Statues and straw men

Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in the USA, have brought the issue of systemic racism to the forefront of conversation in the UK too.

Public statues, most notably the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, suddenly became lightning rods not only for Black Lives Matter but also for a lot of other justifiable frustrations.

“The diversity of elected councillors in the UK still does not reflect our wider population”

The civic leadership displayed by Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees in handling Colston’s impromptu removal was highly impressive – while not condoning the method, he memorably described its toppling as ‘a piece of historical poetry’.

Colston’s association with slavery is very clear, but there will of course be less clear-cut examples that need deeper discussion – and open, respectful public debate can stop disagreements from becoming divisive. So I was pleased to see Labour councils committing to listening to and working with their local communities to review the appropriateness of monuments on council land.

One figure that definitely should be removed is the straw man argument that this is about ‘erasing history’. On the contrary, it’s about closely examining the legacies of historic figures, and having a mature discussion about whether they deserve celebration in today’s very different world.

Local government should not shy away from self-reflection either, as we have our own diversity issues. In particular, it is increasingly obvious that the diversity of elected councillors in the UK still does not reflect our wider population. All political groups have a duty to change this, and we must step up.

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