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As we follow the recent American-style media circus posing as the Conservative Party leadership contest set to determine the interim Prime Minister until the next General Election, we are reminded that both ‘finalists’, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are pretty much showing us their real faces fairly early in the show, while they pander to their own, in a frenzy to be seen as the modern-day version of Thatcher. Truss’ emulation of the ‘Iron Lady’ through evident vocal coaching to sound more ‘masculine’ and ‘assertive’ has helped her come across even more awkward and inept than before; perhaps the ‘Wooden Spoon’ may be a more appropriate title. Nevertheless, with promises to cut taxes…despite having announced 15 tax rises in just over 2 years…‘restore trust’ in politics…despite having been directly complicit in keeping the outgoing clown Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) in power for so long given his track record for lying…and continue with an illegal migration policy that will see refugees and asylum seekers deported to Rwanda, we are reminded that it is not the British public that will get a say in who will represent our country on the global stage, but a comparatively handful of Conservative Party members.
Lest we forget that the Conservative Party membership is dominated by middle-aged white men, many with nationalist and strongly-held religious views, seeking to preserve traditions that go back (sometimes) centuries. It seems inevitable then that the next leader will not be a racially minoritised candidate, despite being the elite private-school multi-millionaire type that Conservative voters have grown to love since the 2010’s, paving the way for Liz Truss to put her very important ideas surrounding growing British apples and setting up pork markets in Bejing to the forefront of the current populist political model we have unfortunately allowed to flourish in the UK. Truss may find meeting the Queen during her term as quite awkward given her openly anti-monarchist history. She also seems, despite having voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Referendum, to have jumped on the bigoted Brexit bandwagon that is slowly eroding the last remaining remnants of democracy in this country. We know that every crumb of functioning public sector life has been crushed over the past 12 years:
- Students have seen their EMA’s and grants scrapped, and their university tuition fees trebled;
- Teachers across most education institutions are in both a pay and retention crisis;
- The National Health Service is in much the same critical position with a massive shortage of GP’s, doctors and nurses and record-level waits for hospital treatments;
- The social care sector has been decimated leaving the elderly and vulnerable both financially and physically worse off;
- Those with disabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged by so-called ‘welfare reforms’ which introduced a Universal Credit benefit merger;
- Cuts to legal sectors and legal aid has left the poorest in society unable to afford high-quality legal advice and representation in court;
- Children have seen their benefits cut and, with a sharply rising inflation rate and a looming recession by the end of this year, the use of food banks among the poorest families has been higher than ever recorded…
…and there are many other examples. Without getting into yet another Brexit debate, there is no doubt that the very act of voting to leave the EU in 2016, and its subsequent consequences, has had a long-lasting impact in these services, one which we cannot hope to treat for many years. Let us not be in any illusion that either of these candidates will swoop in and majestically heal the UK from the deep wounds this Party has inflicted for 12 years, nor that there will be some miraculous light at the end of the tunnel of tyranny. Perhaps this is a rather pessimistic outlook on the years leading up to the next General Election, but unless in the unlikely event the soon-to-be PM decides to call a snap election to allow the public to finally boot out the last of this government and pave the way to some change, the situation seems rather hopeless…at least for the time being.
There are plenty of theories about why rules are broken, arguments about who make the rules and about how we deal with rule breakers. We can discuss victimology and penology, navigating our way around these, decrying how victims and offenders are poorly treated within our criminal justice systems. We think about social justice, but it seems ignore the injustice perpetrated by some because we can somehow find an excuse for their rule breaking or point out some good deed somewhere along the line. And we lament at how some get away with rule breaking because of their status or power. But what is to be done about people that break the rules and in doing so cause or may cause considerable harm to others; to the rest of us?
