Trevor Phillips: ‘Battles over history make everything about white people and their guilt’

The writer discusses his role on the new Heritage Advisory Board set up to guide the national debate on Britain’s past

Trevor Phillips, the broadcaster and writer chosen to become one of the members of a controversial new Heritage Advisory Board set up by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, has revealed the priorities that will guide him as he helps to set a steadying course for the government through Britain’s contested cultural history.

Speaking to the Observer Phillips said: “I am not against things being changed. Things get changed all the time. That’s what happens. But I want people to be honest about their motives.” The broadcaster and writer said he does object though to the cultural “window dressing” of merely changing names and taking down statues. Phillips believes it is distraction from the real work of tackling less fashionable problems, such as the lack of opportunity and economic equality facing many Britons.

His contentious words come after a spring in which a government pushback against what some Conservative ministers fear is a tide of reforming “wokery”, or political correctness, has caused a string of resignations inside high-profile British organisations. Dowden, he says, wants to encourage institutions to “retain and explain”, instead of junking whole layers of tainted national heritage.

Yet in a giant game of ideological chess, key board members and trustees at the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Royal Opera House and the Science Museum have all gone, while the long search for a new chair of Ofcom, the powerful broadcasting regulator, for which the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was a Downing Street favourite, has been restarted from scratch to give Dacre another chance.

Arguments that once targeted the statues of imperial powerbrokers in town squares are now being voiced inside the panelled rooms of national museums, universities, galleries, heritage bodies and public service broadcasters. As a result, in Britain the broad term “culture wars”, which originally covered changing attitudes to race, gender and colonial legacy, now has a more literal meaning, since most of the skirmishes so far have taken place literally on the battlefield of cultural heritage: most recently at the National Trust, where the unconnected resignation of the chair, Tim Parker, has been welcomed with whoops of joy by campaigners who saw him as a threat to the old, sensible way of doing things.

In fact, “sensible” was the word used by the education secretary last week to welcome the decision of Oriel College at Oxford University not to take down its statue of Cecil Rhodes, the exploitative pioneer who led the colonisation of much of southern Africa. Taking their cue from students in Cape Town, Oxford undergraduates in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign have called for six years for the statue to come down.

The statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College Oxford
Last week Oriel College Oxford decided not to take down its statue of Cecil Rhodes. Photograph: Laurel Chor/Getty Images

An independent report commissioned by the college called for the statue to be removed. But the college, citing Dowden’s “retain and explain” policy, decided not to accept the report’s findings because of the costs of securing planning permission. This would be a lengthy process, the college claimed, which was likely to be blocked by Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for local government.

Among those unhappy about the decision is Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African politics at the University of Oxford. “Taking down the Rhodes statue might seem symbolic but it actually represents real change,” he wrote in the Guardian last week. “At the very least, it would demonstrate that the university is not only beholden to a group of wealthy alumni and political patrons.”

Phillips, who has already led a year-long project, History Matters, to chart these disputes for the centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, argues that calls for statues to be pulled down and buildings renamed are simply attempts to salve guilty consciences and maintain the status quo. “Many of the people who say they are being menaced by government ministers actually want us to focus on the past because they don’t want to do anything to change the present and the future – especially not giving people of colour a place at the table now,” he said.

Black and ethnic minority historians and writers such as David Olusoga and Sathnam Sanghera have claimed in contrast that the appearance of things – street names, statues, museum exhibits – really does matter and can send out a significant message to a population. While neither man advocates the binning of public landmarks, they have both celebrated the current re-examination of British history in the context of those who lost out as well as those who retained power.

“We do need to rethink who is memorialised in our public spaces,” wrote Olusoga after a crowd toppled the statue of a rich slave owner last summer. “Bristol is a better city without Edward Colston. But statues are a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The real conversation has to be about racism and how we confront it.”

