by Niall Gooch
Wednesday, 5
August 2020
Debate
07:02

The fourth plinth must get its just deserts

It's time to permanently fill the empty platform with a traditional statue
by Niall Gooch
‘The End’ by Heather Phillipson on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Credit: Keith Mayhew / Getty Images

As a cultural conservative, I have once again been owned by a piece of edgy and daring iconoclasm on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It is called The End, by Heather Phillipson, and it is a pile of whipped cream with a fly on it, featuring a drone for some reason. I’m sure it’s all very clever and challenges my bourgeois complacency, but to be honest, even just describing it feels like a gigantic waste of mental energy, filling me with boredom and exasperation and a desire to be thinking about literally anything else.

It really is time to permanently fill the fourth plinth. It has been standing empty for a very long time. It was raised in 1841 when Queen Victoria was only 22 years old and therefore predates electric lighting, the telephone, undersea telegraph cables, ironclad warships and almost all of Charles Dickens’ novels. Over the last couple of decades, it has been used as a display for public art installations. Some of these have been quite decent – Alison Lapper Pregnant was a striking piece of unconventional sculpture – but none of them have really been appropriate to the setting.

I think we should have a traditional figurative sculpture portraying a Briton, or British subject (i.e. someone who lived under British rule in the Empire), who was from a non-European ethnic background and achieved genuine distinction in their field. Given the setting of Trafalgar Square, my own preference would be for a military figure, to symbolise the enormous contribution made by Imperial troops in the First and Second World Wars; perhaps one of the 29 Indians or 12 Gurkhas to have been awarded the VC, or – as a Twitter friend suggested when I mooted the idea – the SOE operative and George Cross recipient Noor Inayat Khan.

But there are contenders from other fields. Another Twitter pal proposed Srinivasa Ramanujan, the brilliant and prolific Indian mathematician who lived under the Raj. A name that occurred to me was Learie Constantine, the West Indian cricketer, barrister, politician and civil rights campaigner. He was the plaintiff in the famous Constantine v Imperial Hotels Ltd case, a modest though important early ruling against racial discrimination.

Some will argue that specifically selecting a non-white person is tokenism or a concession to “wokeness”. I just don’t think this is true. All public statues are tokenistic to some degree since we cannot possibly hope to publicly commemorate everyone who is worthy of such commemoration.

As long as the statue is of someone genuinely distinguished, then it seems to me that it is perfectly reasonable to use ethnicity as a key criterion for deciding who to commemorate. The tokenism charge only really makes sense when we asked to treat as historically important or greatly accomplished someone who was not in fact either of those things – someone like Mary Seacole, whose importance has been enormously exaggerated for political reasons.

One further stipulation I would make is that the person commemorated has to be someone who was both relevant to the British national story, and not antagonistic to Britain and its interests (a military statue would almost by definition obviate this concern). It is normal, natural and right for the central square in our capital city to feature individuals who are influential and noteworthy in our specific national story, and we must overcome the modern pre-emptive cringe which leads us to doubt this.

A statue of the kind I am suggesting would make a powerful public statement about the involvement of people from ethnic minorities in the British national story. Britain is now and will be in the future a multi-ethnic country. However we feel about this, and about the policy decisions that have led us to this point, it is a fact. If we want Britain to have a future as a viable and stable nation, we need to try as hard as we can to ensure that all Britons from whatever backgrounds treat the country, and its history and traditions, as their own, that they take pride in this land and its remarkable heritage.

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Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

I think there’s a statue down in Bristol which might be needing a new home. Now that would be edgy and daring

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Brilliant idea!

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 year ago

The Tomb of the Unknown Rotherham Schoolgirl.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
1 year ago

Paid for in part by reparations from the labour leadership.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
1 year ago

We should remember our allies more. Who these days knows of Frederick the Great, or General Singh of Baradur? Where are the references to those Portuguese guerrillas that helped us in Spain?

I can think of at least one Polish general who did his bit alongside our boys in WW2.

Given the declinist obsession with the loss of British power, perhaps it might be a good idea to show that we have historically always operated with allies. We haven’t ever acted alone, and it is unlikely we ever will. Perhaps a couple of statues might help.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

Never mind just deserts, surely the thing they’ve put up recently is just a dessert?

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
1 year ago

I am certainly opposed to tokenism, but I think all the names that Mr Gooch suggests are admirable possible choices, and the reasons he proffers for acknowledging our status as a multicultural society in the fabric of our cities are good ones.

