Matt Warman – 2020 Speech on Public Statues

The speech made by Matt Warman, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 25 September 2020.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing this debate and on highlighting such an important issue. In doing so, he has provided the Government with a welcome opportunity to lay out in Parliament our thinking about statues. This is a debate that needs more nuance, not less, and I thank my ​hon. Friend for a thoughtful speech. This subject can provoke incredibly strong emotions and reactions, and although we might disagree with those reactions, we would all do well to remember that those views are sincerely held.

It is important that the Government are clear: we believe that our history shapes us and that we are poorer if we seek to deny that history. We believe that the right approach to statues, however contentious, is to retain and explain their presence. I hope that that provides my hon. Friend with some of the reassurance he seeks, and I hope to explain the Government’s approach to why and how this issue should be addressed.

As my hon. Friend made clear, there are many diverse opinions on the matter of statues in the public realm, and no one would suggest—dare I say it?—that a discussion between two white men will capture the totality of views that have been expressed about this highly contested space. As he said, my hon. Friend has a hugely successful track record of managing to have public statues erected, and thanks to him statues of Eric Cole and Raoul Wallenberg are among the 12,000 outdoor statues and memorials in England. Most of them are not protected as listed buildings, as they are not currently recognised to be of special architectural or historic interest—those are the criteria set out in legislation. Nevertheless, those statues are of interest and significance, and often pride, to the local communities in which they are erected.

A significant number of the 12,000 statues are listed in their own right or form part of buildings that are listed and are therefore protected against inappropriate removal or amendment without a rigorous consent process led by the relevant local planning authority. The regulatory framework that governs the removal and amendment of existing public statues and memorials can therefore be complex, particularly when one realises that planning permission can also be required. The same can be true in relation to proposals for the erection of new statues, where, in addition to requiring planning permission, the permission of the landowner is also required, and my hon. Friend’s has referenced this complexity in his ongoing campaign to have a statue erected to the extraordinary Dame Vera Lynn.

This country has a long and well-established tradition of commemorating its national and local dignitaries with statues, and they serve as a long-lasting reminder of their actions and the contributions that they, like Dame Vera, made to this country. Parliament continues that tradition. We have an abundance of historic and contemporary figures for the public to enjoy, from Oliver Cromwell to Baroness Thatcher. Local communities commemorate their own heroes in the same way, and many of these figures are a real source of local pride. Alan Turing, a pioneer of modern computing, is commemorated both at Bletchley Park, where he worked on the Enigma code, and in Manchester, where he studied. Up the road in Oldham, a recent addition to its public statuary is that of Annie Kenney, a local suffragette and former mill worker and an associate of Christabel Pankhurst, who was jailed for three days for challenging MPs who opposed the campaign for votes for women.

Being commemorated in a public space, often funded by public consultation, is a positive way to acknowledge the contributions individuals have made to their communities and to the nation, and, as we look on those statues, we learn important things about the society ​that put them up. As my hon. Friend alluded to in his speech, the back story of some of those individuals and their place in history is ridden with moral complexity. Statues and other historical objects were created or obtained by generations with different perspectives and different understandings of right and wrong.

Some of the individuals we have esteemed in statuary, such as Colston or Rhodes, are figures who have said or done things that we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today. Although we may now disagree with those figures, they play an important role in teaching us about our past with all its faults. We are all products of our times, and our attitudes, beliefs and values often reflect the age in which we live. Some of the values of earlier centuries look bizarre through the lens of 2020, but that brings us to the current debate about whether we should be removing statues of—usually—men who were esteemed and well regarded in the past, but who by today’s standards and values built their wealth and fame on things we now find morally repugnant, such as the transatlantic slave trade.

As a confident and progressive country, we should face that difficult fact squarely. We should not wipe them from the history books. Historic England, the Government’s adviser on the historic environment, agrees, arguing that if we remove difficult and contentious parts of our heritage, we risk harming our own understanding of our collective past. Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging that may be. The aim should be to use them to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, for better or worse. Put simply, the Government want organisations to retain and explain, not remove, our heritage.

One potential innovative approach is the talking statues project. This project identified a number of statues in London and Manchester, including of Abraham Lincoln and George Orwell, and commissioned some of the nation’s most celebrated writers and actors to animate them through voice recordings. Members of the public could activate the conversation using their smartphones, and although this is not a perfect fit in the context of ​contested heritage, it is a concept that works and could be developed, because heritage is not just about our past—we create it every day. I am keen to see new and innovative approaches to understanding and celebrating those parts of our collective cultural and civic life.

In his speech, my hon. Friend proposed two new statues around Westminster that could help to create today’s heritage: one of Her Majesty the Queen, to mark her jubilee commemorations in 2022, and a second, which he forcefully lobbied for, of Vera Lynn, the forces’ sweetheart and a national icon. I wish him the best of luck in both of these very deserving endeavours.

Finally, I echo my hon. Friend’s condemnation of the events around Westminster in the spring. I was appalled to see pictures of the protests earlier this year. There can be no justification for defacing statues and symbols of British history, nor for damaging memorials. The public are also rightly concerned about respect for memorials of all types. Memorials do not just have historical significance as part of our national heritage; they are also of deep symbolic, cultural or emotional importance to the people who visit them. When damage occurs to memorials, the law must recognise the range and level of harm caused. The Government’s White Paper, “A Smarter Approach to Sentencing”, published earlier this month, includes a commitment to review the law in this area to ensure that the courts can sentence appropriately at every level for this type of offending.

There are some who may not be willing to compromise and for whom the only solution is to remove statues from public display, regardless of how they are recontextualised. It is essential that the Government have sanctions in place against those who wilfully deface, remove or otherwise interfere with public statuary or commemorations. That said, I remain committed to the hope that, through dialogue and improved contextualisation of the stories of those commemorated, we can arrive at a consensus about how best to address contested heritage. Rather than tearing things down, we should work at building that consensus and at building a better and fuller understanding of our complex history.