IEA Debate: Should we privatise the statues?
There is a big debate right now about statues of famous people with much argument as to who should be commemorated in this way and campaigns for many statues to be taken down because of things the people memorialised did. I have a simple solution. We should take down ALL of the statues. There should be no public memorials of anybody. This is wrong in itself and, in the contemporary world, politically costly.
We should be clear about one thing. This is not about history. Not having statues will not stop people writing about past figures and others reading and learning about them. It is about memory, which is different. A statue of someone in a public place is a public memorial. As the word suggests, it is an aide-memoire, a way of sustaining and creating a shared or public memory, one that is common to all of the people in a political community. This understanding is shared by both sides of the present argument – they both think there should be public memorials of people, they disagree about which people and events should be commemorated.
What both sides think is that there is, or should be, a common shared memory and (just as important) a shared evaluation of the figures and events that are remembered in this way. The point is that there is no such shared memory, much less evaluation, as a natural phenomenon. Winston Churchill may be remembered by many as the person who led Britain through the dark days of World War II but in South Wales he is recalled as the Home Secretary who ordered troops to shoot striking miners. In Ireland far from there being a shared memory there are at least two, which are in sharp contrast or contradiction. Public memorials then are not a recognition of a universal shared memory that exists and an embodiment of it. In most cases they are an attempt to create such a memory and then sustain it, usually consciously and deliberately. They are in fact acts of propaganda. In some cases, they do reflect an actual shared memory and narrative but, in those cases, the recognised memory is never universal – it is always partial and contested. When given public recognition, invariably one kind of memory is highlighted while others are slighted or ignored. Thus, in Ireland for many years there was no memorialisation of the many people from what is now the Republic who fought for the British Empire in World War I, nor of the many who volunteered to fight for the Allied cause in World War II. That memory was not captured and remained personal, private, and domestic.
One response is that this is true, but it is good to create such a shared memory – the point is to win the argument over what that memory should be. This openly and honestly makes the shared memory and public commemoration a matter of political contestation and ultimately of power. At a pragmatic level this might be acceptable in a society with a consensus or strong sense of collective identity. That is not where we are and it is not where most modern societies are. The pluralism and internal debate of modern societies, which is one of the things that makes them productive, is also one of the things that makes a consensus on the past impossible. There was no consensus for example on how to evaluate or remember the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the exile of James II – Protestant and Catholic and British and Irish had radically different ideas. To attempt to create a single common memory through public memorials today is to invite and stir up conflict. Disagreement and lack of unity is not bad but conflict is bad – so why provoke it?
However, the creation of a shared memory and evaluation is wrong in principle. It is an act of collectivism and an assertion of power against individual and private judgment. The actual historical reality is more complex than the accounts of collective memory. The memories themselves are fragmented and personal and when there is a collective memory are plural and competitive. To suppress some memories while highlighting others is simply wrong and violates the liberal principle that the state and public sphere should be neutral between conceptions of the good life and value judgments made by its citizens with a law and public space that does not valorise one view or way of life (or memory in this case) over others. What though should we do? There is nothing wrong with memorialisation of past figures or the creation and nurturing of a shared memory if this is done privately and does not involve trying to claim a monopoly status. We should take down statues in public places and put them in private ones, parks and museums, where they are not visible to casual passers-by and people have to pay to see them (and by paying express their consent). There could be a theme park with statues of figures like Charles James Fox, Gladstone, Cobden, and Lloyd George that would commemorate the history and tradition of British Liberalism and the narrative associated with it. There could be another for those who wanted it commemorating the British Empire with statues of people like Havelock, Outram, Napier, and Kitchener taken down from public places and put there. What we should not have is increasingly violent debate and struggle over who gets to define the illegitimate project of a public memory.
NO – says Dr Kristian Niemietz
A common misunderstanding about liberalism is that it is a creed of “tolerance”.
It isn’t. Liberalism is not about tolerance. It is about minimising the need for tolerance, by minimising the need for agreement. Liberals do not want to make people more tolerant. Liberals want to create conditions under which people with mutually incompatible values can go out of each other’s ways, without bothering each other – so that they don’t have to be tolerant.
That means, first and foremost, minimising the sphere of collective decisionmaking, because this is the sphere in which we need to find agreement. The less we do collectively, the less we need to agree on.
The proposal not to have public monuments is fully compatible with this logic, which is why I am, in principle, sympathetic to it, and under different circumstances, I would probably support it. The argument is that as long as we have public monuments, we have to agree on a common version of history. We have to agree on who the heroes and who the villains are. If we left monuments to private spaces and private initiative, we would not have to do that. If you want to put a privately funded Lenin statue on your private property – go for it, that’s none of my business. But I’d be less keen on it in a public space.
Yet this is not what the current statue-toppling iconoclasm is about, and privatising statues would is not a way out of that particular problem. Our problem right now is not that we cannot agree on a common interpretation of history. The conflict is not been between supporters and opponents of slavery, or between supporters and opponents of racism, or between supporters and opponents of colonialism.
We all agree that slavery, racism and colonialism are terrible. That’s really not the issue here. On that, we are as close to unanimity as you can realistically get on anything.
But the point is that there are no monuments celebrating slavery, racism or colonialism in Britain. There are just monuments of people who are famous for some other reason, and who may also, less famously, have been involved in some immoral activities.
Take the Edward Colston statue. Colston was not memorialised because of his involvement in the slave trade. He was memorialised as a local philanthropist, and until not so long ago, a lot of people in the area didn’t really know that much about where his money had come from, or turned a blind eye to it. That is not an endorsement of the slave trade; it is a pragmatic “let sleeping dogs lie” attitude, or a simple lack of interest. And why not? There are lots of old statues around, and it is perfectly possible to just treat them as part of the landscape, without obsessing too much about who exactly those people were or what exactly the statue supposedly symbolises.
So this is not a case of one group in society passionately believing in one version of history, and another group in society passionately believing in a different version. It is a case of one group in society not being that bothered, and another group in society choosing to be outraged, because it’s fashionable to be outraged.
This is not about statues at all. What really happens is that woke opinions have become markers of a high social status, and people adopt them for status-signalling purposes. You can take away the memorials, but woke people will still want to signal their social status. In a world without memorials, they would just do that in some other way. They will choose to get outraged about X or Y. Are we then also going to respond by removing X and Y?
For liberals, there is a huge difference between what you do on your private property, and what we do in our shared collective spaces. Don’t make the mistake of projecting that belief into woke activists. The fact that this distinction matters to you doesn’t mean that it matters to them. It clearly doesn’t. Woke activists love “no-platforming” speakers at private events, whose speeches they could simply choose not to attend. They love “cancelling” people for opinions they have expressed on private social media accounts, which they could simply choose not to follow. The Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford is already on what is technically private property, but that has not stopped its removal from becoming a cause célèbre.
If there was a privately owned statue park containing several “unwoke” statues, I can guarantee you that it would be vandalised on the day of its opening. Privatisation solves many problems – but it wouldn’t solve this one.