All statues in Labour councils across England and Wales, and across London, will be examined for links to slavery and plantation owners, their leaders have said, as an east London authority took one down off its plinth on Tuesday evening.
The statue of slave owner Robert Milligan at West India Quay in London’s Docklands was removed using a JCB, after the charity which owns the land where it stood promised to organise its “safe removal” following a petition launched by Ehtasham Haque.
The local council, Tower Hamlets, said it had removed the statue and had “also announced a review into monuments and other sites in our borough to understand how we should represent the more troubling periods in our history”.
Earlier, the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the capital’s landmarks – including street names, the names of public buildings and plaques – would be reviewed by a commission to ensure they reflect the capital’s diversity, with a view to removing those with links to slavery after Black Lives Matter protesters tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
In Manchester, the council announced a city-wide review of all the statues in Manchester “to understand their history and context”. Councillor Luthfur Rahman said members of the public would also be asked for suggestions on “missing” statues.
“We also want to take this opportunity to ask the public who is missing – who should be celebrated but is not – with particular thought around representing the proud BAME [black and minority ethnic] history of Manchester and help to reflect the shared story of our diverse and multicultural city,” he said.
Manchester city council is under pressure to remove a statue of Sir Robert Peel in Piccadilly Gardens. Over a thousand people have signed a petition demanding the removal of the memorial to the two-time British prime minister, born in Bury in Greater Manchester, on the grounds that his father was known to be pro-slavery.
Labour councils across England and Wales will begin reviews in their towns and cities too, the Local Government Association’s Labour group said. It will ask council leaders to work with their communities to review “the appropriateness” of monuments and statues in their areas.
Speaking to broadcasters on Tuesday, Khan said he did not condone breaking the law and wanted there to be a proper process for the removal of any statues that do not reflect London’s values.
He would not name which ones should come down, saying it would be a matter for the new commission, but said there were clearly statues commemorating slavers in the capital.
Khan’s new Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm will also consider which legacies should be celebrated before making recommendations about new statues and which could be removed.
“It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored. This cannot continue …
“The Black Lives Matter protests have rightly brought this to the public’s attention, but it’s important that we take the right steps to work together to bring change and ensure that we can all be proud of our public landscape.”
The commission – which will be co-chaired by Debbie Weekes-Bernard, the deputy mayor for social integration, social mobility and community engagement, and the deputy mayor for culture and creative industries, Justine Simons – will include historians as well as arts, council and community leaders.
Pressed on Sky News about where to draw the line, given Winston Churchill held some racist views, Khan said the cases of Churchill, Gandhi and Malcolm X showed that many great historical figures were not perfect and history should be taught “warts and all”. But there were clear-cut figures such as those actively involved in the slave trade and ownership who should not be celebrated, the mayor said.
Khan announced the commission as he attempted to defuse tensions in London ahead of more planned anti-racism demonstrations. The London mayor is also pressing the Metropolitan police, the UK’s largest force, over the use of stop and search, stun guns and other practices amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus in crowds, and fears of violence as it emerged that far-right groups were planning counter-demonstrations.
The global Black Lives Matter protests were sparked by the death in the US of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer who held him with a knee on his neck for nine minutes while he protested: “I can’t breathe”.
The UK government has come under fire for its claim that the spreading protests are related to the US rather than prejudice in the UK and denials that Britain is a racist country.
Boris Johnson said on Monday that Floyd’s death had awakened an “incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice” worldwide. He had previously condemned the “thuggery” by a minority that marred some demonstrations but acknowledged many of the activists’ concerns were “founded on a cold reality”.
He said leaders “simply can’t ignore” concerns that black, Asian and minority ethnic groups face discrimination in education, employment and the criminal justice system.
However, the prime minister said those who harmed police or property would face “the full force of the law”.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has said it was “completely wrong” for protesters to pull down the statue of Colston and dump it in the harbour in Bristol – putting him at odds with some MPs on the left of his party – while emphasising the monument should never have been there in the first place.
After police stood by and watched the statue being toppled in Bristol, the focus will shift on Tuesday to Oxford, where hundreds of students and residents are expected to attend a protest calling for the removal of Oxford University’s statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes.
A symbolic and socially distanced commemoration is planned at the Nelson Mandela statue in Parliament Square in London at 5pm, organised by Stand Up To Racism.