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Historic Statues

Volume 806: debated on Monday 19 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the future of historic statues in England.

My Lords, there are approximately 12,000 outdoor statues in England. In the region of 3,500 are protected as, or as part of, listed buildings; of those, 473 are of historical figures. The future of the vast majority of these historic statues is the responsibility of the owners, usually local authorities. The government policy on historic public statues is quite clear: they should not be removed but retained, with a fuller contextualisation on the background and history of those commemorated provided; this is summarised as “retain and explain”.

My Lords, the wish on the part of some to eradicate our past, in the belief that it is evil, does not justify vandalism. I am dismayed to see re-evaluation, often uninformed, of the contribution of historical figures, most of whom have both good and less good elements. For example, there are strong reasons to take away the prominent position enjoyed by Richard the Lionheart outside our own front door but I am content to walk by him every day, knowing that the study of history places him in context. Likewise, with Cecil Rhodes in my home city, I maintain that he did more good than bad and should not be sacrificed to current concerns, but should be joined by a statue of Mandela. Will the Minister do all she can to stop the destruction of important historical statues?

The noble Baroness gives some very helpful examples. The Government share her concern, particularly at some of the scenes we have seen recently, which have been deeply troubling. It is very unfortunate when figures such as Churchill have to be boarded up to avoid desecration. The Government continue to prioritise this.

Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of putting someone on a pedestal is

“to think of someone as a perfect person with no faults: to admire someone greatly”.

The erection of a statue is not an objective act, but a subjective judgment of an individual’s historical contribution. Does the Minister agree that just as the civic leadership of communities most often decided who should have a statue placed on a pedestal in public places, their modern equivalents, not Ministers, should be trusted to decide whose statues are representative of a community’s current values?

Obviously local authorities are primarily responsible in this area and will take the view of their community into consideration, but my understanding is that for the most contested examples there has been not a uniform community view, but a divided one.

My Lords, I declare my interest as an ambassador of the charitable education and arts project, The World Reimagined. Does the Minister agree that people would be more likely to accept existing statues if we showed greater recognition of the full history of our country? In 1682, William Godwyn proposed a statue in London to prominently acknowledge the injustice suffered by enslaved Africans. Does the Minister not agree that, 350 years on, it is well past time that a national memorial should be constructed in London to commemorate the millions of Africans enslaved under British rule?

The noble Lord is right when he talks about a full history of our country, and we hope our approach of retain and explain goes some way to addressing that, but he is also right that there is a place for new statues expressing many different issues, both permanent and temporary installations, such as the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

My Lords, while I in no way condone criminal damage, I note that our historical statues signally fail to recognise the contribution of women to the scientific and medical advances we enjoy today. In fact, research by the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez suggests that there are only 158 statues of women. Of those, 110 feature mythical or allegorical women, 46 depict royals and 14 show the Virgin Mary. Does the Minister agree that, rather than myths, princesses or virgins, we should invest in a few statues that commemorate some of our great female innovators and role models, such as Dorothy Hodgkin, Ada Lovelace and Jocelyn Bell Burnell? There are many to choose from and they would be a great addition to our landscape.

My noble friend is absolutely right. There is plenty of room for more women of extraordinary talent and contribution to be represented in that way. Indeed, more broadly, we welcome the recent decision by English Heritage to unveil the portrait of Sara Forbes Bonetta during this Black History Month.

My Lords, assessment of our statues in England is not a culture war, as some would like to say, but rather an honest appraisal about who we put on a pedestal to be revered. While we understand that no one is perfect, and this is not an attempt to rewrite history, rather to better understand it, some statues would be better placed in a museum with their full context explained, rather than showcased in a grandiose way. Therefore, will Her Majesty’s Government create a task force on historical statues that will assess the actions of people honoured and decide what to do with their statues?

I am not aware that there are plans for a task force as the noble Lord suggests, but I am happy to take that back to the department. Obviously, move versus remove versus retain and explain has been carefully considered. Our view is that retain and explain is the best approach. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will shortly have an online round table to discuss many of these issues with key stakeholders and arm’s-length bodies.

My Lords, we welcome the Government’s suggestion that the policy should be retain and explain. I think that gets across the point very well. Does the Minister agree that resolving this issue might be an opportunity for collaborative work with schools? What would children make of the way our local communities currently view local history through their statues? Will she pursue this with her colleagues?

The noble Lord’s suggestion chimes very well with our approach. It would be enlightening to hear what children think: they normally tell us the truth. I am happy to pick that up with colleagues.

My Lords, is this not exactly an area where national government should resist interfering too strongly? Most of the statues in Bradford are of local people—Samuel Lister, Titus Salt, WE Forster, JB Priestley—and we are having a local discussion about the appropriateness of the statute of Sir Robert Peel, with petition and counterpetition. That is encouraging local debate about our history. Should this not be left to local communities and local authorities? Central government, which already tells local government far too much about what it should do, should leave well alone.

It is perhaps worth separating out the different issues here. The noble Lord is right that many issues, as he has described, relate to and fall within the responsibility of local government. Where central government has been clear in setting out its position is in relation to publicly funded institutions, where we have stressed their need for impartiality.

My Lords, on 17 December 2015, I drew to the attention of this House the brutal legacy of slavery which led to the establishment of Buxton memorial fountain just across from the Chamber. Colonisation across the globe was a trade of human misery, of men and women, families, communities and nations, shredded, bound and pillaged, against any claim of decency and human dignity, rights and justice that we rightly hold today. Will the Minister consider requesting the Lord Speaker and the Speaker in the other place to set up a commission to examine how we honour and celebrate the freedom fighters and leaders of the movement who stood up valiantly against the degradation of colonisation and the inhuman slavery of human people?

The noble Baroness raises important points, but I feel that they are for Parliament to decide rather than the department.

My Lords, I endorse the view that historical understanding is best assisted by the provision of full and unbiased information about those commemorated in statues, rather than by the removal or knocking down of these memorials. As regards Sir Robert Peel, who was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, should we not note that he was a life-long opponent of slavery and the slave trade and sent the British Navy to the coast of west Africa to help suppress it?

I am happy to note that and to note that all of us as human beings are complicated, and our history reflects that complexity.