittaker
2 years ago

It would be interesting for some of the UK BLM protestors to research their ancestry and find their origins. Understand the kind of villages their ancestors came from, how they lived, what the traditions were, and even be surprised to find some children were sold to slavers by their own families to make ends meet. Then they could decide just how badly-done-to they feel living in the UK in 2020.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago

The Colonist was the conscious person in the whole chain of poor deeds, I hope you are not going to come up with this leaky load of crap to justify how good they have it on the island today. Islanders are very insular type of character in their thinking.

david bewick
david bewick
2 years ago

Maybe the USA may need to reconsider Mount Rushmore. Washington and even more so Jefferson were well know slave owners with 4 of Jefferson’s children born to slaves. Even Lincoln may need consideration for his earlier life as his wife was the daughter of a plantation owner and slaver and he often stayed on the plantation.

It’s a difficult thing to square when judging past events and significant figures by the standards and morality of today.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  david bewick

Does that mean because it was acceptable two hundred years ago that it still should be tolerated given the history of slavery in this country.?

ky.cao
ky.cao
2 years ago

Not sure why you would be holding a deep & meaningful discussion over an act of thoughtless vandalism.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  ky.cao

Bringing down statues is an act of reassessing history from the now point of view and not from the dark days of colonialism

George Wheeler
George Wheeler
2 years ago

I Don’t know how old you are but when ENGLAND won the the World Cup in 1966 it caused a great nationalist awakening in England at the time. What was the flag that was celebrated but the Union flag. People at the time seemed to have no idea that England had a different flag. That came much later, despite the fact that the other countries in UK used there own national flags, England used the Union flag and the famous promotional song and emblem was red, white and blue – World Cup Willie.
The flag of St George did not feature at all!

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  George Wheeler

The ignorance of the great unwashed knows no boundaries.

Robin P
Robin P
2 years ago

Funny, I grew up close to Birmingham and my experience was the exact opposite (and in line with the article instead). The “England” flag was unknown, and we all assumed that the Union Jack was the flag of “our country”. Our country being something that included Scotland and Wales regardless of whether it began with E or B. We have always had a Queen of the UK, and a UK Parliament, so the Union Jack made sense. The long tradition of singing of Auld Lang Syne at the end of the London Proms and every New Year is another feature of this.

The only reason why any of this changed was the introduction of television and consequently mass spectator sports. Thereby the Englishness of England teams and England flag became dominant. And so a sizeable part of the population started seeing “England” as their country and as something not including Scotland, Wales and Ireland, but instead being in competition with them. In due course the devolution increased this.

James Watt, one of the greatest of Englishmen, was born and grew up in Scotland, then migrated to Birmingham because it was where things were happening (cf Beethoven and Brahms moving to Vienna). Thus Britain has been far more important than England, notwithstanding the many old things I have with the proud marking “Made in England” (usually made in Birmingham actually).

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
2 years ago

“The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project … an act of symbolic politics rather than of journalism as conventionally understood”

Well, yes, it’s also not journalism as conventionally understood because of the degree to which it twists and distorts the facts of the historical record to fit the narrative pushed by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Hopefully someday this Pulitzer is regarded as being as well-deserved as the one that Walter Duranty (also of the NYT) won for his reporting on the Soviet Union in 1932. That was during a time when Duranty was uncritically reporting Soviet propaganda that denied the existence of the famine in Ukraine. To its credit, the New York Times many years later referred to Duranty’s articles that denied this famine as “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper.”

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
2 years ago

More drivel the attempt to airbrush history will fail Who are these self appointed idiots like khan to suggest “we” change our history to his airbrushed version?The hypocrisy of these mob Marxists BLM and remain is a lesson in idiotic virtue signalling .The phones they use are made with Slave labour and Majority of T shirts made in Asia is made with Slave labour..I don’t how your vacuous Orwellian articles get printed ..

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

You know that is incredible, you choose a couple of products and state the link to slave labour, how hollow can you be, when almost everything that you use or wear is made by slave labour in these countries to make the 0.1 percent wealthier, they will be delighted you have taken their voice and spread the good news.

neil.simpson42
neil.simpson42
2 years ago

A bit of an aside comment really. I’m a keen photographer, both landscape and wildlife. I recently noticed with interest that a change had occurred in my own description format to photos when posting them to online nature sites and storage sites. Originally when posting photos taken in England my description would include place name followed by UK. By contrast, any taken in Scotland or Wales I would post with place name followed by Scotland or Wales respectively. Then, around 3 to 4 years ago, when posting photos taken in England, I changed to posting place name followed by England, as opposed to UK.

When I first noticed this change in my description format I was perplexed by why I had made this seemingly ‘unconscious’ change. I concluded that it was actually more deep rooted than it first appeared and resulted from my reaction to what I perceived as a double standard at play. This double standard said that it was no longer good form to describe yourself as English but absolutely fine to describe yourself as Scottish or Welsh. My change of photo description format was therefore my protest against this – in effect, my reaction was to draw back into my original group – not UK, not British, but English.

My seemingly nuanced change to photo descriptions is perhaps a microcosm of the bigger picture at play out there in the UK and wider world. How many people are consciously or unconsciously retreating away from the madding crowd and into their original groups instead of considering themselves as part of a greater collective?

