Guy Birchall, British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online. Follow him on Twitter @guybirchall
The London Mayor is forming a new body to look over the capital’s landmarks to ensure they “reflect the city’s diversity,” in his latest attempt to pander to woke causes, following a weekend of violence in the city.
Seemingly inspired by the people’s remodelling of Bristol over the weekend, Sadiq Khan has leapt at the opportunity to engage in a bit of cultural iconoclasm in Old London Town. The formation of the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm was announced this morning and will focus on “increasing representation among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, women, the LGBTQ+ community and disability groups.”
Further explaining his decision, Chairman Khan added: “Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era. It’s an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade.”
It’s good to know the mayor has got his priorities in order. He’s presiding over a city that’s in the middle of a pandemic, has witnessed days of violent protest, has seen huge increases in knife crime, is so expensive that those with above-average incomes can’t dream of owning a home here, and has witnessed three successful and several foiled terror attacks in less than three years. But, yes – “racist” statues are the real plague of the capital.
His statement repeats all the buzzwords of the metropolitan worldview. He utters the mantra “diversity is our strength” without elaboration and goes on to point out that Britain is wealthy today thanks only to its part in the transatlantic slave trade.
It’s true that Britain and her empire did profit from the appalling practice of slavery, but it’s also a fact that slavery has existed in one form or another in every society, during the history of the planet. In fact, Britain’s peculiarity is that its Royal Navy was instrumental in ending it, and Britannia bought the freedom of every person in bondage within her empire at such huge cost, the debt was paid off only in 2015. While this doesn’t excuse complicity in slavery, it’s worth pointing this out to those elements who regard the British Empire as an exclusively bad thing.
The statue obsession first reared its head in Britain with the “Rhodes must fall” campaign at Oxford University. In 2015, activists called for a memorial to 19th-century British colonial politician Cecil Rhodes to be torn down because he “represents white supremacy”. Despite there currently being no students at the university, owing to Covid-19, the movement has predictably been rekindled, following the extrajudicial harbour burial of slaver Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol over the weekend.
It’s now hitting a new fever pitch, with a website dedicated to locating statues depicting anyone involved in the slave trade so that a campaign can be co-ordinated to pull them all down. Mystifyingly, the site’s targets include even Earl Grey, of tea fame, who was prime minister when slavery was abolished, because he paid reparations to the slaver owners, rather than the slaves themselves. A sub-optimal solution, obviously, but better, surely, than leaving thousands in bondage?
The grievances haven’t stopped with slavery and colonialism, either. The same weekend Colston’s statue was ripped down in the West Country, Winston Churchill’s in London’s Parliament Square was defaced with graffiti that branded him a racist. While it’s true that he may have been less than complimentary about the BAME community in his time, I think we can broadly agree that, on balance, Hitler was worse.
During the same protest in London, Gandhi’s statue was also emblazoned with the word “racist”. The Mahatma could hardly be accused of being an apologist for British imperialism, and played a huge role in India gaining independence from the Crown. However, rather than focus on that, the protesters have chosen to home in on negative remarks he made about black people when he was a lawyer in South Africa. It isn’t a pleasant fact, but it remains one, nonetheless, that his views were fairly middle-of-the-road for his time. So, should he be condemned for them, rather than being venerated for gaining independence for his homeland?
Continuing in this vein will leave us with no heroes at all. On Parliament Square, there’s another statue, this time of Nelson Mandela, who, it’s been argued, was a terrorist in the early part of his life, and rather chummy with the likes of Fidel Castro and Colonel Gaddafi. Nearby, in Westminster Abbey, there’s a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. Given that, with his religious affiliations, it’s unlikely he would today support gay marriage, should his likeness bxe torn down in the name of fighting bigotry? It’s worth remembering that, during his election campaign in 2008, even Barack Obama described marriage as being between a man and a woman, as did many others who now champion the same-sex cause.
And how far back are we going? Which grievances should be respected and which ignored? Should statues of Oliver Cromwell be torn down for his conquest of Ireland? Likewise, Richard the Lionheart’s for the rampant Islamophobia he displayed during the Third Crusade? William the Conqueror’s for his crimes against Anglo-Saxons during the Harrying of the North? Alfred the Great’s for having a problem with excessive Viking migration from Scandinavia? The list of grievances will never end.
Sadiq Khan has always been a shameless egotist and is far more interested in improving his public profile than actually doing anything for London and its people. He spends 26 percent more on PR than Boris Johnson did when he was mayor.
For a glorified city councillor, he devotes an awful lot of time expounding on things that are wildly out of his purview. On any of Donald Trump’s visits to the British capital, he was never far from a TV camera, whining about what a ghastly man the President is. Similarly, during Brexit, he was focused the entire time on saying how “London was open”, as if the rest of Britain were about to shut itself off from the world. He’s also no stranger to censoring what can go on public display, famously banning an advert for protein powder in case it made chubby Londoners feel uncomfortable as they squeezed their oversized posteriors into seats on the Tube.
It’s therefore no surprise that he’s jumping on this latest bandwagon. But, unfortunately, for Khan, London isn’t just any city. It’s the capital city. It should therefore reflect the history and culture of the land as a whole, not just pander to the liberal elites that live there. Ripping down Nelson’s Column because, with his dying breath at Trafalgar, the dear old Admiral didn’t take the time to voice his support for trans rights might make the Islington dinner-party set feel better about themselves, but the rest of the nation will view it as an assault on our culture and a national hero. Khan would do well to recognise the history the city he runs is steeped in, rather than erasing it with his own cultural Great Fire.