In response to calls to remove statues and monuments with links to slavery and colonialism, the government announced a new’ retain and explain’ policy to protect these controversial monuments. This includes new laws, which mean all historical statutes, plaques, and other monuments will now need full planning permission to be removed. With the Communities Secretary being notified to make the final decision when a council intends to grant this planning permission. On top of this, the emphasis on ‘retain and explain’ means that these monuments will only be removed in exceptional circumstances.
Explaining the reasons for the new policy Communities, Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP argued that ‘We cannot – and should not – now try to edit or censor our past. That’s why I am changing the law to protect historic monuments and ensure we don’t repeat the errors of previous generations, losing our inheritance of the past without proper care’. Culture Secretary Rt Hon Oliver Dowden MP echoed this, explaining his strong belief ‘that we should learn from our past – in order to retain and explain our rich history’.
While, of course we must learn from our history, it is policies such as ‘retain and explain’ that prevent this from happening. Keeping statutes of those who profited from slavery is not learning from our history. Statues are inherently celebratory. Adding a plaque to explain the controversies around the figure depicted in the statute is not enough to counter the fact it was erected initially to celebrate that person and their actions. Removing these statutes and focusing on increasing education through schools and museums will be much more effective.
Ironically even when these monuments are ‘retained and explained’, the government is unhappy. In a recent meeting with leaders in the heritage sector, Oliver Dowden complained that these institutions must present a ‘more rounded view’ of Britain’s impact on the world. This followed criticism of the national trust, who put together a report to highlight the links between national trust sites, slavery and colonialism. Some MPs complained that the report denigrated Churchill by highlighting his opposition to Indian Independence and his role in drafting the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The National Trust rightly fought back, arguing that it was simply a ‘factual audit’.
Pointing out the links historical figures have to colonialism and slavery is not skewing British history as Dowden described. After a past of at best ignoring these links or at worst celebrating them, it is the least the heritage sector can do. In the past, the government themselves have not only skewed British history but erased it. Running an operation during the 1970s and 1950s to destroy or hide evidence detailing the realities of the British Empire. This included the torture, rape and beatings of thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps likened to the Nazis.
Unions representing museum staff explained how members were concerned that the government policy could lead to museums and heritage sites’ rowing back’ from the work they had done on decolonisation and that ‘any backward steps in these areas will be tantamount to airbrushing history’. Heritage sites have a vital role in educating the public about Britain’s past, including slavery and the empire. This is all the more important, given that there is no statutory requirement for schools to teach children about these topics.
Gavin Williamson rejected calls to change this emphasising that children be taught both the good and the bad of British history. British children are not learning ‘the bad’, or we would see Britain’s involvement in slavery and the empire as a mandatory part of their history course. If the next generation is really to learn from the past, museums and heritage sites must fill in the gap in their education.
It is clear that the government’s ‘retain and explain’ policy sets a dangerous precedent for the continued lack of recognition and education about Britain’s central role in slavery and colonialism. Future generations must learn from Britain’s past, and much of this includes uncomfortable truths that cannot be taught effectively through statues and monuments. Only education through school, museums and heritage sites will teach children the true history of Britain; the good, the bad and the ugly.
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