In the last year, there has been a reckoning with statues and monuments honouring and glorifying problematic events and people of the past. This week, UK Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has set forth new UK laws that would make it more difficult to remove monuments across the country moving forward.
In an article published in The Telegraph, Jenrick stated: “Latterly there has been an attempt to impose a single, often negative narrative which not so much recalls our national story, as seeks to erase part of it. This has been done at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies.” He then announced his plans to bring “due process” back to UK heritage to ensure that monuments aren’t destroyed by “woke militants” or removed “on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob.”
Censorship is among the chief reasons behind the new mandates that will require planning permission before the removal or alteration of any public monument. Additionally, local councils will need to consult with their residents and guarantee any changes abide by council rules.
The motion comes after many statues across the UK have garnered new, and often unfavourable, attention. Question marks have loomed over many monuments, including those devoted to Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister. Most notable, though, was last summer when a group of protesters toppled a Bristol statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century man who greatly profited off the Atlantic slave trade. The anti-racism protest was held in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and during the June 7th events, the statue was pulled down from its plinth and rolled into the Bristol harbour. The statue was later retrieved from the waters and is now housed at a museum. Meanwhile, four members of the protest have been charged with criminal damages in relation to the toppling.
The Colston statue had been a point of contention for some time, perhaps even since it was erected more than 100 years ago. In 2019, plans to contextualise the statue of Colston with a plaque were abandoned after officials were unable to agree on wording, which begs the question of how well Jenrick’s plans might play out.
These changes will not only affect public statues, but plaques and other monuments, as well. According to a government press release published the same day as Jenrick’s article, the new laws will “make clear that historic monuments should be retained and explained.” The press release also dubbed Jenrick’s changes as the “most significant new protection for England’s heritage since the 1967 Civic Amenities Act established Conservation Areas.”
Jenrick’s new laws have garnered criticism from many, including director of the Runnymede Trust Dr Halima Begum, who told The Guardian that these plans were “nothing more than smoke and mirrors.” Begum’s sentiments were echoed by others who questioned by the government was dealing with public monuments when the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the UK.
Despite differing opinions on the validity of the new series of laws, what is certain is that changes to UK law will not be the end of the discussion, nor will it likely make the path forward less murky.