Edward Colston and Robert Milligan were hauled off their plinths far too quickly for most of us to get a decent look at them. One imagines a “frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” But perhaps not. Why should a slave trader resemble the King of Kings after all? Hannah Arendt was surely on to something when she wrote about the “banality of evil”, a phrase apt for this pair of unprepossessing people traffickers, both of them more Eichmann than Ozymandias.
Cecil Rhodes was different in that he had a certain amount of charisma and something that might pass as a plausible moral purpose. Announcing his plan to extend the empire in Africa from the Cape to Cairo, he said “We [the British] happen to be the best people in the world with the highest standards of decency and justice, liberty and peace, and the more of the world we inherit, the better it is for humanity in general.” Today, that would probably count as white supremacism, and therefore be morally reprehensible. But as the Holy Father is wont to ask, who are we to judge?
The New Populism that is just beginning will be characterised by equal and opposite reactions, a constant ebb and flow of often violent outrage.
You see, the mob gives such qualms short shrift. Having torn Gladstone’s name from the halls of residence at Liverpool University (to serve him right for entering politics in order to preserve slavery) it’s onward to Bradford in pursuit of Sir Robert Peel, described by a local activist as “an icon of hate and racism, who founded the corrupt Metropolitan Police service.” Then someone notices that the Robert Peel, known locally for his support of slavery, was a different Robert Peel. The unofficial Black Lives Matter caravan moves figuratively on to Huddersfield to try to hoist the former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, off his perch in St George’s Square.
The black lives that had not sufficiently mattered to Wilson were those of Biafran children who starved to death during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s, partly as a result of Britain’s support for the federal government. At the time, the Labour government needed oil, so Biafra had only a handful of notable friends in the UK, all of them on the political Right: Auberon Waugh, Freddie Forsyth, Jonathan Aitken and the MP Hugh Fraser. We should not therefore expect the Left to see this one all the way through to a toppling. In the end, political positioning trumps moral righteousness. They would much rather let Wilson get away scot-free with the murder of more than a million black children than be seen to be sharing a platform, as it were, with the likes of Waugh, Forsyth, Aitken and Fraser. Besides, the Biafrans were mostly Christian, while the federal forces attacking them were mostly Muslim. When the going gets rough, the Left always sides with the Crescent against the Cross.
These Grievance Studies graduates want to police our language and even our thoughts, but oddly they’d be horrified if we considered them even the slightest bit “judgmental”.
Not that today’s iconoclasts are the Left in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Orthodox Marxism, insofar as it survived the collapse of Communism, was finally seen off in the UK with the rout of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum last December. The heroine of these demonstrators isn’t Rosa Luxemburg or Rebecca Long-Bailey, but Chantal Mouffe or maybe Peggy McIntosh (sorry, you’ll just have to Google). They are the children of identity politics, born out of critical race theory, gender studies and decolonised curricula. They don’t talk about the dictatorship of the proletariat or surplus value so much as white privilege and the Patriarchy. These Grievance Studies graduates want to police our language and even our thoughts, but oddly they’d be horrified if we considered them even the slightest bit “judgmental”.
The New Populism that is just beginning will be characterised by equal and opposite reactions, a constant ebb and flow of often violent outrage. The mob massing on the other side of the cultural and political divide from the BLM protestors doesn’t worry at all about being seen as judgmental. With the slogan “Marx must fall” beginning to appear on social media, the prospects of that enormous head in Highgate Cemetery are looking rather shaky. It might take a small amount of plastic explosive, but there’ll be a survivalist somewhere who will find that.
The moral case: one hundred million people killed during the last century by people describing themselves as socialists. What crime could be worse than that? Doesn’t it outweigh the George Floyds, the gender pay gaps and the unkindness to trans people put together? And if you object that Karl Marx himself never personally harmed a fly, they’ll just brush that away, saying that ideas have consequences.
It’s going to be a brutal few years ahead.
Dennis Sewell is a writer, broadcaster and a contributing editor to The Spectator. He is currently writing a book about the British Civil War.
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