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.

Join the discussion


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

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