The Taliban hate religions of all kinds, so they viewed it as being reasonable to destroy the Buddha statues at Bamiyan. ISIS hate history, so destroyed Aleppo, Palmyra and a whole host of other Syrian historic sites and artefacts. The West were united in decrying both events as ignorant vandalism. Yet we rejoiced at the destruction of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad; and are surprised when we discover statues of Stalin here and there across Russia. Depictions of Hitler and Mussolini are, of course, beyond the pale. Yet should we destroy the ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ gateway to Auschwitz because of our hatred of the holocaust? Presumably not.
The Colston statue is a matter of debate; but Gladstone? Baden Powell? Queen Victoria? What about Ghandi who despised black Africans? Does the fact that we disapprove of what an historic figure did, give us the right to deface or remove any memory of them? If, so who decides what is or is not acceptable? WD and HO Wills grew tobacco, so killing millions (without slave labour so far as we know.) Every monarch until the present Queen ruled over a huge Empire. We may not approve of Empires. But they did in those days. Queen Mary slaughtered hundreds because she was Roman Catholic, and Henry Vlll was responsible for the destruction of the monasteries and much of their magnificent art; and he cut off his wives’ heads when he tired of them.
We detest racism today and must stamp it out wherever it raises its ugly head. We believe in universal suffrage; but here in North Wiltshire a tiny handful of people had the vote until about 1850. People died building Stonehenge; farm labourers were virtual slaves. The anti-farm machinery riots in Wiltshire in 1830 saw 242 people killed and 1000 deported to Australia. What an outrage. The fact is that history throughout the world is full of matters which we detest and would not allow today. But they were of their time. And is there any purpose in an Orwellian attempt to eliminate any memory of them? We cannot censor our past.
Is there not anyhow, a risk that by obliterating memories of things we personally dislike about history, we are in the words of Churchill, ‘condemned to relive it.’ Is it not possible to decry any fascist tendencies which Baden Powell may have had while still praising his creation of the Scouts? Can we not commemorate Queen Victoria, without besmirching her name over Colonialism, for which she was only remotely responsible? Can we not accept that even our own ancestors within a couple of hundred years no doubt supported slavery, or in one way or another benefitted from it, disliked Votes for Women and enjoyed betting on Bear baiting. These are all wicked things, but do we really make history better by destroying our collective memory of them?
That may make us virtue signallers feel better about ourselves, but it neither changes history, nor necessarily prevents history repeating itself. We feel outraged at the mob rule which meant Churchill and the Cenotaph being boarded up for fear of anarchist vandalism; we detest the ‘woke’ removal of anyone who may in any way offend our delicate western liberal views. Whether we approve of our ancestors or not, they are in fact our ancestors. So let us focus our attention not on them but on ensuring a better, more liberal, fair and free life for our descendants - of all races and classes. Let us teach history, not obliterate it.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” (1984)