Down with statue politics! Let’s put this lifeless public art back in its box | Catherine Bennett

When Laurence Fox gets in on the act, it’s time to leave Churchill and others in peace

Who wouldn’t like to be a statue in Boris Johnson’s Britain? Cherished by the powerful and honoured with collective gatherings, as Churchill’s shrine was last week, by supporters of the London mayoral candidate Laurence Fox. Without themselves needing to organise, these historically neglected members of the inanimate community have within the last few months secured privileges, protections and high-level advocacy that, in addition to their existing plinth status, falls only narrowly short of full suffrage – and even that cannot confidently be ruled out.

Demonstrating that the government does have a heart, albeit one of stone, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, accepted that, where sentient arts freelancers could manage unaided in lockdown, statues needed help. Not just in their personal struggles against decay and pigeons but against official “bullying” (mercifully for the statues, largely of an ideological as opposed to a violent, Tory, intra-departmental nature). His department identified a “noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

One respectable statue had been toppled purely because of his slave fortune. Another’s plinth had been scrawled on. A few obscure stone dignitaries had been unceremoniously relocated from their old haunts, for all the world as if they were random old ladies blocking demolition of a care home. Since these humiliations had hardly been invited by the effigies themselves, everything pointed to institutional statueism. New laws would therefore protect statues from ever again being disturbed without government permission. Precedents in historical iconoclasm – Henry VIII’s and Cromwell’s, say, or Johnson’s devastation of the London skyline – were no excuse. Disobedient organisations could lose funding.

And what of the statues’ right to be out alone at night, without fear of assault or unwanted touching? In an emotional article, sounding fully as insulted as any woman being lectured on how to dress by Imran Khan, Johnson lamented the boarding up of Churchill’s statue before a Black Lives Matter protest. “It was outrageous,” he wrote, “that anyone could even have claimed that the statue needed protection. It was and is miserable to see his statue entombed in its protective sheath.” (Sheath? He’s familiar, then, with the concept.)

Yes, the prime minister conceded, such “outrageous” precautions predated BLM. But that, you gathered, occurred in the long period separating Pygmalion’s very successful relationship with a statue from Johnson’s 2019 accession, during which statues were widely considered lifeless, only transiently meaningful, possibly even pathetic relics of antique grandiosity. Maybe they didn’t do Ozymandias at Eton.

“Why attack Churchill?” Johnson demanded. “What has it come to when one of this country’s greatest ever leaders – perhaps our greatest – has to be shielded from the wrath of the mob?”

If, outside Britain First and the Daily Telegraph, many civilians were disappointingly apathetic on this point (only 33% disapproved of the Colston statue’s removal), instructive penalties would re-educate them. The 10-year prison terms introduced in the new crime bill confirm that, in the punitive enforcement of statue veneration, Johnson’s UK now competes with any efficiently run tyranny.

“There has been widespread upset about the damage and desecration of memorials,” the Home Office lies, by way of explaining why statue damage may now be sentenced more severely than rape. “It has long been considered,” it adds, just as vaguely, “that the law is not sufficiently robust in this area.” It has? Can it point us to any manifesto promise, indeed to any serious, even fleeting Tory interest in statuary not of Margaret Thatcher, prior to the Bristol monument being immersed, retrieved and thereafter the sole pretext for Telegraph articles about baying/wrathful/imaginary mobs?

Maybe shame about this earlier indifference helps explain the intensity of the government’s current passion for monument protection (alas, excluding Stonehenge). Seeking respectable support for this idolatry, Johnson declares common cause, as per, with women. Notwithstanding Maggi Hambling’s recent catastrophe, there are feminists who think, understandably enough, that the lack of heroic female statuary is worth the effort of rectifying. The government’s first demand, however, has been for a “great big statue” of Captain Tom, “not just for this generation to remember Captain Tom”, said the vaccines secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, “but for future generations”. And why not. It might even remind a future Tory government to close its borders in a pandemic.

Maybe any creative impulse is to be welcomed from a government so noted for philistinism. But ministerial fetishisation may yet be a mixed blessing for landmark statues, in particular for the Churchill bronze installed in Parliament Square in 1973. Last year, Johnson vowed to resist its relocation with “every breath in my body”. In practice, the greatest physical risk from this posturing was obviously to the statue.

Again, thanks to Churchill’s most embarrassing fan, the war leader is yet more firmly identified as – perhaps the worst thing for any public statue – pre-eminently a divisive figure, recognised as flawed by the left and thus ostentatiously venerated by the right. The more Johnson depicts it as worthy of martyrdom (Dowden favours Nelson’s column) the more magnetic the site to smaller-time demagogues.

Laurence Fox has duly rhapsodised, plinthside, on the various ways – from mask defiance to low traffic suspensions – he aspires, in a kind of reversal of blitz priorities, to shorten Londoners’ lives. Even Churchill’s admirers might welcome, if this is to be his statue’s fate, its overdue removal to a place of safety.

Long before the Tory project to cultivate public discord out of stone and bronze, the raising of figurative public statues had become a complicated, dated, probably doomed enterprise, a theme underlined by artists contributing to Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Indifference that protected the most dreadful old statues could not be extended to the new. Even if people agreed on a subject – eg Oscar Wilde – they were likely to be divided on the execution – eg Maggi Hambling. In characteristic style, Johnson’s insane statue legislation is premised on an invention, a reverence that never existed.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist


Catherine Bennett

The GuardianTramp

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