Selby Whittingham: Rhodes Revolution or Reform

Selby Whittingham

“Rhodes will likely fall,” gloomily writes Professor Nigel Biggar (UnHerd, July) after a decision by Oriel College, of which he was once chaplain, in favour of that. Another Rhodes watcher, Lars Larundson, says that the vote was taken amid thunder, lightning and torrential rain, perhaps an indication of internal dissension as much as of Rhodesian displeasure (The Critic, 25 June). Now a final decision has been postponed until January. In 2016 the college had backtracked after protests from alumni. At that time I wrote a piece for The Jackdaw (No.126). I will not repeat what I said then, except to stress that the statue of a donor such as Rhodes, and part of a building erected with his money, is in a quite different category from that of, say, Colston at Bristol. It is pointed out anew that the statue is part of the whole scheme of the facade, and that other statues on it could be condemned for being tarred with the same racist brush. Indeed those of James I and Charles I outside the 17th hall might not escape anti-slavery rage.

Readers of defences of Rhodes by Biggar complain that he does not give the whole story. But he says that the attacks on Rhodes do not either and he is trying to provide balance. One would hope that a university would have the same aim and not cowardly cave in to a pressure group such as Black Lives Matter, some of whose supporters have said that they are not interested in the facts or in statues. While the dons might reasonably sympathise with their complaints of present-day injustices, there are also the interests of the host people in their history and culture which deserve protection. The protesters will of course respond that White Britons are not the ones who have been seriously disadvantaged. As happens in this and other political disputes, all passion is on the side of the revolutionaries, while the conservatives mount a wan defence.

Remedies that are proposed are mostly impractical or bad. Museums are already overfull.  Unless the statue is Grade I* it will be relegated to stores which are overflowing. At the National Gallery the statue of Wilkie, placed there as a memorial after his death, long ago was removed and migrated to a Tate store. At the Tate a bust of Ruskin in the Duveen Turner wing vanished from sight. So far the portrait of Sir Charles Clore in the Clore wing has remained in situ, but for how long? What about the huge Picton monument in St Paul’s Cathedral? Is that a public space? It is governed by the cathedral chapter not the City of London and such monuments belong to the deceased’s family. Maybe the V&A would gladly house it, but how much space does it have to show church monuments if there is a spate of purges? As for replacing statues of bigwigs by those of saints, what would happen to the even vaster papal ones in St Peter’s Rome?

Then there is the suggestion that statues of British “worthies” should be replaced by those of worthier people of the past or today. But where are the worthy sculptors? Granted that some Victorian busts and statues are mediocre, they are not kitsch as so many contemporary ones are. Another idea is for changing figures as on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. That on the whole is not an encouraging precedent – look at the latest effort. Some argue that individuals should cease to be honoured. But where would art be without exceptional – not necessarily exceptionally good – individuals?  Or indeed advances in other professions too.

Thanks to their inventions, creativity and enterprise such people have enabled Europe to take a lead over past civilisations such as those of the Middle East, India and China.  As always in history, this led to colonialism and sometimes slavery. “We have the Maxim gun, and they have not”.  If the position had been reversed, it would have been the Europeans who would have been exploited. Indeed the Arabs and Turks were encroaching on Europe late on. No doubt some would argue that they behaved better than the Crusaders, but the latter were trying to reverse previous conquests. It is not very helpful to go so far back in history. Not that one need to. Zimbabwe is not a great improvement on Rhodes’ Rhodesia and in material ways a decline on later British colonial rule, though it is true that it gives greater status to blacks and the partly illusory benefits of sovereign independence.

Like prejudice in general racial prejudice is ubiquitous and goes back to an animal instinct teaching fear and caution when encountering the unknown or alien or generalising from one or two bad experiences. A Greek friend tells me that she encountered notices in Kensington saying “No Greeks” as well as “No Irish, No Blacks”, which seems a bit hard when Greece was on the British side in World War II. Humans are programmed to generalise, often on very little experience, whereas people should be treated as individuals. Unfortunately some utopians are opposed to individuality. Thus Neil MacGregor proposes a monument to the poor in Glasgow, saying “of course this could only be abstract”.  Maybe abstraction sometimes has a place (such as for the Cenotaph), but in this case would not the pathos of a figurative work be far more moving?

However, conservatives cannot just rely on such arguments.  Revolutions occur for a reason. Longstanding frustration with oppression or inferior status will boil over, as we have seen in the case of Ireland. The source of the present Black Lives Matter campaign, apart from the usual imitation of all things American, is the failure of Britain to appreciate that it was not enough to give large populations of Caribbeans and Asians a home. They had to be given both respect and opportunities. Governments were too slow to realise this and have reaped the consequences. It is true that much has been done by them in recent decades to rectify this. But revolutions often occur after reform and liberalisation are belatedly embarked on. What is needed now is a recognition that harmony not statuecide (which will only provoke, and has provoked, a violent reaction from militant conservatives) should be the aim, and to that end rational and informed discussion is needed, above all in a university city such as Oxford.  Black Lives Matter, in its extreme form, is part of the current illiberal puritanism which wants, not merely to restrain, but in a search for Utopia to stamp out evils that are currently topical such as racism, sexism, homophobia and smoking. It fails to recognise that all human beings are imperfect and that they and their predicament cannot simply be reduced to Black and White.