THE BLOG

We Can't Learn From a Stump: Why the Queen Victoria Statue Should Stay

08/03/2016 12:23 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Memento Park just outside Budapest is a bizarre wonderland. It's where the Hungarians deposited all its unwanted Communist statues after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Its statues depict generally disreputable Communist figures and other assorted enemies of democracy, and they were erected in order to force sinister Communist influence onto residents through constant exposure.

And now they comprise a shrine where locals and tourists alike go to mock the dystopian pomposity of the regime with selfie sticks and funny faces. How much better that is - for history, for education, for Hungarian national catharsis and just for good old-fashioned fun - than would have been wholesale destruction of the (admittedly unsavoury) statues.

I wonder if the Cecil Rhodes martyrs - who have now set their sights on Queen Victoria - have ever visited Budapest. I suspect they haven't, or else they wouldn't dream of suggesting that demolishing history is a sensible way forward.

Owen Jones argues that the protestors are "forcing us to confront our history". Well, they're certainly forcing us confront British history (this article being a case in point). But if they have their way, we will be the last. Future generations won't.

What will prompt students in 20 years' time to discuss the moral legacy of empire? They won't be reminded of it, as we are today, by walking past a statue of a questionable queen. The statue won't be there. It will just be a stump, and we can't learn from a stump.

Removing Queen Vic will also not be nearly as cathartic as the anti-Rhodes lobby seems to believe. Deleting the mugshot doesn't reverse the crime. Modern Britain is still riddled with the consequences of its imperial past, economically, structurally, linguistically. It continues to live off the proceeds. We can pull down as many statues as we like but it won't change the fact that contemporary British society is built on colonial roots.

For sure, that's an issue which we as a society have to face up to, but we can do so without resorting to childish tactics which erase uncomfortable passages of British history. It's not as if the continued existence of a statue or monument implies that anyone supports every aspect of what it stood for at the time it was unveiled. There may be a statute of Queen Victoria standing on a Royal Holloway College lawn but nobody could seriously suppose that means Royal Holloway College institutionally supports every excess of the British Empire - far less that its students or passing visitors do.

All a statue is is a statement: 'The people of such-and-such-a-year thought that this person was worthy of memorial.' That statement continues to be true today even if we wouldn't form the same conclusion these days. So how far should the erasure go? Should we also destroy the college's 1880s archive which no doubt includes written records of the statue's construction? Those records will make exactly the same statement as the statute itself does.

And what of all the other statues, gravestones and other memorials throughout the United Kingdom that commemorate historical figures of questionable morality? Let's face it, virtually every statue of anyone who died before about 1950 (and many of those born later) is all but guaranteed to be somewhat questionable: its subject will inevitably have said something racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or anti-feminist or pro-slavery or pro-child labour or somehow objectionable.

That's how the progression of time works: people in the future always look back and, with the benefit of hindsight, spot moral flaws. The only way to fulfil the Rhodes martyrs' mission to its proper conclusion would be to destroy virtually the entirety of pre-1950s British history.

And that would be a far greater loss to the country's vital ethical debate than is the continued existence of a statute of Queen Victoria - who, by the way, would not be amused.