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Sunday, 4 March 2018

About this Thatcher statue...

Parliament Square: The statues of Churchill and Lloyd George (left)
will not be being joined by that of Margaret Thatcher
People talk about all kinds of things. Most lately it's been snow. Go onto facebook or twitter and all you'll see are pictures of people finding imaginative ways to enjoy being outside in the cold. Either that or people complaining that Britain can't cope with a bit of a cold snap.

You'll be pleased to know I haven't posted hundreds of pictures on facebook this week telling all my friends there's snow outside. I am sure they can see it for themselves. But today I have got into a few discussions on social media - about a statue.

Yes, a statue. It's really got a lot of people engaged, and not necessarily in a positive way...and that's because we're talking about a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

For those of you who don't know, Jo Swinson (MP for East Dunbartonshire and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party) wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday arguing that Westminster Council should have given permission for a statue of the former Prime Minister to have been erected on Parliament Square. "Whatever one thinks of Margaret Thatcher's policies, there can be no dispute about her significance", Jo explains. "If we want gender equality, we have to fight for space for women we vigorously disagree with, as well as those we support".

The headline, for which Jo was of course not responsible, screams rather sensationally: "We MUST have a monument to Maggie".

Now, before we talk about the statue it's fair to point out there's a lot in Jo's article that makes perfect sense and I'd recommend reading it before commenting. Jo talks about feminism, equalities, and history. She challenges institutional misogyny. She makes it clear she loathes Thatcher's political legacy - and she goes so far as to suggest if Thatcher should have a statue erected in her honour then so should Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

There is merit in Jo's argument. Certainly, her observations in regards gender equality are perfectly valid. That we should honour people where appropriate irrespective of whether we like them also seems quite fair-minded.

But it's understandably left a lot of people quite angry. This from Owen Jones neatly encapsulates the prevailing mood on twitter: 








I had a chat with Jo on twitter about her article. I understood her points completely, while disagreeing on the main issue for reasons I'll go into in a minute. What I don't understand is why we continue this ridiculous Victorian obsession with putting up statues everywhere to celebrate the lives of the great and the good.

There are quite a lot of statues of women around. Apparently, having done some digging, it turns out that there is a female statue for every 2.5 male statues. So this isn't quite the scale of female invisibility you might imagine. However, take the 78 statues of Queen Victoria out of the equation in addition to the various other Royal statues and depictions of classical or mythological figures, and the picture isn't so good. When we consider solely the statues dedicated to historical people, we're looking at less that 3% of the total being women. 

While accepting the historical injustice, I asked Jo whether there are better ways to remember and reflect than erecting statues. Given the controversy both erecting and potentially removing memorials is creating at home and abroad, surely there are more intellectually honest and imaginative ways of recognising and celebrating human achievement? Putting up more and more statues of women seems an odd way to right this historic wrong, and would only re-open debates about who is/is not deserving - and which historic statues should/should not be removed.

The statues littered around our towns and countryside are memorial stones to a different era. They tell us more about the people who erected them than they do the people in whose likeness they were created - as Jo admits in her own article, she has no idea who Viscount Falkland was. We accept history for what it is, however uncomfortable it might make us feel now. Of course, previous generations esteemed wealthy people, usually men, who were involved in such morally questionable pastimes as slavery or found fame through their "exploits" in fields of mass slaughter; today, our values are somewhat different. But how will future generations judge our "heroes"? Couldn't we leave them something better than a stone likeness that even those who walk past it every day will have no idea who it represents? 

Shouldn't we do more to acknowledge and recognise so many people in other ways, rather than maintaining this (to my mind ridiculously dated) obsession with statues? Do we really have to do the same tired thing in a more gender-balanced way?

To her credit, Jo engaged with my questioning and responded with this: "[But] the visual wallpaper stays mainly male. Even if historic, this has an impact today." As for my suggestion that statue mania should be consigned to history and historical memorials judged in their appropriate contexts, she said: "I am more sceptical about the possibility of eroding visual impact by rational thought. My work on body image shows it's not that easy to disassociate."

Which is all perfectly reasonable. We can agree to disagree - the reality is the visual history of previous eras was male-dominated and there is no real escaping that, but I won't diminish the point she makes about impact.

The question, however, is whether erecting a statue in honour of Margaret Thatcher would help achieve any of these utterly reasonable objectives. We live in an age when we are all familiar with who Mrs Thatcher was, and most of us have some view on her political legacy. It's also an age in which, whether we like it or not, the presence of statues (even historical ones) suggests validation and approval. The nature of public sculpture is changing: we tend not to put up statues of divisive figures, but of sports stars and generally popular local personalities (think Ken Dodd in Liverpool). Today's society doesn't value what previous generations did. Arguments in the US about potentially removing statues of not only Confederate figures but also Christopher Columbus underline the degree to which modern society is increasingly questioning the ways in which we remember history and how - to use Jo's term - the "visual wallpaper" affirms the lives and actions of people many of us find unsavoury.

