Time for Britain to face its imperial demons | Letters

John P Cooper on what the country must do to make peace with itself, John Rowe on why the focus on statues is frustrating, Shirley Osborn on one glorious moment that will stay with her and Graham Foster on changing the honours system

Public statues are never historic, they are always contemporary. Councils maintain them. Planning law sustains their visibility. Criminal law punishes interference. Social power preserves them because it likes what they say. When people feel that the story monuments tell is disadvantageous, they destroy them: think Akhenaten, Lenin, Saddam Hussein, a rooftop swastika.

Removal is an act of historic authorship. Sustaining one, meanwhile, is narrative curation. If we do nothing, statues fall down of their own accord. We therefore face an ongoing choice: commit resources to removing a monument or to maintaining it. What we choose depends on the narratives we invest in it, what impact we seek and what inconveniences we gloss over.

In contrast to postwar Germany’s soul-searching, Britain has kept up appearances over imperialism – through the monarchy, the Commonwealth and the myths of exploration, benign rule and abolitionism. These mask perpetrations of violence and injustice – slavery included. Because Britain will not face its past, schools do not teach imperialism as Germany does nazism. Instead, we have the pomp and the statues.

As time diminishes personal culpability, individuals are looking beyond the fantasy to contemplate the harm that people sailing from these islands did. But in the context of Britain’s wider identity crisis, it will take a more concerted action than the toppling of Edward Colston for the country to admit its imperial demons. If it does, it might make peace with itself.
John P Cooper
Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

• Thanks to Martin Kettle for his excellent analysis of Britain’s difficulties with its past (Fighting over statues obscures the real problem: Britain’s delusion about its past, 11 June). But it was frustrating that in the same issue, the Guardian’s lead story and most of the letters page were given over to the debate on statues. The rightwing press and the government will be rejoicing if the narrative becomes one of law and order, as the comments of the home secretary and health secretary make clear they want. We must not allow this argument to distract us from the three key areas that we need to address: policing, recruitment and selection practices, and education.

One swift response would be for the government to commit to an immediate radical revision of the key stage 3 history syllabus to give a major focus on colonialism and slavery, and on the history of the black and Asian communities who live among us. If only I could believe that the current education secretary would even consider this.
John Rowe
Rochdale, Greater Manchester

• I urge Joseph Harker not to be downhearted (‘Black Lives Matter’ risks becoming an empty slogan. It’s not enough to defeat racism, 11 June). The iconic image of Edward Colston being jettisoned into the river will long remain imprinted on our collective memory. The inevitable fightback from racists, apologists and faint-hearts will not erase it. As a 74-year-old white woman, I thought it was a glorious moment.
Shirley Osborn
Carnforth, Lancashire

• One way in which our country could show it is serious about our colonial history and racist legacy would be to change the honours system and get rid of the word “empire”. Then we might stop thinking the British empire was something to be proud of.
Graham Foster

• Join the debate – email guardian.letters@theguardian.com

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