A Dorset council on Thursday announced plans to temporarily remove a 12-year-old statue of Robert Baden-Powell, the Scouts founder who has been accused of racism, homophobia and supporting Hitler. The council said the statue would be put into storage until the “threat level subsides”. A hospital in central London also said it would permanently remove a statue of Thomas Guy, its founder who had financial interests in a company that made a fortune from slavery.
Activists have taken these decisions as early wins but their celebrations may be premature. Rees’ cautious response to last weekend’s tumultuous events in Bristol shows why the movement might struggle to sustain momentum and only achieve limited results.
The unpopular truth is that the cause lacks mainstream support, particularly at a time when the country is paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic. A large section of the public simply doesn’t care that the statues are on display. And many who are unsettled by the dark past of deriving wealth and power from the west African slave trade believe the monuments reflect a snapshot of history, good or bad.
Many Labour-controlled councils have now launched formal reviews into which statues should be taken down and put into museums, and which prominent historical black figures are owed some overdue recognition in the form of new commissions. This is a substantial development that should be welcomed by activists, but has already been disregarded by some of them as tokenistic and weak.
More demonstrations are planned for this weekend. Protective scaffolding has gone up around the Cenotaph near Downing Street and at the statue of Winston Churchill on Parliament Square ahead of expected trouble. The more statues are damaged or ripped down by mobs, the more any support for the cause will crumble.