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Home / News and Insights / Insights / Set in stone or a changing landscape? Consulting about the removal of statues

Recent events have brought about an unprecedented focus on statues. Vaguely familiar historical figures have become household names and their lives are being scrutinised in ways they perhaps could never have imagined. Many statues still standing today were erected when values and priorities were very different to ours today and the current debate raises a wealth of questions. Do statues become ‘outdated’ or should they always be regarded in the context of the times when they were first put up? What qualities should an individual possess to merit being cast in stone and preserved forever? Who decides? And what would justify a statue’s removal?

One way to consider these questions – collectively and collaboratively – is by public consultation.

What is a public consultation?

A public consultation gives members of the public the opportunity to express their views on particular issues that affect them, against the backdrop of a defined case for change and with a focus on clearly identified and attainable objectives.

First, the consultation subject is publicised, and then the public and any interest groups are given an opportunity to express their views, within a set time period. Responses are collated and considered. Sometimes this will lead to further engagement or consultation. Eventually conclusions are reported and ultimately a decision is taken – perhaps to implement the proposed change(s) but perhaps to do something rather different; or, not uncommonly, to maintain the status quo.

The consultation process must be accessible to those with a proper interest in it, with appropriate measures adopted to overcome as far as reasonably possible foreseeable obstacles to participation. The consultation documents must be clear, setting out the stages of the process and the nature of the proposals (including their costs and benefits). Those consulting should aim to make the process of responding as user-friendly as they can – in the current climate, online consultation seems highly sensible but, in time, no doubt, public meetings will have a part to play once again.

Statues: where to start

One option would be to leap straight to a consultation about the removal of a specific, already-identified statue but arguably there are important prior questions on which it might be useful to engage stakeholders.

For example, is there in principle agreement that statues should be vulnerable to removal at all? This in turn might spark debate about the overriding purpose of statues – do they simply record history? Or is there always a suggestion that the individuals depicted are being celebrated? Should statues always reflect current values? And, if so, should the case for retaining them be reviewed at regular intervals?

Assuming for these purposes a broad consensus that the removal of statues can, on occasion, be justified, following a proposal to remove a specific statue, the next step would be to identify the consultees, a process likely to vary according to a number of factors, including the geographical location in which the consultation takes place. Of course, there will be instances where the residents of the immediate area in which a statue stands would be the obvious (and perhaps only) consultees. But would that be true for a consultation on a proposal to remove a statue in Parliament Square, for example? Limiting the range of consultees to residents of the City of Westminster would exclude many who might legitimately claim a proper interest in the decision making process. Equally, though if the net were to be cast more widely, where would the proper limits lie?

Once these questions have been answered, though, those consulting would get to the real ‘meat’ of the process, with consultees invited to engage with the proposal for removal, taking account of factors including the life of the individual in question, the reason(s) for their statue’s existence and the message it conveys to the public. It is possible, of course, that this exercise will enable those consulting – in many cases, perhaps, local authorities – to identify common community values, which could be applied in other decision-making, whether in relation to further statues, or more widely.

Analysing the results

It is rare indeed for a consultation to deliver a clear-cut, unanimous response to the proposals under consideration. More usually, there will be a wide spectrum of opinions which necessitates very careful consideration.

Let’s assume that the results in a particular case indicate that the consultees want a statue to be removed. What, then, to do with it? Could it be satisfactorily housed in a museum, or should it simply be destroyed? Should it be replaced with another? The decisions on these questions are likely to be highly statue-specific.

It is often said that consultations are not referendums, meaning that it might be possible for a minority view to prevail. In a situation where the vast majority of consultees feel neutral about the statue but a small proportion is angered by it, a strong view expressed by the minority might well trump that of a disengaged majority.

This feeds into a wider question, however: just how offensive does a statue – or the person commemorated – have to be to justify removal? All humans are a balance of vices and virtues – to what extent should the less desirable aspects of their lives be factored in, especially if the values against which they are to be judged have morphed across the years? Should any failings or flaws viewed through the prism of modernity ‘taint’ a wider reputation, and thus a statue?

Taking the plunge

In any case, in our fast-moving age, the public’s priority is likely to be a speedy determination about a particular statue. Not unreasonably, they might see the preliminary questions referred to above as bureaucratic. No doubt, on occasions those consulting will agree; and some councils have already opened the substantive debate process. South Ayreshire Council is focusing on the appropriateness of certain statues and street names in recognising the region’s history, appearing to have started from the premise that it is open in principle to removal and renaming. Hackney Council, meanwhile, has run an online Q&A about a statue in the Museum of the Home. And the Governing Body of Oriel College, in Oxford, has announced the launch of an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding the statue of Cecil Rhodes, with the results of this exercise to be made known at the end of this year.

Putting consultation on a pedestal

It would be an historic event in itself for an entire community to reach agreement on any one issue and unfortunately consultation will not magically achieve this. While successful consultation requires a narrowing of the issues under consideration, the scope for disagreement on the subject of statues – and the societal discrimination which some say they reflect – is wide-ranging.

On the other hand, consultation offers two overriding advantages: first, it provides an effective process for the collation, categorisation and consideration of a range of public opinions on an important issue; and secondly, it satisfies the public’s demand to be heard – and listened to – by those with the power to make a difference in their lives, providing reassurance that any conclusions reached are a fair reflection of a community’s – or society’s – values.

Added to this, a consultation offers a chance to inspire a renewed engagement with national and local history. Rather than ‘rewriting history’, consultations might in fact encourage us to think differently about, and to acknowledge and understand different perspectives on, historical figures and events and enable public authorities to reach a balanced consensus about who should be commemorated and how – and even, perhaps, whether statues are the right way to do this at all.

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