Statue utopianism and Britain’s selective hearing

Words Oli Nelson

Photography Karolina Wielocha



Taking down statues has nothing to do with erasing our past. They’re a way of convincing ourselves that we can listen to history as we deem fit, rather than as it actually unfolded. 

When Bristol’s statue of Edward Colston was taken down by protestors on June 7th, I had my concerns. Not because of any sentimentality towards the slaver – I was very much pro the fate of the Colston statue. No, my concern was for the inevitable maelstrom that would follow. An issue that has united sofa commentators from the Guardian and Daily Mail alike, recent attempts to revise the way we commemorate or remember controversial historical figures in the 21st century have been incredibly divisive.  

But why? Why are people so keen to defend slavers, like Colston, or other arch-imperialists and racists from bygone eras, whose views are clearly neither compatible with the present time, nor worthy of 
commemoration in statue form. 

“Because we can’t learn from the past if you erase it”. 

This all-too-common refrain, being deployed at all levels of this debate – from nationalistic Twitter combatants to key leaders at institutional and government levels – stems from a naive misreading of the function of statues, and is embroiled in the complex politics of seeing British history in objective terms. It needs to be phased out of the vocabulary of this debate for good, as people are too often hiding behind these words in order to legitimise their complicity in the wider perpetuation of systemic racism. 

When the first Rhodes Must Fall campaign got real press attention from 2015, I have to admit I was pretty ambivalent on the subject. This was mostly because I found the narrative that ‘if we remove these statues, we won’t be able to learn from them’ somewhat poetic and compelling. I’ve now learned to see through this misleading screen, and resent the frequency with which I’m seeing the statue brigade throw it around as an infallible truth.  

For me, this catchphrase is symptomatic of a wider problem that Britain has about its colonial past, which is best categorised as a kind of selective hearing. 

Selective hearing

When, the day following the fall of the Colston statue, Boris Johnson responded to the Black Lives Matter protests by saying, “I hear you”, I can’t imagine a great proportion of the Black population in the UK believed him. (Lest we forget his “watermelon smiles” remarks from 2002). On Friday, he stated that to remove statues is “to lie about our history”.

Frankly, no. ‘Lying about our history’ is choosing to remember Colston as a philanthropist, rather than a slaver. Or to commemorate Cecil Rhodes’ business skills and academic legacy, rather than prioritise the fact that he was a white supremacist who “preferred land to niggers”, and created the conditions for apartheid to emerge in South Africa. This is what I mean about selective hearing: surely it is up to us to decide how, in the 21st century, we want these figures to be remembered, and how their legacy should impact our society. So to Boris Johnson, what is it that you hear? 

It is true that these figures were significant and valued in their times beyond their racist enterprises, but why pander to the flawed idea that we should ‘judge them by the context in which they were living’ (another commonly-deployed narrative on this topic)? Yes, clearly attitudes towards race were different at a time in which slavery was widespread throughout the British Empire. Obviously? Why now do we choose slavery apologism over reforming our cultural subtexts, so as to make society more accountable both to the population of our nation at the moment, as well as to general anti-slavery, anti-racist sentiment worldwide? 


Simply put, it is because Britain has a problem facing up to the reality of its colonial past. And no doubt, statues of racist figures are a key part of how that dynamic is enacted in the present day, since we choose to remember these figures in business or charity terms, rather than engage with the fact that our status as a nation is predicated on the exploitation of foreign resources, wealth, culture, people.  

Instead of tackling this issue head-on, White commentators will explain away Britain’s embarrassing colonial taboo by insisting that these statues, today, have an educational function, that they work didactically to inform our present via the wrongs of our past. Sounds sexy, right?

Are we supposed to stand near these statues and absorb an innate understanding of Britain’s complex racist past through osmosis? Are we supposed to look up at Churchill on his plinth, powerfully surveying Parliament Square, and interpret that his status as a national hero and formidable war leader must be qualified by his very disturbing views towards the British Empire in India and beyond? 

No, because that is not how statues work. They are not critical, but celebratory and validating, and over time become assimilated into the cultural memory of the place in which they are found. Their function is fundamentally symbolic, and I do not buy arguments that the Colston statue stood as a reminder of Bristol’s relationship with slavery. Multiple attempts by local campaigners to install a disclaimer-plaque highlighting Colston’s role in the transatlantic slave trade had failed over the past few years. I cannot imagine many visitors to Bristol, on viewing the statue, got their phone out and comprehensively educated themselves on the role Colston played in the movement of enslaved people. It was never a legitimately educative symbol.

Real education could involve making the UK school curriculum responsive to our colonial past, or dedicating permanent museum space to the topic of slavery, as exists in Liverpool. Or, perhaps, this cultural moment – of the removal of racist idols from the streets of Britain – could itself become a focal part of British racial history, forcing educators to explain why these statues have fallen, rather than let them passively reside in our peripheral vision in the hope they might, one day, expel some random colonial truths onto an unassuming passer-by.  


The statue utopia

Statues-as-education is a naive utopia. It is a way of deferring responsibility, hiding behind the apparent logic of academic thought as a justification for not addressing some things that really ought to be addressed.

It was disappointing, therefore, that Louise Richardson, Oxford University’s Vice-Chancellor, chose to lazily play this card  in relation to growing calls for the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College to fall. "We need to confront our past, we need to learn from it", she said – so far so good. "My own view on this is that hiding our history is not the route to enlightenment".  

Sigh. ‘Hiding history’ is precisely what these statues achieve, by providing a route by which to superficially reference shady pasts, without actually prompting any detailed dialogue on the matter. Again, they are symbols. Back then, they were symbols of the power of leading racists. Today, they are symbols of our current society’s unwillingness to engage with the racism that percolates through everyday life. 

