By Alys Hewitt
The recent decision to build a statue of Margaret Thatcher in her home town of Grantham has bred numerous questions surrounding the commemoration of controversial political and public figures. With predictions of politically-motivated vandalism and disorder already overshadowing it, the proposal has brought to the surface a recurring debate regarding whether statues are a viable method of remembrance, or whether we should explore more critical ways of thinking about the divisive individuals of our past.
In recent years statues have become a prominent target for public scrutiny. The US has seen a growing clamour for the tearing down of symbols of the Confederate era, culminating in acts such as the removal of a statue of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, from a university campus in Texas in 2015. Whilst some might argue that these monuments are simply harmless symbols of history, for others their dismantling represents the undermining of the prejudices of the past, a symbolic reclaiming of the identities which these figures fought to repress.
Other controversial monuments, from Nelson’s Column to statues of historic dictators such as Franco or Stalin, have been the subject of similarly intense criticism from various sides of the political debate. Here in Cardiff, the reputation of Thomas Picton, a Welsh military officer whose statue resides in City Hall, has been called into question, after revelations surrounding his role as governor of Trinidad during the early 19th century. It was during his time as governor that he facilitated the illegal torture of a fourteen-year-old girl and was allegedly heavily involved in the torture and execution of slaves. Like many before and after him, Picton remains a symbol of Britain’s shameful colonial past – but should we remove statues such as his, or simply promote a more complex understanding of the legacies they represent?
This is, admittedly, not always easy to do. Statues do not invite us to think critically about the figures they are embodying; instead they glorify them, framing them as towering, emblematic, untouchable. Compared to more nuanced ways of exploring the past, most offer little alternative to the dominant views of history. This may be changing, as more sculptures of figures previously overlooked in the history books emerge in public spaces – not least in the Welsh capital, where a statue of Betty Campbell, Wales’ first black headteacher, is to be built in Central Square by 2020 after a vote dedicated to commemorating our ‘hidden heroines’. But amongst these small victories, countless statues remain which glorify questionable past events and figures, reminding us of the deep-rooted inequalities which continue to underscore our society.
In the case of Thatcher, is the assembling of a statue in her honour an insult to the working-class communities and livelihoods she damaged in the pursuit of her individualist, market-driven politics? Many seem to think so; a simple scroll through Twitter indicates that the sentiment towards Thatcher’s memorialisation is overwhelmingly negative. Plans to build the statue in London were rejected due to the potentiality of vandalism and civil disorder; and the monument in Grantham is to be placed atop a ten-foot plinth in an attempt to avoid said vandalism. Yet, confusingly, the placement of a statue to commemorate one of Britain’s most polarising leaders is to go ahead anyway, despite these warnings of defacement.
Perhaps we need to re-evaluate current ways of addressing our history. We don’t necessarily need to tear down existing statues, but perhaps reassess our understanding of the significance of monuments in public life, considering what they are representing to future generations. Memorialisation should be a nuanced process which seeks to acknowledge and respect the experiences of everyone, not simply those in positions of power and influence. It should openly challenge the morals and reputations of past ‘heroes’, subjecting them to scrutiny rather than elevating them to towering heights.