THE VIEW FROM EUROPE: Britain’s culture war and the Caribbean
Last week a culture war erupted in Britain over its colonial history.
Ostensibly the debate revolved around how to respond to public
protests against the memorialising in city streets, squares, and
public spaces of those involved in slavery. More profoundly, however,
what happened and was said illuminated the need for Britain find ways
to rebalance the nation’s understanding of the role played by
conquest, exploitation, and empire in creating its wealth.
The matter achieved prominence because of events on June 7 in Bristol
in the West of England. There, protestors had taken to the streets to
join the international condemnation of the death of George Floyd in
Minneapolis, and to make clear that Black Lives Matter in Britain too.
In events eerily reminiscent of other turning points in history from
South Africa to Eastern Europe, a group of protestors pulled down a
statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth century slaver and city
benefactor, and threw him into the harbour. Captured on social media,
the moment was significant in a yet to be fulfilled way, as it
illustrated the need to change the trajectory of Britain’s history.
It was an act important for its symbolism, not least because many of
those attending the protest there and in many other British cities
were not just young people of Caribbean and African descent, but also
numerous others who were white. Their actions reflected a passion to
have their voices heard on racism, inequity, social injustice, and
their common fears about employment and the future. Tellingly, the
county’s police service decided not to intervene, accepted that
Colston should fall, and that the greater public good in a
multi-racial city was in not provoking a confrontation.
In contrast, a similar Black Lives Matter demonstration in London, saw
a small minority indulge in violence and the mindless defacing of the
national war memorial and a statue of Churchill, who in Britain
remains an understandable if unnuanced icon as the wartime leader of
an island that stood alone, and then with the US and Russia defeated
fascism in Europe.
The subsequent political and media reaction to events was predictable.
The focus was on protecting property, achieving outcomes by democratic
means, and calls for punitive jail sentences; only for such comments
to be followed by a backlash from menacing groups of ultra-right thugs
masquerading as protectors of statues and history.
Far more important, however, is the sense that the toppling of
Colston’s statue, marks the identifiable point at which significant
parts of British society began to recognise that a more balanced
fact-based understanding of the past is required if the country is to
become more cohesive.
Colston’s fall confronted the central un-spoken myth in much of UK
society about the unremittingly ‘positive’ nature of its history and
many of its citizens consequential and surprisingly commonplace sense
of global ‘superiority’.
What happened in Bristol was in its own small way a revolutionary act
challenging the view that Britain’s future can continue to be based on
an uncritical view of its past.
More generally, it highlighted the failure of the Britain’s
educational system to create an awareness that Britain’s wealth and
economic development was built to a significant extent on the
transatlantic slave trade and the exploitation of other human beings
on plantations in the Caribbean.
It pointed too, to the need for the teaching of economic and social
history rather political history; explaining the present-day
implications of the acquisition of empire; where the funding for
Britain’s early industrialisation came from and its subsequent social
consequences; the more recent role played by the thousands from the
then colonies who fought and died for Britain; and how migrants after
the second world war played a vital role in Britain’s economic
Why none of this has yet happened requires holistic explanation, but
the simple answer could be because much of history shows that the
‘winners’ sit back, learning little from their victory, while the
‘losers’ learn from their ‘defeat’, manage to innovate, and eventually
find new ways to rise.
The reaction to Colston’s toppling also indicated the absence of any
leading government politician with the courage to recognise how a
better national perspective on English history and a country at
cultural peace with itself might channel honesty about the past into
greater global influence.
Shortly after Colston’s statue came down, Prime Minister Johnson
announced a new policy initiative to have a commission identify the
disparities in treatment experienced by minority ethnic groups and
The problem was that this was not only behind the pay wall of a
national newspaper in an article about Churchill, his hero, but it
ignored four recent and related national reports which have not been
acted on. Appearing to lack understanding, Prime Minister Johnson
said, “What I really want to do as Prime Minister is change the
narrative, so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.”
In a hard-hitting public response, clear and to the point, David
Lammy, an opposition Member of Parliament of Guyanese parentage, whose
government-commissioned report is one of those not yet implemented,
said that to distract from his inaction, Mr. Johnson was now seeking a
Britain of course continues to play an important role in the world,
but to succeed post-Brexit, it will have to do much more than sign
trade agreements and promote nostalgia. To retain its influence in the
Caribbean and elsewhere, it will have to project soft power, enhance
its global standing, and cultivate a modern national image worth
Without genuinely addressing issues like racial inequality, injustice
and its history, Britain is likely to become more volatile, making it
difficult for its diplomats to explain its present and future place in
the world, let alone the relevance of ‘Global Britain’ or the jingoism
that surrounds Brexit.
History cannot be changed, but it deserves to be better understood and
explained, not just in its original context, but in relation to today
and the future. The Caribbean has an important role to play in this.
It needs to remind Britain directly and through its Diaspora that its
history is the region’s history as well. It should find ways to warn
about the dangers inherent in provoking a culture war.