I would like to suggest that it would also be worth giving more recognition (not necessarily on Trafalgar Square!) to the kind of multiculturalism that gets obscured by oversimplified demographic categorisations based around skin colour or large regional definitions. The second most spoken native language in this country at the last census was Polish, but when was the last time you read a modern British novel, saw a British film, or watched a British television series even acknowledging the existence of that particular ethnic minority? I’d like to see Joseph Conrad on a plinth somewhere in the UK – to remind us that in some senses we were “in Europe” long before the EU existed and remain there after our departure; but also to celebrate an immigrant who made a positive choice to settle in this country.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
1 year ago

In the current situation, if you wish for a symbol of Britain, why not try William Wilberforce. Or if it should be reserved for a military figure, why not a statue to the sailors of the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron, who died enforcing the British ban on international slavery.

P C
P C
1 year ago

Dear gods. Even here, there’s a determination to eradicate the British from Britain. Finding a BAME person who has contributed just as much, or more than a vast number of Englishmen and Women would be an enormous challenge, only surpassed in deep stupidity by the idea that a member of a small minority must be given priority over any of those legions of nation-builders, scientists, soldiers, doctors and engineers. There’s already a statue of a foreign terrorist in Trafalgar Square. No Affirmative Action Statues; they would only deepen and entrench disharmony.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  P C

Who is that, Nelson I suppose?

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I think he means the Landseer lions at the bottom of the column. Definitely foreign, and quite scary, if not terrorists

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Also rather fortunate that Napier and Havelock also avoided the BLM Iconoclasts!

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Shush!

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Sincere apologies, for a moment I thought we were ‘secure’ on this site,
a sort of “band of brothers “. I shall tread carefully in future, many thanks,

Matt K
Matt K
1 year ago

Shamima Begum perhaps?

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt K

Not even as a joke

Andrew Denny
Andrew Denny
1 year ago

I have a better idea: Why not leave it empty, as a tribute to ‘The Unknown Eminence’. So long as it is empty, it represents whatever you want it to represent. Let the debate about it continue for ever.

As a journalist, I’m reminded of this by the blank piece paper on my desk, or the blank screen on my word processor, which is awaiting my next article. As long as the page is empty, the expectation that it will be my greatest ever work lives vividly in my mind. As soon as I put down a word, it is diminished, and every word I add makes my article worse.

Long live the the empty plinth, the true and honest tribute to the greatest Briton who ever lived.

Dale Smith
Dale Smith
1 year ago

I had always thought (in blissful ignorance) that it was vacant on purpose — a challenge to the present to be worthy of filling it.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 year ago
Reply to  Dale Smith

No, it’s the sculptures on top of it that have been vacant.

Ian McGregor
Ian McGregor
1 year ago

Nothing with any woke connotations. Nothing with token racial content. Nothing emanating from cultures with only tenuous links to our survival or creativity. Nothing to do with adolescent play dough associations. In fact, a recognisable Brit who has added value to our society, history and culture. Another statue to Churchill or to our first female Prime Minister, Thatcher, would so enrage the woke battalions they would be ideal.

neilyboy.forsythe
neilyboy.forsythe
1 year ago

There could be twin statues to the foremost proponents of Identitarianism. One of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and the other of Adolf Hitler.

neilyboy.forsythe
neilyboy.forsythe
1 year ago

…..the piece could be named “Two Cheeks of the Same 4rse”.

Me MyselfI
Me MyselfI
1 year ago

*Desserts*

David McCabe
David McCabe
1 year ago
Reply to  Me MyselfI

What about them?

Simon Latham
Simon Latham
1 year ago

The empty plinth was designed for an equestrian statue.
Few could agree on a person to permanently occupy the plinth but a horse without rider might be appropriate and popular (suitably larger than life, like Nelson on his column so it does not appear dwarfed by its surroundings). Moreover, there are some excellent equestrian sculptors in this country who might rise to the challenge. Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Shergar, Sefton or perhaps an unknown plough horse. I look forward to the competition being announced.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Latham

Is it big enough for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? I think they’re on their way…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Latham

We already have a splendid horse in Park Lane, as part of the Animals in War Memorial.

My vote would be for Thomas Paine, who certainly lived up to his surname in more ways than one.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
1 year ago

It’s a pity that the great Indian economist Amartya Sen, long a professor at Cambridge, never bothered to take out UK citizenship, or he would be a serious candidate for a statue.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

How about Daley Thompson? Handsome, with a physique chiselled by Michelangelo and tying for first place with Sir Gareth Edwards as Britain’s greatest ever sportsman.

titan0
titan0
1 year ago

I think I’d go for a Blade Runner-esque 90 foot tall naked woman hologram espousing that she, ‘will love you very long time’, in a multitude of commonly spoken languages currently used in the UK.