Sanghera also argues for a middle way: change and context, rather than just altering the labels under artworks or the plaques below statues. Despite the anger directed at him after the publication of his critical book Empireland this year, Sanghera still believes “there’s a silent middle ground of people who realise imperialism could be rotten, and want to be educated, but equally don’t want to destroy everything that colonialism has touched.”

Phillips, however, distrusts much of the reforming zeal he detects inside British institutions. He sees it as just a back-covering exercise.

“It is true there are not enough black people on these boards and not enough diversity generally,” he said, “but don’t make the mistake of thinking that white people who have been there a long time are not the ones making hasty “woke” decisions. These people have often been talking about diversity for a long time without anything real happening.”

At stake, amid all the boardroom fuss, is Britain’s troubled self identity. Yet so far, as a new report from King’s College’s Policy Institute shows, it is a conflict that has been largely ignored by the British public. The study shows that 61% of respondents had heard “little to nothing” about key phrases such as “identity politics”, “micro aggression” or “cancel culture”.

Minority groups also appear to have less knowledge than the majority sectors of the population when it comes to the terms “culture war”, “safe spaces” or “cultural appropriation”. Recognition of the term “woke” among those who took part in the research was evenly split between those who said they were familiar with the term and those who had not heard it much at all.

Trevor Phillips
Phillips: ‘Councils should spend time working on how to improve the services they offer to poorer people instead of just changing the names of things.’ Photograph: David Hartley/Rex/Shutterstock

The Policy Institute at King’s College reminds readers that the language of the “culture wars” first became popular 30 years ago in America in the work of the sociologist James Davison Hunter. In describing the tension between “orthodox” and “progressive” worldviews, Hunter believed he had spotted a growing major conflict “over the meaning of America” and about what is “fundamentally right and wrong”.

In Britain now, this new research emphasises, these rows are mostly limited to cultural institutions, the arts and the universities. And even in these limited spheres, it seems there is no agreement about the vocabulary, nor the rival aims. Phillips, for instance, admits he does not like the phrase “contested history”, although he understands that Dowden’s committee has been set up “to look at this whole area”. “It always makes me want to ask who is contesting it. Usually it’s only about three people. Of course, as a society we need to represent the whole story of our past, but I really believe councils should spend time working on how to improve the services they offer to poorer people instead of just changing the names of things,” said Phillips

The recent campaign at Liverpool University that led to the renaming of Gladstone Hall, named after the former prime minister William Gladstone, due to his links with slavery, is a case in point for Phillips.

“I’m British Guyanese by derivation and so my ancestors probably were on Gladstone’s plantations. The Gladstone family probably got compensation when some of them were freed but I don’t think the lives of my nine brothers and sisters will benefit one iota because someone takes a name off the building. Somehow these rows make it all about white people and their guilt.”

Such guilty paroxysms, argue others, are an inevitable part of change. Chigudu argues that rows about statues “are always about the present and not the past”. Choices about cultural heritage, whether to retain and explain, or to remove and improve, are inevitably an expression of current values and a reflection of who is doing the choosing.

Culture wars

Science Museum Group

The author and historian Sarah Dry withdrew from reappointment to the board of trustees of the Science Museum Group due to new guidance from the government asking incoming and reappointed trustees to “individually and explicitly express their support” for the government’s “retain and explain” cultural policy.

Royal Museums Greenwich

Sir Charles Dunstone, Carphone Warhouse co-founder, in April resigned in protest at government blocking of the reappointment of fellow trustee Aminul Hoque, an academic.

Royal Opera House

David Ross, prominent Conservative party donor and co-founder of the Carphone Warehouse, stepped down as chairman in April, nine months after his appointment, because culture secretary Oliver Dowden wanted him to stay on as chair of the National Portrait Gallery instead to deal with concerns about art with a contested history.


This month, the government restarted the delayed recruitment process for a chair of the broadcasting watchdog, when the prime minister’s choice, former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, was rejected at interview board. Dacre now has a second chance to apply.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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