Op Ed - Statues of slave traders like Cecil Rhodes should not be standing tall in UK cities

Originally in iNews

My personal view is clear: statues of white supremacists or slave traders should not be standing tall in our cities. Whether it’s Edward Colston in Bristol or Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, these are people whose values and actions are totally out of step with modern Britain, and commemorating them in our streets sends completely the wrong signal.

However, no-one should be taking matters into their own hands by tearing down statues through vigilante action. We need a clear process for assessing and removing these statues or changing street names, in conversation with local communities.

That is why I have urged the Government to provide clear guidelines to local councils, encouraging them to engage with the public on this issue. Most people were never asked for their views at the time these statues were put up, so an honest discussion must happen now. Tough conversations have happened in America on these kinds of topics, we need to do the same here. There should be a frank and open national debate, that doesn’t shy away from addressing Britain’s colonial legacy or sensitive issues like the country’s role in the slave trade.

This isn’t about erasing history, it’s about being honest about it. Statues of controversial figures that are taken down could be placed in a museum that teaches generations to come about the past and places them in their proper historical context. But should those who profited from the slave trade or committed colonial atrocities really still be honoured in our streets, where those from BAME backgrounds have to walk past them every day? For me, the answer to that question is clear.

Of course, our history isn’t defined solely by statues or monuments. It’s about our shared understanding of the past, and how the stories we tell ourselves as a country define what we are today. As a British-Palestinian, I am one of many living in the UK from an immigrant background whose family history was impacted by the British Empire. My own great grandfather wrote about Palestine’s turbulent history including during the British Mandate. I grew up having to grapple with Britain’s colonial past in Palestine, which is partly what got me interested in politics to begin with.

That colonial history and the impact it still has on countries and communities across the world was barely touched upon when I was at school, and it hardly is today. That is why we need to do far more than just take down some old statues and put them in museums. We need to start having an honest conversation about Britain’s past, warts and all.

That should begin in our schools. We need to consider changes to the curriculum to make it more representative and ensure it addresses difficult themes like migration, slavery and the role of the British empire. The UK has had many proud moments in its history, from standing up against fascism in World War Two to welcoming in successive waves of refugees. But for too long, the country’s colonial crimes and role in the slave trade have been largely airbrushed out of history. This is the time to rectify that.

These Black Lives Matter protests may have been sparked by the death of George Floyd, but it is about far more than that. It is about confronting racial inequalities and injustices that have been simmering for decades. Many of us are now waking up to these realities and want to deliver real change. We need to seize this opportunity to build a fairer and more compassionate future, but that starts by having a more honest and inclusive narrative about our past.

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