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  neil.simpson42

The wonderful thing about identity Neil is that it separates. The men of power understand this like no one else and by the way nothing is ‘unconscious’ you were primed to think like that as the Welsh and Scots were.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
2 years ago

The hypocrisy of ”The Undemocratic left” Was Remarked on By Great Algerian novelist and Nationalist,Albert Camus. Surely No one should read The Guardian as it Was Founded in May 1821 by John Edward Taylor A cotton magnate imported from Southern United States (presumably picked by Slaves) Guardian backed Robert E.Lee decried Abraham Lincoln, 1861-65;Time to daub their offices ?…

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  Robin Lambert

The paper is not in memory of your great colonial dictators who did a great job for the nobility of your country, who I believe own 50% of all English land. How is that for a just society.

Michael McVeigh
Michael McVeigh
2 years ago

Yes, people from England call themselves English as opposed to British.

It is only a matter of time before there is an English Legislative Assembly – followed by a Constitution of a Federation of the United Kingdom. I would imagine that many decades later Ireland may ‘re-join’ as a Federation of the British Isles.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago

Yes, the Irish are all dying to join the Union, so that they can give power back to the colonists who stayed uninvited for 800 years and had to be kicked out before leaving.

Bill Brookman
Bill Brookman
2 years ago

Aris, I like your writing. Well done!

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
2 years ago

I certainly don’t think trying to separate the British slave trade and the profits from the British slave trade which significantly helped to finance the Industrial Revolution, technological progress, universal suffrage and civic society is helpful and is just another aspect of the Irrationalism that underlies Race Ideology.

Additional, as you subtly point out, without the British slave trade, most ‘black’ people would still be living a subsistence lifestyle in Africa.

The Irrationalism of contemporary Race Ideology and its attempt to deny that the British slave trade financed British ‘Progress’ including British Liberalism and British Rationalism needs to articulate a comprehensive analysis of how British ‘Progress’ could have been financed differently in order to stop the black segregationists of British Irrationalism in its tracks.

Of course, this doesn’t mean revering the British slave trade but simply accepting that at the time, Imperialism and conquest where the historically given tools by which to finance economic and societal development. Today, we instead have international free trade amongst mostly autonomous nations.

This more accurate portrayal of history, at least in my opinion, does mean accepting that British and European Imperialism was a global game changer in the history of human evolution which directly and indirectly gave rise to a new epoch of human societal development.

The contemporary question that arises from this evolutionary shift is much the same as before, how to distribute the benefits of ‘Progress’.

From my perspective, it is this question that will determine the terrain of a New Britain.

Hence the protestations of Black Lives Matter, Scottish Nationalists, Irish Unionists and even English Nationalists is the demand for greater self determination and a just distribution of British prosperity.

Much of this I feel will be reconciled not by class antagonisms but class collaboration because what people need to understand is that the required social productivity that underlies British prosperity is not enhanced by conflict and antagonism but dramatically eroded so that we all become poorer as a result.

However, this doesn’t mean a Neo-Marxism but an informed and rational national debate and how we manage our different functions and the inequalities and equalities that result.

As a suggestion for example, we are now widely aware that there is a key worker class, a managerial class and a landowning (or capital) class with of course the underclass which in recent times barely gets a mention.

Integrating these interdependent class functions are perhaps better managed within more discreet national identities in order to improve a sense of collectivity which one would hope would improve overall social productivity.

This therefore probably means a more devolved federal UK structure, perhaps similar to the German Lander system with the necessary autonomy to unleash the creativity of self-preservation but integrated enough to share the responsibility of growing British resilience.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Gwynne

I like your arguments, however, wasn’t Desmond Tuto who said “You want to polish my chains” and stating that are better off now is a weak argument.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
2 years ago

agree

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
2 years ago

From an outsider’s point of view, this would be a good time to get rid of the endless supply of Prince Albert statutes that populate the towns and villages of the UK, like the “living dead” from some bad movie. It is a Dickens once lamented to a friend, to the effect that there must be some small village or alcove that does not have a statue to Prince Albert, so if you know of its whereabouts…”pray – tell me where it might be found.”

alun Crockford
alun Crockford
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeffrey Shaw

My presumption is this is an attempt at irony, which unfortunately, outsiders rarely pull off.

James Brennan
James Brennan
2 years ago

I’d agree with Nick Whitehouse, up to a point – I gradually discovered my Irish ancestry in the late 1940s at precisely the time I became puzzled by the Daily Express’s insistence that the sporting national identities around which my (taken-for-granted, but increasingly wary) infant patriotism was being encouraged to locate itself were simultaneously English (when deployed against Australia, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales), and British (when against almost anyone else and the United Nations in particular). I have since been very suspicious of “British” and most other brands of patriotism. especially when mediated by (curiously, mainly Scottish) journalists, since. I am also dubious about an apparently Huguenot face of Brexit. The point at which I part company with Nick Whitehouse is his view of identity politics. If my remote Irish ancestors assumed any identity it absorbed a much larger world than any assemblage of Britannic segments. And still does.

David Waring
David Waring
2 years ago

Can we Please remove the bust of Karl Marx?

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
2 years ago
Reply to  David Waring

Is he racist as well, or is this the Conservative echo chamber?