Public Memory and Political Discourse: Commemoration in the UK

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2021. Jerome De Groot is the winner of the G. Wesley Johnson Award. This award is named in honor of the founding editor of The Public Historian. It recognizes the most outstanding article appearing in the NCPH journal during the previous volume year. De Groot’s article “ and the Evolving Nature of Historical Information Companies,” appeared in The Public Historian, Vol 42, No 1.

Edward Colton Statue Pedestal in Bristol Covered with Black Lives Matter Signs

Edward Colton Statue Pedestal in Bristol Covered with Black Lives Matter Signs (Photo Credit: Caitlin Hobbs under Creative Common License).

Public memory and public history are always political. How and what a society chooses to remember and commemorate reflect much about the values and ethics of that society itself. In the United Kingdom over the past few years, discussion about public memory has become a political tool. Challenges to the problematic aspects of social and public memory have been cast as attacks on the fabric of nation. The debates around difficult, contested, complex histories are increasingly toxic and driven by racism, misogyny, xenophobia and distrust, and to a great degree this is being mobilized by the reigning political party. Arguments about free speech, “cancel culture” and “wokeness” frequently involve discussions about the relationship between contemporary nationhood and historical events. Historical claims of a kind and conspiracy theories have become a rallying cry for right-wing groups including neo-Nazis. Far-right groups, conservative media, and populist politicians have put incredible pressure upon historical practitioners. The Royal Historical Society along with other historical societies took the highly unusual step of writing a strongly worded letter to the Sunday Times in March 2021 to explain how “deeply worrying” they found government statements about work on the colonial history of the National Trust (which had been led by Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester).

The anxiety is real: during the Brexit campaign a British MP, Jo Cox, was murdered on the street by a right-wing conspiracy theorist; reported hate crime figures have doubled over the past six years. I used to remark when talking about public history that my country had little appetite for returning to controversial and difficult history, and that the “history wars” experienced during the 1990s in other countries seemed to have passed us by. In itself, this was an acknowledgement of years of ignoring and repressing stories. Why consider the Amritsar massacre or army violence in Northern Ireland when one can focus on the sexual scandals of Henry VIII? I wonder now whether this refusal to come to a reckoning with colonial past, structural racism, the legacies of empire have poisoned discourse in the country irreparably. Certainly, history in the UK has never been more urgent or more challenging.

Consider the case of the statue of Edward Colston. On June 7, 2020, in Bristol, a city in the Southwest of the United Kingdom, the statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) was pulled down as part of the Black Lives Matter protests. Colston was a slave owner and philanthropist; his statue had been the subject of debate and protest for some years. Institutions in Bristol, including the university, had already begun to distance themselves from his name. Colston was not the only figure targeted. Across the UK, through the summer of 2020, statues became points of rallying and objection. Those protesting sought to illustrate the racist structures and infrastructures of memory in the country, and instantly statues became a shorthand for communicating this. In particular, and importantly for what came next, statues of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill were daubed with graffiti denouncing his racist views. During the foment of the BLM protests (with the added context of a brutal pandemic and botched political response), right-wing groups took to the streets to, as they saw it, physically protect the heritage of the country. Some of them got it hilariously wrong, but their interventions led to rioting and violence in London in late June 2020. The stage was set for what is now an ongoing “war on woke,” with opinions on public-realm art serving as the somewhat unlikely articulator of political difference. The toppling of the Colston statue led to a wide debate around the UK and beyond about the nature of public memory.

This debate had been previewed over several years by campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall, arguing that representations of the colonial figure Cecil Rhodes in Oxford should be taken down, and public debate about the lack of female statues across the country. Public commemoration in the UK is often conservative, and statuary are seemingly neutral in the view of the populace. During 2021 cities around the UK began to review their public realm commemoration practice. Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, introduced a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, with a brief to investigate public memory across the city which had hitherto been unscrutinized. In Manchester, where I live and work, the city council announced a review of public-realm art and a consultation exercise entitled “Histories, Stories, Voices.” This latter was developed in collaboration with the Manchester Histories Festival. It looked to develop models for inclusive discussion regarding the narratives told around the city’s public areas.

In contrast to these measured, ethical, and thoughtful responses, the UK government reacted strongly. Their “defense” of heritage has become increasingly weaponized to challenge what they term “woke culture.” For example, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick argued, “What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not removed on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob.” In September 2020 Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, wrote to national museums and galleries that “the Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects” (emphasis in original). The letter reminded its recipients that “as publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics” and that it was “imperative that you continue to act impartially.” Citing Historic England’s advice, Dowden argued that “Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualize or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be.” In 2021 new laws extended the possible prison term for someone vandalizing a statue to almost ten years.

The wider context for this action and discussion has been a slow-burning debate in the UK around memory in the past two decades. Seemingly multicultural and at peace when hosting the Summer Olympics in 2012, the UK undertook two extremely damaging referenda in 2014 (on Scottish independence) and 2016 (on exiting the European Union). Whilst the Scottish “Yes” vote was defeated, the destabilizing effect of discussions about national identity were widespread (and anti-English feeling in Scotland is now at an all-time high). The “Brexit” vote was driven by populist nationalism and an increasingly confident right wing, for whom historical symbols of “English” identity were useful communicative touchstones. In late 2020 Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, made an impassioned call to engage with contested histories in the UK: “feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together.” His plaintive request appears to be being ignored; in 2021 the UK government mandated that every government building would fly the national flag at all times. The highly charged discourse around public memory looks set to be a key framing political issue for the next decade.

~Jerome de Groot teaches at the University of Manchester. He is the author of the books Consuming History and Remaking History, as well as other work on public history and memory. His forthcoming book, Double Helix History, will look at the intersection of DNA and historical understanding.



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