This is especially true of Oxford University, an institution that is unambiguously racist. A 2017 report led by David Lammy found that almost 1 in 3 colleges failed to admit a Black student in 2015, and that Oriel had only offered one place to a black British A-level student in six years. The university was then, in 2018, accused by Stormzy of rejecting his offer to fund two scholarships for Black British students, an initiative that was taken up by Cambridge. Recently, in November last year, Ebenezer Azamat, a blind, Black student attending an Oxford Union debate, was literally dragged out of the chamber for what appeared to be no apparent reason. These are issues that run deep within Oxford at all levels. 

Sadly, though, money talks. After the initial uproar surrounding Oxford’s Rhodes statue 2015, Oriel agreed to conduct a 6-month “listening exercise” to assess the situation. After just 6 weeks, they decided that the statue would remain in place. They were threatened with £110m in withdrawn funding.

It appears the impetus behind the current wave of Civil Rights protests is affecting real change, though, with Oxford and Oriel looking set to stand up to financial pressures this time around, accepting the symbolic necessity for Rhodes to fall. Hailed as a potentiallyepoch-defining” moment by RFM, this u-turn will hopefully catalyse a serious attempt by the university to actionably develop its troubled relationship with race. 

The fact that Rhodes Must Fall could be obstructed by big money in the first place, however, sums up the essence of institutional racism, as perpetuated by the White chequebook. It also demonstrates why Richardson’s warning on ‘hiding our history’ is so subtly malicious. I’m sure that Johnson and his Tory chums would probably prefer that the UK wasn’t adequately educated about the nation’s racist past, as it fundamentally implicates their brand of politics – and neoliberalism more widely – as perpetrators and neoliberalism more widely, as perpetrators. So for them, it’s better to just hide behind these statues, and divert the nation’s selective ear towards happier songs, of charity, of education, of business. 

"Statues are a part of forgetting, not remembering, our wrongdoings. They show pastness, but do not tell it".

British people are very attached to a sense of latent national greatness. Our compelling island narrative, our ability to do it alone. First the Brexit vote, and now Johnson’s regime, appear to be incarnations of this logic in recent times. We left the EU in a sort of vain hope of independent ‘greatness’, via a campaign that was heavy on the imperialist sentiment. Now Johnson’s government is struggling to de-emasculate itself, as it were, following a public health policy that has failed its population. Why is our “world-beating” test and trace system still not working properly? And why feel the need to lie about it?

Behind Brexit lurks the unassuming spectre of Britain’s colonial past. Many would prefer if we could just move on, but if the events of the last fortnight have taught us anything, it’s that it's your duty as a White person to address where you, personally, fit into the wider context of systemic racism. And statues are a good place to start.

As the far-right protests in London last weekend demonstrated, protecting statues is not about educating the population. It’s about white supremacy, and a deep resentment of attempts to make society anti-racist. Nazi salutes were seen from fascist protestors at the Churchill statue... er, but this man led Britain in conflict against the Nazis? Can we still justify these statues on account of their importance to English heritage, or will we simply dismiss those using them as a conduit for present-day fascism as a ‘vocal minority’?  

Why are we hiding? And what are we hiding from?  


Hearing less, listening more


The unresolved legacy of Empire haunts the UK’s urban space by way of these testaments to worse times that are, gladly, long behind us. But it is important that we make an active attempt to recast what these statues mean today, rather than allow them to facilitate the further deferral of a colonial responsibility that we all share. There is a lot of work to be done on the topic of race, and just because we are no longer an imperial power, it does not mean that our cultures, institutions, and attitudes do not need further decolonisation. 


This is why it was so brilliant to see the Colston statue fall in the way it did, after many diplomatic attempts had failed. It was toppled and rolled to the edge of the harbour, Black protestors knelt on his neck for nine minutes in memory of George Floyd, and the statue’s resting place – beneath a body of water – echoed the fates of the many millions of slaves that lost their lives during the Middle Passage.


These were each incredibly symbolically-charged actions, and what struck me was how powerful it felt to see a racist statue actually perform a proper symbolic function in the present day. Colston was recontextualised from his abstract presence within the fabric of Bristol, and made an active agent in the social semiotics of today. No longer an empty and false ‘educational’ signifier, the fate of his statue will mark a tangible turning-point in the way that his legacy – and the legacy of those like him – will be viewed in Bristol and beyond. 

Significantly, it demonstrated that people were no longer prepared to be led into blindness to the inconvenient truths about our national history. And I hope that it forms part of a wider process of re-tuning our collective ear to be less selective on what we hear about our past.

Clearly, Johnson’s recent “I hear you” is not a legitimate apprehension of the marginalised position of Black British people. 

This political moment must reach beyond placating statements and passive diplomacy on the question of race. Rather, education on colonialism needs to be at the heart of actionable anti-racist policy decisions in the coming decades. This is not going to be achieved via the utopia of the statue. Walking within range of a limestone Cecil Rhodes and hoping he chats to you about Boer War concentration camps is not actionable policy. Statues are a part of forgetting, not remembering, our wrongdoings. They show pastness, but do not tell it.


I understand that this topic is a nuanced and divisive one. But please, stop claiming that we need statues of racist historical figures in order to learn about our past. In order to do that, we need to make a concerted effort to stand up to the past that shadows us. Our sentimentality about Empire – epitomised by claims that we will be ‘erasing our past’ by removing these monuments – is inhibiting that. We are erasing our past through a cultural myopia, a refusal to view colonialism for what it was. It is vital that we hear less, and listen more.


We need to evolve our selective hearing into a total optics on the British relationship to empire and race, and transforming our nation’s statue-scape is a vital symbolic aspect in that process.