Saturday, 8 January 2022

The Colston Four: The People, Not The Populists, by David Lindsay

In acquitting the Colston Four, the jury at Bristol Crown upheld the rule of law. It accepted that the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue had been a prevention of crime since the statue itself had been a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, and since that statue had been an indecent display contrary to Section 1 of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981. Cold, hard law. Counsel compared it to a statue of Adolf Hitler, and the jury agreed.

A jury verdict does not set a precedent, and no jury is ever going to acquit anyone on the same grounds if they were to have removed a statue of, say, Winston Churchill. Churchill has deservedly always had his critics, but if there were people who would suggest that his representation was criminally alarming, distressing and indecent, making it comparable to a representation of Hitler, then they would be most unlikely to convince at least 10 out of 12 randomly assembled members of the public.

Colston died in 1721. The statue went up in 1895, not by public subscription. Colston Hall had gone up in 1867. Colston Tower was not even designed until 1961, and not completed until 1973. And so on. The schools, the streets, the buns, the dinners, the church services, “Colston Day” on the anniversary of the mere unveiling of a statue: all fake, and clearly never taken to heart by the local population at large, 10 out of 12 of whom were persuaded that that statue was a public obscenity that there was, if anything, a civic duty to remove.

This has nothing to do with identity politics. The slave trade funded enclosure. There has always been One Struggle. In any case, what colour are the Colston Four? And although we shall never know, what do we assume to have been the broad ethnic composition of the jury? Bristol will no longer be the 84 per cent white that it was at the 2011 census, but it is undoubtedly still a predominantly white city, as the 2021 census returns will confirm.

Schools may have taught that the only role that Britain had ever had in the slave trade had been to end it, and hardly surprisingly if they had been named after Edward Colston. But the channels of working-class self-education have always carried the fuller story of this as of so much else, in the way that Catholics and Nonconformists have always passed it on until they and it could no longer be ignored. 

Tearing down a statue is not a denial or even an erasure of history. Like putting up a statue, it is history. To erect a statue, in this case 174 years after its subject’s death and mostly at the expense of his heirs, is a political decision as surely as it is a political decision to demolish a statue. Each is a judgement according to the standards of its time, although it can never be said too often that the slave trade was always massively controversial in this country, to the point of direct action against it at every stage of its existence.

Among the other arguments that were accepted by the jury was that the Colston Four had in fact greatly increased the value of Colston’s statue, which had just been one of those two-a-penny statutes of some long-dead bloke until they had defaced it and torn it down, thereby transforming it into a prized museum piece. Suella Braverman is referring this case to the Court of Appeal, but what is it going to say? That a statue of a slave trader was not a breach of public order and an indecent display? That the removal of such was not a prevention of crime? That the statue had been worth more before? What, exactly? In fact, all that the Court of Appeal could say would be that the law required clarification. But it is perfectly clear as it is.

These acquittals are the verdict of the citizenry of Bristol on the imposed cult of Colston, but this trial could have been held anywhere in the country and the result would have been the same. Presented with the argument that a statue of a slave trader was a public obscenity that there was, if anything, a civic duty to remove, then at least 10 out of any 12 randomly assembled members of the public would have agreed. “How would you like it here?”, the brief would have asked.

Braverman and her ilk demand that the Four be held accountable, but how much more accountable can you be than to have stood trial in the Crown Court? The real cause of their soreness is that their AltRight tribute act is demonstrably not in any way the Voice of the People. It is not populist, because it is not popular. The combined forces of the populist Right, two of them very well-publicised, failed to take five per cent of the vote at North Shropshire, which had merrily elected Owen Paterson for decades.

The Conservatives’ potential losses are not to Richard Tice or to Laurence Fox, but to the Liberal Democrats, as has already happened twice in this Parliament. To offset those losses, their potential gains are of seats that voted for Jeremy Corbyn both times, as has already happened at least once, with another result due to be decided in court.

Also in court, 10 out of 12 good persons and true have acquitted the Colston Four, as any such 10 or more out of 12 would have done in any city, town or village in the land. Not perversely, but because Colston’s statue was a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, and an indecent display under Section 1 of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981, such that pulling it down constituted a prevention of crime, and in fact greatly increased its value as an item. The People have spoken. Whether the “populists” like it or not.

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