Recently, Greece imposed a new penalty system upon those over 60 that are not vaccinated against Covid. Pensioners who have had real reductions in their pensions are now to be hit with a fine, a rolling fine at that, if they do not get vaccinated. This is against a backdrop of poor vaccination rates which seem to have improved significantly since the announcement of what many see as draconian measures by a right-wing government. There are those that argue that vaccination ought to be a choice, and this has been brought into focus by the requirements for health workers and those in the care profession to be vaccinated in this country. And we’ve heard arguments from industry against vaccination passports which would allow people to get into large venues and a consistent drip-drip effect of how damaging the covid rules are to the leisure industry and aviation, as well as the young people in society.
So, would it have been far more acceptable to have no rules at all around Covid? Should we have simply carried on and hoped that eventually herd immunity would kick in? Let’s not forget of course that the health service would have been so overwhelmed that many people will have died from illnesses other than Covid (they undoubtedly have to some extent anyway). The fittest will have survived and of course, the richest or most resourceful. Businesses will have been on their knees as workers failed to turn up for work, either because they were too ill or have moved on from this life and few customers will have thought about quaffing pints, clubbing, or venturing off to some faraway sunny place (not that they’d be particularly welcome there coming from plague island). It would have felt more like some Darwinian evolutionary experiment than civilised society.
It seems that making some rules for the good of society is necessary. Of course, there will be those that break the rules and as a society, we struggle to determine what is to be done with them. Fines are too harsh, inappropriate, draconian. Being caring, educating, works for some but let’s be honest, there are those that will break the rules regardless. Whilst we can argue about what should be done with those that break the rules, about the impact they have on society, about victims and crimes, perhaps the most pressing argument is about equality of justice. The rest of us, those that didn’t break the rules, might question how draconian the rules were (are) and we might question the punishments meted out to those that broke the rules. But what really hurts, where we really feel hard done by, let down, angry is to see that those that made the rules, broke the rules and for them we don’t get to consider whether the punishment is draconian or too soft. There are no consequences for the rule makers even when they are rule breakers. It seems a lamentable fact that we have a system of governance, be that situated in politics or business, that advocates a ‘do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do’ mentality. The moral compass of those in power seems to be seriously misaligned. As the MP David Davis calls for the resignation of Boris Johnson and says that he has to go, he should look around and he might realise, they all need to go. This is not a case of one rotten apple, the whole crop is off, and it stinks to high heaven.
The British, so it seems, love a statue. Over the last few months we’ve seen Edward Colston’s toppled, Winston Churchill’s protected and Robert Baden-Powell’s moved to a place of safety. Much of the narrative around these particular statues (and others) has recently been contextualised in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as though nobody had ever criticised the subjects before. Colston, one time resident of Bristol and slave-trader was deemed worthy of commemoration some 174 years after his death and 62 years after the abolition of slavery. Likewise, one-time military man, accused of war crimes, homophobe and support for Nazism, Baden-Powell suddenly needed to be memorialised in 2008, almost 70 years after the second world world (and his death) and over 40 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. For both of these men profound problems were clear before the statues went up. Churchill, seen as a “hero” by many for his leadership in World War II has a very unsavoury history which is not difficult to locate in his own writings. His rehabilitation also ignores that his status for many of his contemporaries was as a warmonger. His passion for eugenics and his role in decisions to bomb Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be wilfully swept under the carpet. Hero-worship is a dangerous game, it is also anti-intellectual. Churchill, like all of us, was a complex human, thus his legacy needs to be explored deeply and contextualised and only then can we decide what his place in his history should be. His statues and soundbites from speeches on repeat, do not allow for this.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this debate is to witness the inflamed defence of individuals who have a clearly documented history as slave owners, or as enthusiastic proclaimers of eugenic ideology, racism, homophobia and so on. As long as they have been ascribed “hero” status, we can ignore the rest of the seedy detail. We are told we need these statues, these heroic men, to remind us of our history….strangely Germany is able to reflect on its history, without statues of Hitler.
It seems as a nation we far prefer these individuals, responsible for so much misery, harm and violence in their lifetimes, than to present Black Britons and British Asians on a plinth. When we are reliant on South African President, Nelson Mandela to take up two of those London plinths, it is evident we have a serious racial imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.
