Protesters throw Colston statue into harbour

UK government should focus on Covid, not statues, campaigners say

The government has been accused of stoking a contrived culture war in order to distract from its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as it announces plans to change the law to protect statues from what Robert Jenrick called “baying mobs”.

The communities secretary said Britain should not try to edit or censor its past amid proposed amendments to laws to protect statues, monuments and other memorials.

But the Labour party and race equality campaigners said the government should focus on the pandemic instead of statues.

Jenrick said any decision to remove heritage assets in England would require planning permission and a consultation with local communities, adding that he wanted to see a “considered approach” in an article in the Sunday Telegraph.

The plans to change the legislation, to be revealed in parliament on Monday, follow the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston last year during a Black Lives Matter protest and a wider discussion on the removal of controversial monuments. Jenrick wrote: “Our view will be set out in law, that such monuments are almost always best explained and contextualised, not taken and hidden away.”

Jenrick said he had noticed an attempt to set a “single, often negative” narrative which he said sought to erase part of the nation’s history, adding this was “at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies”.

Dr Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust, said the plans were “nothing more than smoke and mirrors. With one eye on the next election, Jenrick has used this article to precipitate a contrived culture war, to agitate the Tory base and distract from this government’s terrible failings around Covid.”

The head of the race equality thinktank said it was a disgrace that the biggest current preoccupation for housing minister was conservation of statues. “The country would be far better served if Jenrick were to develop a plan that allows working-class families living in overcrowded conditions to receive isolation pay, as well as temporary accommodation, to act as a firebreak in the spread of this terrible disease.”

Begum said: “We are in the midst of a national disaster, in which over 1,200 people a day are dying, destitution is rising, 2.5 million households fear falling into arrears on rents that have been deferred by Jenrick until the end of February but are still owed, and 350,00 families have already been served eviction orders.”

Steve Reed MP, the shadow communities secretary, said Labour would study the legislation carefully when the government brought it forward. He said: “The government’s focus right now should be on the fight against Covid-19, protecting families’ incomes and securing our economy. Robert Jenrick should be working closely with councils to help build capacity for rolling out the vaccine so that we can end restrictions and begin to rebuild our country.”

Jenrick wrote: “We live in a country that believes in the rule of law, but when it comes to protecting our heritage, due process has been overridden. That can’t be right. Local people should have the chance to be consulted whether a monument should stand or not. What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not removed on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob.”

The death of George Floyd while in the custody of police in Minneapolis sparked protests across the world, during which the Colston statue was dumped into Bristol harbour and a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill vandalised with the words “is a racist”. For years before the Colston statue was toppled, historians and activists had been campaigning to remove it, using petitions and consultations to suggest amended wordings for the plaque.

Jenrick’s article cited Birmingham city council naming new streets Humanity Close and Diversity Grove, describing it as an example of an attack on the past from the Labour-run council. The new road names were chosen through a contest where members of the public were invited to submit suggestions to the local authority.

In response to the plans, historian David Olusoga tweeted: “You know, it’s almost as if they want to distract people from their lethally failed response to the pandemic and the consequences of a disastrous Brexit?”

The director of the Museums Association, Sharon Heal, said on Twitter: “I wish we could get away from language of censure and erasure and understand this is about broadening, deepening and creating honest and inclusive narratives.”