The only surprise about the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol is that it took so long. For Colston was a trader in slaves and has left a dirty stain on our history. Whilst it is true that Colston left his fortune to Bristol, it is how he made it that has always been problematical.
I’ve always felt – and I know it’s easier for me as a white man – that the names the streets named after slave traders and indeed buildings named after Colston should retain their names. My view was that we needed to always remember how Bristol became so wealthy and ensure future generations learned about slavery. The killing of George Floyd and the worldwide reaction to it has changed everything.
We’ve reached a certain time in history where centuries of pent up anger have exploded. Despite the best will in the world, the fight against racism has ground to a halt. Progress, we were told, was being made, but in truth it was at glacial speed. We all talked the talk yet beneath the surface the status quo prevailed because it suited the majority for whom racism was not a problem.
However, I don’t see the current demonstrations as representing anything like closure. Away from the demonstrations, vast swathes of the country remain unmoved. Years of populist politicians lying to us, telling us migrants were the problem, culminating in a huge victory for right wing nationalists when Britain voted to pull up the drawbridge to Europe. These migrants, as Nigel Farage has repeatedly demonstrated, were not welcome because they are not white. The huge marches and demonstrations have not, I suspect, changed all minds and attitudes. In some instances, the opposite may be true.
It is not just here in Britain. Anywhere right wing nationalism and populism has flourished – the USA is the ultimate example – the anger of the people at the killing of George Floyd has been greater. And, if I am being totally honest, all this justified anger both inspires and terrifies me.
We remain a broken and divided country because of Brexit and just because we have now left the EU there have been no efforts to unite the country. We are also in the midst of a horrifying pandemic, which has killed anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people in Britain alone. Soon we will be in a terrible and deep recession where thousands of businesses will go to the wall and take millions of jobs with them. Then, with the country on its knees, after having taken the knee for George Floyd the country goes off a cliff when the EU transition period ends. I am not conflating Floyd’s killing with the coming recession and the end of the transition with the EU, but I do see the consequences as a potential perfect storm, all taking place in the second wave of COVID-19.
That is the context in which I place today’s statue toppling with an uncertain and potentially dangerous future.
If only we had national leaders who could offer compassion and vision. Instead, we have a chat show host and after dinner speaker as PM, with a cabinet of never weres and never will bes, being told what to do by the most dangerous political advisor this country has ever known, the tyrant that is Dominic Cummings. Boris Johnson once referred to non white people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles”, described Muslim women as “letterboxes” and that the problem with Africa was that Britain “(is) not in charge anymore”. This is not a man to develop trust with people of colour and makes no effort to do so, as the part time prime minister he is.
The council cannot restore Edward Colston’s statue on the city centre. Instead, they should retrieve it from the harbourside where it was later dumped and put it in a museum with other artefacts from the horrors of slavery. The plaque on the statue reads: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.’ Not that ‘virtuous and wise’ given his contribution to a slave trade that saw Bristol bring some 500,000 Africans to the Americas, a fifth of the slaves taken there.
We cannot repeat often enough our abhorrence at what happened. Although this generation was not responsible for the slavery, it falls upon us to ensure each following generation understands the way in which our city became rich. And it falls upon people of power to once and for all extinguish the evil of racism.