Furthermore, the British appear to love an argument about statues, for instance, the criticism levelled at the artist Maggi Hambling’s statue to “Mother of Feminism” Mary Wollstencraft and Martin Jenning’s artistic tribute to Nurse Mary Seacole. For Wollstencroft, much of the furore has been directed at the artist, rather than the subject. There appears to be no irony in women attacking other women, in this case, Hambling, all in the name of supposed defence of The feminism. In the case of Mary Seacole, racially infused arguments from The Nightingale Society have suggested that this statue should not be in sight of that of Florence Nightingale. It seems that even when all important parties are long dead, it is deemed appropriate to use barely disguised racism to protect the stone image of your heroine. Important to remember that patriarchy has no gender. It is evident that criticism revolves around women’s representation in statuary, as well as women’s involvement in sculpture. When statues of men are said to outnumber those of women by around 16 to 1 (and that’s only when Queen Victoria is counted) it is evident we have a serious gender imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.
If there’s one thing the British love more than statues, it’s war commemorations. Think of the Cenotaph, standing proud in Whitehall, a memorial to ‘The Glorious Dead’ of firstly, World War I and latterly, British and Commonwealth military personnel have died in all conflicts.
Close by in Park Lane, we even have the imagination to create a memorial to Animals in War. We love to worship at these altars to untold misery and suffering, as if we could learn something important from them. Unfortunately, the most important message of “Never Again” is lost as we continue to thrust our military personnel and their deadly arsenal all over the world.
There is a strong argument for commemorating the war dead of all nations in the two World Wars. All sides, both central powers/axis and allies were comprised in the main of conscripted personnel. These were men and women that did not join the armed forces voluntarily, but were compelled by legislation to take up arms. With little time to consider or prepare, these people, all over the world, were thrust into life-threatening situations, with little or no choice. The Cenotaph and other war memorials mark this sacrifice and to some degree, acknowledge the experiences of those who served in a uniform that they did not consent to, without the compulsion of legislation. Unfortunately, civilians don’t feature so heavily in memorialisation, yet we know they experienced life-changing events which have repercussions even today. From children who were evacuated, to families who experienced fathers and husbands with short fuses, to those whose fear of hunger has never really left them, those experiences leave a mark.
To me, as a nation it appears that we don’t want to engage seriously with our history, preferring instead a white-washed, heteronormative, male-dominated, war-infused, saccharine sweet, version of events. But British people, both historically and contemporaneously, are a diverse and disparate group, good, bad and indifferent, so surely our statues should reflect this?
I recognise the violence which runs throughout British history, I learnt it, not through statues, but through books and oral testimony, through documentary and discussion. I also recognise that I have only begun to explore a history that silences so very many, making any historical narrative, partial, poignant and heavy with the missing voices. I recognise the heavy burden left by slavery, discrimination, war and other myriad violences, understanding the desire to commemorate and celebrate and tear down and replace.
What we need is a statue that recognises all of us, in all shapes and sizes, warts and all? We are living in a global pandemic, the death toll is currently standing at over 2.5 million. In the UK alone, the death toll stands at close to 100,000. Why not have a memorial with all those names; men, women, children, Black, white, Asian, mixed heritage, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, atheists, gay, straight, trans, lesbian, young, old and all those in between. People that have been coerced, through financial impetus, caring responsibility, career or vocation into dangerous spaces, who have not chosen to sacrifice their lives on the altar of bad decisions taken by governments and institutions (reminiscent of the world wars). Such a commemoration would be a way to recognise the profound impact on all of our lives, as drastic as any world war. It will recognise that you don’t have to wear a uniform or conform to a particular ideal to be of value to Britain and every person counts.
* Title borrowed from ‘Our sheroes and heroes’ (Maya Angelou ; interviewed by Susan Anderson in 1976)