History cannot be written in stone: Why are public statues important?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 2nd 2019

In recent years, from US campuses to towns to the UK, public statues have increasingly become a subject of heated debate and controversy. From Charlottesville in the US where one protestor was killed, to Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, and to what kind of plaque Henry Dundas has in Edinburgh, this is a live issue.

These debates are about much more than the statues in question. They touch upon the legacy of Empire in Britain, racism, slavery and xenophobia and, in other societies across the world, memories of dictatorship. They bring up issues not only about how we remember and understand the past, but how we see ourselves today, and even whom we regard as citizen in our society.

Glasgow once had the moniker ‘the second city of Empire’ marking that its wealth, commerce and importance were shaped by the height of Britain’s dominance and military power. It is this part of the city’s history which is over-represented in public statues that give pride of place to a host of great men ranging from industrialists, scientists, and politicians, while missing out women and people from black and ethnic minorities.

Last week a debate hosted by Glasgow City Heritage Trust at St. Andrews in the Square looked at the controversy around statues with contributions from SNP councillor Graham Campbell, architect Jude Barber of the Collective Architecture practice, academic Ray McKenzie (author of the fascinating ‘Public Sculpture in Glasgow’), and campaigner Melina Valdelievre, which I chaired.

Why is there such heated debate, charge and counter-charge about statues today, and action around launching campaigns to remove them, block proposals, and suggesting new ones? This is a dramatic change in the mood of the times from a decade ago where most statues in public in democracies laid ignored and forgotten, with the main issues being maintenance and repair.

Today statues have become a frontline about the state of our societies. They have become symbolic about who we are and how we see ourselves, and about who has power and voice. Previous groups such as anti-colonialist campaigners who previously would have been ignored, have brought centrestage the wrongs of the past. There is also the wider mood of our times: of a new radicalism in some young people, an emergent reactionary alt-right which takes pride in defending past misdemeanours, and deeper economic, social and cultural divides. When we talk about statues a lot is going on.

The statues that we see today around Glasgow and the UK are mostly the product of the explosion of Victorian building of them. This overlapped with the zenith of the British Empire, the reign of Victoria, and a confident high public culture which wanted to mark and remember the age for future generations. In Glasgow debate around them reflects this problematic legacy.

Thus, one blogger, ‘Glasgow Punter’, surveying the statues of the city, observed that ‘I was not able to name any great tyrants among the statuary in Glasgow city centre’ – which is deliberately damning with faint praise. A more political contemporary awareness connects these debates to the campaign for a Glasgow Museum of Slavery, Colonialism, Empire and Migration, which itself would have a significant international, outreach and education programme.

Statue building has expressed a narrow spectrum of elite power, Graham Campbell commenting that ‘statues are propaganda’. It was not very surprising, but as the Labour movement rose to prominence in the city, what it did not do was commemorate its struggles, victories and defeats, by commissioning statues. They had better, more practical things to do, but also other ways of commemorating the past such as May Day marches and trade union banners.

In a city which has earned the legend of ‘Red Clydeside’ it is revealing that none of the prominent radical figures associated with radicalism, trade unionism and other forms of struggle, has been marked by having a statue erected. There is no James Maxton or John Maclean; Mary Barbour being one of the few exceptions.

Statues touch on many of the most sensitive areas of Scottish history and society. They open a debate about how cities like Glasgow became the economic powerhouses and trading centres that they were at the height of Empire. Even more acutely by focusing on the reality of Empire they have to focus on the brutal nature of its violence, domination and genocidal character. And that has to address who gained from these dehumanising qualities?

Britain has a long, tragic and disreputable tradition of state approved violence and mass murder, including towards its own citizens. The British authorities practiced imperialism both at home and abroad, and whenever they were threatened or had a fear they might be within the UK historically, they were not inclined to act softly. From the Highland Clearances, to Peterloo in 1819 and the Newport Uprising in 1839, and the suppression of working class and trade union movements across the 19th and 20th centuries, the state has, when it has felt threatened, used brutal force on its own subjects.

Yet there is still a world of difference between how Britain acted at home and how it administered the reality of Empire: which was based on treating other human beings as subhuman and objects of commerce who could be bought, sold and traded without having any power, or say in the matter. The slave trade brought enormous wealth to its traders across the UK but at a cost it is hard to imagine and fathom today.

Underneath some of the public heat on statues there is the conceit of every generation and every contemporary hot topic: that somehow we have arrived at a pinnacle of blessed enlightenment which allows to survive the past with a penetrating critical eye in a way previous perspectives were denied by prejudice or self-interest. Reality is a little different.

The truth is that while some of the heat is new, there has always been controversy about public statues. It marks saying something as a town, city or nation. And there are only a limited number of public spaces. This last point is increasingly acute in statue hot spots, with Westminster City Council declaring a ‘monument saturation zone’ in the centre of London. But there has often been, even in the past, an element of contesting and impermanence. Hence, when a statue to Lord Kelvin was unveiled at Kelvingrove Park in 1913 by Liberal MP Augustine Birrell, he stated that ‘some day orators might be employed to go about the country, not unveiling, but veiling the statues.’

With that historical qualification, there is today a great desire to address the missing stories and people who are so self-evidently not present across the statues of Glasgow and elsewhere. Indeed, most of humanity is missing in any form: women (with only a couple of women figures in all Glasgow), black and ethnic minorities, and the working class histories of the city. There are numerous good causes who deserve to be recognised and celebrated, but there is also the right to continually revisit this, and if we decide to, take statues down: being erected in the first place does not give you the right to a plinth or place for eternity.

There is room for humour, seen in the continual placing of a traffic cone on the Duke of Wellington statue in front of GOMA which has become part of the ‘official’ branding of the city. We also see controversy – as in the original decision to agree the La Pasionaria statue (inspired by Dolores Ibárruri) on the banks of the Clyde to mark the international volunteers who fought Franco and fascism in the Spanish civil war. But there is also the problem of disrespect and damaging statues – with the perennial issue of raising Donald Dewar’s figure on Sauchiehall Street high enough to outdo vandals breaking his specs.

This debate is going to run for the foreseeable future. Not only is it about claim and counter-claims, but its symbolic politics of representation after a decade of austerity, give it an added weight. Ray McKenzie said that he would not have any new statutes in Glasgow, but was open minded to taking down a few. Perhaps thought it is time to be even more radical and daring in how we use public sculpture, and as Jude Barber said see that ‘figurative public statues are problematic and about the individual man on a pedestal’. She made the case for ‘more abstract ideas such as one on the Clyde which recognises Glasgow’s role in Empire and trans-Atlantic slavery – linking the river, the city and humanity.’

Increasingly the cult of statues is used to mark a place on the map and even give sustenance to the tourism industry. But at the same time there is also a new impetus to mark the distinctive and local. But what if we could imagine in statue form going beyond these constraints, and use it to understand and commemorate the vortex of Glasgow relationships, in this city, across Scotland and the UK, and internationally? That would offer us the prospect of having a greater awareness and recognition of where much of the wealth and power which has defined us has come from, and that not all that is Glaswegian and Scottish has been compassionate and caring. We do have to look at the dark side of our past.