Last Monday, culture secretary Oliver Dowden had his much-trailed video meeting with 25 heads of heritage bodies and museums. It is to be hoped that he has now satisfied the desires, misplaced and embarrassing as they are, of those on the right who have been clamouring for some kind of showdown with supposedly “woke” English cultural organisations. It is time for arguments about monuments and statues, which have been cynically and quite unforgivably stoked by the Conservatives, to be quietly de-escalated, and for the unhappy rhetoric that has developed on the right since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests to be put aside in favour of a more sensible, calmer conversation about how best to understand Britain’s fascinating, complex and, yes, often difficult past.
It has been reckless and cynical of Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, and others to fan the flames of discord, characterising English councils, museums, charities and community leaders as rippers-down of monuments and deniers of history. It is notable that the mood has been a good deal calmer in the other countries of the UK, where the Tories do not hold sway on cultural policy. In England, one might think hordes of iconoclasts had been roaming the country. Precisely one statue, a long controversial sculpture of slave trader Edward Colston, was torn off its pedestal in Bristol last summer.
It is true that since last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, decisions have been taken by councils to re-site some monuments to slavers. This has largely been done soberly and sensibly, and not in a spirit of “denying history”, but of expanding understanding of the past. The latest such move, for example, has been made by that well-known bastion of extreme “wokedom”, the City of London’s policy and resources committee, which is moving statues of John Cass and William Beckford from their current position at the corporation’s headquarters, the Guildhall.
But the inflammatory language used on the right to condemn this kind of move, deliberately stoking a “culture war”, has had truly shameful consequences. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row last week, Duncan Wilson, head of Historic England – the organisation in charge of that notoriously revolutionary act, listing important historic buildings – described how employees have received so many threats that the body now actually hesitates to attach individuals’ names to pieces of research. This is unacceptable. It is much to be regretted, too, that English museums and heritage bodies have been obliged to divert resources into defending themselves from baseless charges – and during the Covid crisis.
For in case Mr Dowden et al have not noticed, there is a pandemic on. His job, his absolute duty, is to support and nurture the English arts in general and heritage organisations in particular. Bodies like the National Trust and English Heritage have been battered by the effects of Covid-19, losing visitors and revenue. And yet they have so much to offer the country as it gradually opens up and begins to heal – landscapes to enjoy, gardens to wander in, coastlines to walk along, buildings and history to learn about. Mr Dowden should be fighting their corner and celebrating them, not helping stoke anger against them.