‘The Past is Not Dead’ – Confronting the British Past in the wake of Black Lives Matter
17th June 2020
Recent events have really put our discipline on the front pages. The Black Lives Matter protests which have swept across the United States and Europe following the brutal murder of George Floyd, have seen statues of controversial historical figures being targeted as symbols of enduring structural racism. The debates that have ensued over the way British people think about their history and the way it is taught in schools remind of the famous quote by William Faulkner, ‘the past is not dead. It is not even past.’ In an article about the current situation in the United States, Fintan O’Toole wrote that there is ‘a superabundance of the unresolved past.’ Britain it seems, is no exception.
The removal of the statue that honoured the prolific slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol on 7 June – described as an act of ‘mob rule’ by the Home Secretary Priti Patel – was interpreted by many as a direct attack on British history. Despite the majority of Britons never having heard of Colston before the event, there were those prepared to take a stand if such acts of ‘vandalism’ were to be repeated. And many statues were targeted, such as those of Winston Churchill and Robert Milligan in London, and Robert Dundas in Edinburgh. On 11 June protesters gathered in Poole in Dorset to defend the statue of Robert Baden-Powell, an army officer who started the Scouts in 1907 and was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. A woman held a poster with the words ‘British history matters’.
These three words that play on the language of Black Lives Matter may not seem like much, but on closer inspection are suggestive of significant ‘unresolved pasts.’ As the historian Charlotte Lydia Riley wrote in The Guardian recently, ‘statues do not do a particularly effective job of documenting the past or educating people about it.’ The ‘British history matters’ poster is indicative of a popular interpretation of the past that relies on an unwillingness to question established and often simplistic versions of history. The past is seen as eternal, fixed and unchanging, taking a rigid and unbending form that is much like the statues that are at the centre of the controversy. Riley goes on to say that responses to the removal of Colston’s statue show that ‘some people in Britain are uncomfortable with any critique of Britain’s past. But they want it both ways: to be free of guilt for historical sins, but to be proud of what they see as historical achievements.’ This idea was crystallised when Channel 4 News interviewed a British veteran who was attempting to defend the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. When asked by the reporter if he was interested in hearing the reasons why some protesters disliked Churchill (the titan of British history and in many ways the ‘untouchable’), the veteran responded, ‘I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in our history.’ In other words, British history and black history cannot be the same thing.
These problematic ideas demonstrate the ‘superabundance of the unresolved past’ in Britain. Often, attempts to add to our understanding of the past are misinterpreted or dismissed as a desire to erase it. These intransigent visions of history are often based on narratives that hide more than they reveal. As the popular stories of Churchill illustrate, they are histories that are there to celebrate and comfort, they are not there to be questioned or critiqued. Nowhere is this clearer than with the history empire, which, as many historians such as David Olusoga and Priyamvada Gopal have eloquently argued, is often based on considerable doses of wilful forgetting with a side dish of denial. For me, the important role these visions of the past play in contemporary constructions of British identity indicate of the scale of the task facing the historians, educators and activists seeking to broaden definitions of ‘British’ history.
There will be debates over the future of statues and monuments, and in many cases removal is an issue that needs to be considered on a case by case basis. The removal of the monuments to the Confederacy in the United States for instance, as Karen Cox has often argued, is long overdue. In other cases, there will be justified arguments for leaving monuments where they are. It is important, however, that the debate over the fate of statues does not become a distraction from the real reasons why the Black Lives Matter protests have been taking place. Whether they are removed or not, in Britain many of these controversial statues are symptomatic of the popular reluctance to engage with the lasting legacies of Britain’s imperial history and Britain’s role in the slave trade. While the Prime Minister stated that it is not possible to ‘photoshop’ history, what the current protests have demonstrated is that we cannot afford to ignore it either.