Proposed Legislation Seeks to ‘Protect’ the U.K.’s Controversial Monuments

If passed, the new measure would make it more difficult for local councils to remove statues of polarizing historical figures

Salvage team recovers toppled statue of Edward Colston
Last June, protesters threw a statue of British slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbor. A salvage team recovered the sculpture the following day. Photo by Andrew Lloyd / Getty Images

New legislation introduced by the United Kingdom’s government seeks to “protect” controversial public works from removal “on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob,” wrote Conservative Party politician Robert Jenrick in a recent op-ed for the Telegraph.

Expected to apply to 20,000 monuments across England, the measure, if passed by Parliament, would require individuals to secure building consent or planning permission prior to taking down “any historic statue,” per a statement. The government’s secretary of state for communities (currently Jenrick) would have final say on all local council decisions regarding removals.

The proposed legislation—which quickly attracted criticism from Labour Party members, racial justice campaigners and scholars alike, reports Maya Wolfe-Robinson for the Guardian—arrives amid an ongoing reckoning with systemic racism. Last summer, protesters around the world toppled statues of contentious figures, including slaveholders, colonizers and politicians, while demonstrating against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd.

One of England’s most high-profile statue removals unfolded in mid-June, when protesters threw a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbor. Now, notes Artnet News’ Naomi Rea, the toppled figure is in a Bristol museum’s collection; four activists face criminal charges for damaging it.

Last June, protesters also defaced a sculpture of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square, arguing that the World War II–era prime minister held racist beliefs. Demonstrators pointed out that Churchill advocated the use of chemical weapons against “uncivilized tribes” in India and refused to admit that Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians had been wronged by colonization.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among the prominent figures to come to the Churchill statue’s defense. Writing in the Telegraph, he asked, “Would it not be better and more honest to ask our children to understand the context, to explain the mixture of good and bad in the career of Churchill and everyone else? I will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square.”

Jenrick outlined a similar argument in his op-ed, maintaining that the U.K.’s monuments are an integral part of its history—a narrative that demonstrators seek to “erase,” he said.

“We cannot, and should not, now try to edit or censor our past,” added Jenrick. “That’s why I am changing the law to protect historic monuments and ensure we don’t repeat the errors of previous generations, losing our inheritance of the past without proper care.”

The government’s official view, as presented in Parliament Monday and outlined in the Telegraph, is that “monuments are almost always best explained and contextualized, not taken and hidden away.”

But as Laurajane Smith, a researcher who spent a decade interviewing visitors to historical sites for her book Emotional Heritage, told Smithsonian magazine’s Erin Thompson last month, simply adding context may not be enough to change minds.

The vast majority of people Smith surveyed were “engaged in reinforcing what they knew and believed,” she said. If visitors saw information that seemed to contradict their understanding of an event or historical figure, they simply brushed “it off as irrelevant.”

Per the Guardian, some observers have expressed concerns that the proposed legislation is misguided and poorly timed.

“The government’s focus right now should be on the fight against Covid-19, protecting families’ incomes and securing our economy,” Member of Parliament Steve Reed, the shadow cabinet’s communities secretary, tells the Guardian. “Robert Jenrick should be working closely with councils to help build capacity for rolling out the vaccine so that we can end restrictions and begin to rebuild our country.”

Writing on Twitter, Sharon Heal, director of the London-based Museums Association, added, “I wish we could get away from language of censure and erasure and understand this is about broadening, deepening and creating honest and inclusive narratives.”