Ipswich MP Tom Hunt: ‘More often than not, I will be against bringing statues down’

Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest r

Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire - Credit: PA

In his latest column, Ipswich MP Tom Hunt writes about whether statues should be pulled down in the wake of debates about the symbols of our past.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

Throughout history statues have fallen.

The de-Nazification process in Germany after the Second World War saw the tearing down of thousands of relics of Nazi terror.

And in living memory, we have seen the destruction of Vladimir Lenin’s statue in Kiev during the 2013 protests in Ukraine and the tearing down of statues of ousted Middle East leaders, like Colonel Gaddafi.

Debate also now rages across the Atlantic about confederate statues and others, with California recently deciding to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from their Capitol building.

A worker cleans graffiti from the plinth of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill at Parliament Square

A worker cleans graffiti from the plinth of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill at Parliament Square in London, following a Black Lives Matter protest. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire - Credit: PA

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This is a debate which has now come to the UK, with the toppling of slave-trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol earlier this month.

But whatever has happened or is happening abroad, even in this globalised age, we can’t get away from the fact that a debate over our statues will fundamentally be one about our nation and our nation’s history.

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And I don’t think we are at heart a nation which is comfortable with tearing down the symbols of our past through the spontaneous action of the sort we have seen recently.

Unlike many other countries, we have not had a history so greatly characterised by revolution or dictatorship.

By contrast, our story is much more one of gradual change and reform.

While in some ways this does make it harder to draw the line now between people we consider to have been ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s also a sign of the success we have had in this country at building and improving on the past without great upheaval and the washing away of the good with the bad.

This does mean statues of cruel figures like Edward Colston, who was heavily involved in the disgusting slave trade, are still around.

And I personally find Edward Colston’s involvement transportation of thousands of African men, women and children repulsive. But we must recognise that people’s perception of statues themselves aren’t necessarily always the same. Figures like Colston are not heroic but it cannot be argued that Colston isn’t central to Bristol’s story.

I’m a Catholic and of part-Irish descent, and I often walk past the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the House of Commons, a man who as Lord Protector led a brutal campaign against Catholics in Ireland, which resulted in a terrible famine, killing thousands, and the taking thousands of Irish Catholics as indentured labourers.

But whatever his actions that we wouldn’t consider acceptable now, we can’t forget that he lived during a different time and that it’s undisputable he played a huge role in our nation’s history. In my view, much more would be lost than gained, not least what we can learn from him about the present, if his statue was removed and he was pushed outside our national memory.

It’s for all these reasons that I’m completely against the summary decision taken by some to take the matter into their own hands and tear down our country’s statues which really belong to us all.

If there is a strong sense among the public that a statue should no longer stand, then there should be a thorough and democratic debate process in place for this to be pursued.

But more often than not I will be against bringing statues down because I believe the significance of our statues is often more important than whether we judge the people represented to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ now.

What we shouldn’t do is follow the example of Bristol mayor, Martin Rees, who seems to have embraced the lawlessness that has taken place with Colston’s statue being toppled by a small minority who took matters into their own hands.

No-one was better placed than Rees to take democratic action beforehand and how he has acted has excluded many who would have wanted to have a say before the statue was removed.

Avon and Somerset Police must also take responsibility for how they stood back and allowed the statue to be toppled. Their excuse that police intervention would have caused further disorder is ridiculous.

The vandalisation of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square and the desecration of our most cherished memorials like the Cenotaph has underlined for the vast majority of the public why the fate of our statues cannot be left to a small minority of vandals.

These disgraceful actions, which are ignorant of Churchill’s role in leading the fight against fascism and which dishonour those from across the world and of all backgrounds who died so that we might be free, completely undermine the cause the vandals claim to serve. And their criminal behaviour should not be tolerated.

I was one of 125 Conservative MPs who wrote to the home secretary calling for a Desecration of War Memorials Bill to be put before Parliament.

This Bill would give our war memorials specific protection in law which reflects their deep significance and allows our courts to hand out more robust punishments to those found guilty.

And I am pleased the government is now considering plans which would see those who damage our war memorials face up to 10 years in prison.

We mustn’t follow the lead of Sadiq Khan, who seems to have surrendered to the small mob by boarding up Churchill’s statue rather than ensuring it is suitably protected by police officers and that those attempting to deface it are dealt with firmly.

The mayor of London is ultimately responsible for policing in our capital and this should be his primary focus, not setting up a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to act as a high-minded arbiter of which London statues can and can’t stay in place.

This type of virtue-signalling and the censorious tendency of the liberal metropolitan mindset has not been limited just to Sadiq Khan over recent weeks.

Senior executives at the BBC have decided on our behalf that certain elements of our popular culture should also be boarded up and hidden away with the removal of past episodes of Little Britain from its iPlayer platform recently, mainly because of criticism of characters that David Walliams and Matt Lucas donned copious amounts of skin-darkening make up to play.

What the BBC has missed, and why Little Britain was one of my favourite comedy programmes growing up, is that virtually no one was spared the comedy duo’s ridicule. Young, old, black, white - everyone was the butt of joke at some point.

And that the audience isn’t laughing because certain characters are black or white but because the characters are hilarious. This form of self-depreciating humour is actually a great leveller and laughing together at ourselves brings down barriers, not erects them.

But the BBC’s decision suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with us for continuing to enjoy Little Britain and that our behaviour must change. It’s quite chilling that a state broadcaster, which tax and licence fee-payers are obliged to fund has the censor’s pen over comedic and artistic expression.

A country which can’t laugh at itself is barely a country worth living in at all. And just like we aren’t comfortable as a country leaving the fate of our historic statues to a small mob, neither should we be comfortable leaving our national sense of humour to a small group of state-funded executives.

None of this takes away for the tragic death of George Floyd and the strength of feeling we share against racism and injustice. But we shouldn’t let his death erupt into a culture war in this country which divides us, and where our statues and cultural expressions, like Little Britain, become quick victims without due democratic process and reflection.

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