Straight after university I travelled around the world with a friend. In South East Asia we were continually asked if we were Australian. Finally, and probably a little more pompously than I care to remember, I said “I’m British”.
I have always been proud to be British. I believe in British values: democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, freedom of speech. But today, that pride feels uncomfortable.
Born and bred in East Anglia, my ancestors are Scottish. There was ‘banter’ growing up. I learnt about the massacre at Glencoe in 1692 from my Scottish Grandad who was a McDonald. It was pitched as an English atrocity, a simplification of the reality.
History is nuanced and complex. It’s a concept defined by the victors, by those in power. But it’s so often easier to see it as absolute and binary, to see it as fact, and good and bad. Then we can disown the bad. We can remember William Wilberforce and his fight against the slave trade and not the successful campaign of slave owners for millions of pounds of compensation after slavery itself was finally abolished in 1833, 26 years after the trade.
I watched the statue of Colston be pulled from the plinth and rolled into the dock at Bristol on TV. I watched the statue of Milligan be removed from outside the Museum of London. I watched the protest outside Oriel College, Oxford for the removal of the statue of Rhodes. A huge part of me was delighted, particularly to see the Colston statue debased in a way that echoed his callous disregard for the people he transported.
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer called this week for the statues to be left in place. He said if they are removed, we will quickly forget the history. I agree. At least I suspect I would forget. I suspect if they vanish from sight, I might get comfortable. That was them, this is me and I am different. Quickly I would be back in the midst of my cosy complacency.
As a psychotherapist, I understand we mix good, bad and plenty in between. It’s a difficult and challenging process but engaging with the parts of me I’m not very proud of is important. When I ignore and disown them, they dominate in ways I don’t realise. As I acknowledge, understand and accept them, they become history, part of my past not my present. I am free to become something different.
Simply take the statue of Colston down and what he did, what our nation did is forgotten. Leave it where it is, and he and his actions are honoured. Does adding a more descriptive plaque suggest that somehow there is an argument that justifies what he did, what our nation did? Dr David Olusoga has said the statue should have been taken down a long time ago and put in a museum. Perhaps there it will give us the best chance of acknowledging the reality of our past and how we need to respond today. Afterall, for me, this is the main point now: what sort of country are we today?
I am English. I am British. I want an honest national dialogue about my country’s history so we can move forward. I hope that by recognising the complexity of it, hearing the stories of the many different people and communities who live and have lived here, and acknowledging the dark side and its impact today, we can become something different. Perhaps even a society that truly, to our very core, embodies the British values I am so proud of.