The Fall of Edward Colston and the rise of ‘cultural lawfare’
A legal front in the culture wars?
Much how clapping for the NHS was more about getting to know the neighbours during lockdown than actually applauding people for doing their jobs, David Starkey’s take on the Colston statue for February’s The Critic is an informative reminder that the erection of the monument in 1895 “wasn’t really about Colston. It was about Bristol.” The city had stood in stagnant irrelevance for much of the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution largely something that happened to other people. The campaign of the energetic Liberal James Arrowsmith to honour (distant) Bristolians past such as Edmund Burke and Colston himself should check assumptions that the 17th century investor was lauded “for” his role in the slave trade, with Britain an almost fanatically anti-slavery society by that time.
But it also reminds me of my immediate response to the verdict at Bristol Crown Court: the culture war has entered the law courts.
I have time for David Olusoga as a historian. No doubt he has his ideological preoccupations and they are not mine, but he is not in the nefarious league of woke activists posing as historians we saw, say, at the ludicrous Churchill-bashing ‘conference’ early last year. His BBC series Black and British: A Forgotten History in part covered the foundation of Freetown, Sierra Leone, by former captives liberated by the Royal Navy. I will never forget his sentence in a piece for the BBC History magazine more recently — “The British did a remarkable thing” — referring to the (remarkable indeed) honouring of the Dunmore Proclamation to free slaves who fought for the Crown in the American War of Independence, most of whom were evacuated to Nova Scotia. (Though mysteriously I have never found the link.) This you would not get from Kehinde Andrews.
Reading his account of the case (and his role in it), it seems the prosecution were outplayed in their decision to attempt a firewall between the criminal damage, and the history that motivated it. The defence — however cynically or misguidedly we might feel — did not just invoke historian David Olusoga as a witness, but History itself, issuing a stirring call to the jury to place themselves on “the right side” of it. In today’s climate of viral morality, that is almost impossible for the average person (e.g. those who not actively committed to conserving heritage and a sense of reasonable continuity with our past) to resist.
My question is: should the prosecution have risen to the unusual challenge, offering a counterargument that took account of the history — and the morality — involved, but weaved it into a broader context? Similar logic, I suppose, to ‘Retain and explain’, the government’s policy-cum-mantra on these issues; in other words, acknowledging that — in the field of History, morality and perhaps most importantly narrative — there is a case to answer?
If so, which historian should they have called to counter Olusoga’s narrative? Clearly not Starkey himself, who unfortunately enabled his own felling during that strange, angry summer. The calmer tones of a Robert Tombs or a Jeremy Black might have made the difference.
Part of the reason I didn’t write this at the time was that I was soon talked out of my narrative-obsessed inclination by harder-headed legal minds; Olusoga, after all, was no witness in any legal sense, and the judge should not have allowed . And for the avoidance of doubt, I have always thought the jury’s decision should go to appeal. The law is the law, and, according to an ICM poll from last year, the vast majority of black Brits feel that way too.
But I can’t help but wonder. Much how the raising of Colston’s statue was not really about Colston, it’s clear to most that neither was the felling. It’s about narrative, and once a narrative enters an institution it’s hard to be rid of it with process alone. Suella Braverman better get a wiggle on, or there’ll be plenty more of History at the witness stand in future cases. But speaking for both sides.