We cannot simply dismiss the implications for apparently validating Thatcher's politics on the basis that she was the first female Prime Minister. I admire John Major for being the first PM to have grown up on a council estate, but I'm not advocating erecting a statue to his honour outside a high-rise block in Brixton. In recognising the milestone we can ill afford to overlook the inevitable consequences of affirming destructive actions.

Statues would also serve as a focal point for protest and vandalism. I can only imagine the security costs Westminster Council saved themselves by refusing the planning application. Would this really be a good idea? I'm not really sure it's appropriate for a Scottish MP to be publicly questioning the decision of a London council either, but that's a separate issue.

The substance of Jo's argument is not without value - far from it. I appreciate where she's coming from and what her intentions are. It's not those I have a problem with. She's not an apologist for Thatcher.

However, Jo is not a political novice - she is the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party still struggling from close association with the Conservatives. She will have known exactly how this would be spun and headlined - and what the likely reception would be. She's managed to upset a lot of Lib Dems and earn the derision of many others who find Thatcher's legacy too toxic.  The headline has certainly been an absolute treat to opponents such as John Nicolson (who WILL use this to great effect in East Dunbartonshire, I'm sure).


He won't be alone. Across the UK, in areas where Thatcher's destructive policies are still felt (and despised), expect Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru to have this headline prominently on all their election literature. And why shouldn't they? After all, the Liberal Democrats were quick to seize upon Gordon Brown's meeting with Mrs Thatcher in 2007 to appeal to Labour voters - with some success.

It's not so much what Jo thinks that concerns me. We can agree to disagree on the relative non-issue of public sculpture, and agree on the general issues relating to gender and inclusion. I really couldn't care less about statues of repulsive people - there are already a lot of them around. What's more worrying is Jo's judgement in deciding to unburden herself of those thoughts to the Mail on Sunday. Sometimes nothing is a very sensible thing to say - and when it comes to discussing Margaret Thatcher, it usually is.

As a party we have to find ways of rebuilding trust. I have no simple answers as to how we do that, but it's quite obvious giving our opponents gifts like this won't make the task easier. 


UPDATE: I think it's important to add some context to the discussion. As Jo herself points out, this was a decision taken by Westminster Council. She says: "it was disappointing to see Westminster Council last month turn down an application for a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square...Apparently one of the reasons given for refusal was the state robes Thatcher would have been wearing. Even in death, it seems there are no limits to how society judges women by how they look and what they wear."

Having looked a bit deeper, I think this is in fact incorrect. Jo makes a judgement about the motivation behind the ruling and the societal values that judge people according to clothing.  However, it appears it was neither the council nor "society" but Thatcher's daughter Carol who objected to the statue. She didn't want to see her mother in state robes, but more informally dressed and with her trademark handbag. That's quite understandable - if my mother was going to be immortalised in a statue I'd want her to look as I remembered her. That's not being judgemental; it's wanting to capture someone's humanity.

This undermines Jo's argument - at least in relation to the council's reasoning for refusing planning permission for the statue itself; the wider points remain as valid as ever.(https://www.westminster.gov.uk/baroness-thatcher-statue)


Given that, I fail to see what is so unreasonable about the council's decision. Surely, if Mrs T's own family aren't happy with the statue, who are we to argue with them? Who are we to express "disappointment" with their wishes? For me that settles the question on the monument, although clearly Jo is right that much more needs to be done on the gender issues she raises.

I do note that the council has no objection in principle and that it was the design of the statue that proved problematic with the family...so perhaps in a few months we'll have to go through all this again! AP, 5.3.18


1 comment:

Huw Jones said...

the problem with a statue of Thatcher is that her war was started in the face of warnings by the Falkland Islands Society (who should have known) that the Argentinians WOULD invade if HMS Endurance was scrapped. No less a figure then Sir Francis Chichester had written that the Argentinian and Chilean navies (both merchant and military) benefited from the Ice and weather forecasts produced by the crew of the Endurance, which was also known as the "South Atlantic Lifeboat". They thought that Endurance was the only good thing about the British presence there. Her war, was a Welsh civil war, as many of us in Wales have relatives in Patagonia, and there have been many English people involved in the Argentinian beef and wine industries. Her war was a cold, deliberate act, compared to which Blair's bumbling collapse into war was entirely innocent.