Put the wheels in motion for movable statues
As liberal America froths over its monuments to southern racism, in Glasgow a sweeter memory will be cast in stone later this year. On 17 November, outside Govan subway station, the unveiling of a statue of Mary Barbour, one of the most important figures in the city’s modern history will be unveiled. Barbour was the key figure in the fight by working-class women to oppose draconian and arbitrary rent increases during the First World War. In 1915, this daughter of Govan spearheaded months of peaceful protest and civil disobedience as property barons attempted to exploit women whose sons and husbands were facing slaughter on the fields of France.
The absence of so many men of working age left massive gaps in essential industries, which attracted workers from Ireland and some of the UK’s outlying areas. Owing to the higher than average wages these jobs paid to meet the national emergency, landlords eyed an opportunity to cash in. First, though, they would have to remove economically vulnerable families made more fragile still by the absence of their breadwinners. Barbour and her army of women stopped them by taking their fight in their thousands to the steps of Glasgow sheriff court and the city chambers. Their heroism led to legislative protection that was copied by other cities throughout the UK and in America.
Astonishingly, Barbour will become only the fourth woman Glasgow has deemed worthy of being honoured in this way. For more than 100 years, the city has instead specialised in scattering stone memorials to men who specialised in enslaving, killing and exploiting vulnerable people. Many possessed only the most tenuous connections to the city. The values they represented and championed were the antithesis of those that motivated Barbour.
Some of the most distinguished – and dubious – reside in the city’s George Square right in front of Glasgow city chambers, the place where Barbour’s army gathered 102 years ago to fight capitalist exploitation. Among them are Prince Albert, Robert Peel, Queen Victoria, Lord Clyde and William Gladstone, the captains and rulers of an empire built on exploiting the poor of hundreds of defenceless communities overseas.
In other parts of Scotland, there are imposing stone effigies to men even more infamous and notorious than the political and aristocratic elite who populate George Square. At the summit of Beinn a’ Bhragaidh at Golspie in Sutherland is an imposing statue that depicts George Granville Leveson-Gower, the first Duke of Sutherland, a notorious landowner who was responsible for some of the most brutal and ruthless of the Highland clearances in the 19th century.
Anyone who has ever set foot in Edinburgh will also have seen the statue of the controversial 18thcentury politician, Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville. You can scarcely miss it; it stands 140ft above the lawns of St Andrew Square. In his day, this old aristo more or less ran Scotland. As well as standing tall over the heads of Edinburgh’s citizenry, Dundas also stands accused of attempting to delay legislation in parliament to end the slave trade. Edinburgh city council is now considering the wording of a new plaque at the statue that would highlight his shady role in the slave trade.
Yet this has become a more nuanced debate with the intervention of Bobby Melville, the 10th Viscount Melville, who has mounted a spirited defence of his 18th-century
antecedent. Far from opposing abolition, he says, Henry Dundas simply sought to adopt it in stages so that it would have a better chance of succeeding. It was a tactical approach to gain the right outcome in the end, according to Bobby Melville.
This intriguing little Edinburgh rammy highlights the moral ambiguity about pulling down or altering monuments that were erected in the midst of an unlovely period in Scotland’s history. I’m concerned about where this will finally take us. In Glasgow, if we were to start pulling down statues according to how queasy we felt about the politics and values they conveyed we’d have to start considering altering the names of streets commemorating the city’s connection to the slave trade. And why stop there? Glasgow’s Merchant City area is replete with marvellous old civic buildings paid for from the profits of trafficking slaves. So let’s demolish them too.
Instead, I’d be for adopting a more innovative approach to dealing with those monuments we now consider to be dodgy. To start with, I’d put casters underneath all statues so that they can be wheeled in and out of view depending on the public whim at the time and perhaps be located at a moment’s notice to more appropriate locations. I’d also consider replacing some of them with those human statues you now see on many of the UK’s main urban spaces. This could also double as a condign community service order for social miscreants.
And future statue making should move with the times. In 500 years of building statues, it’s perplexing that they all remain stationary. I’d commission mechanical ones whose heads, legs and arms could all be moved into different positions by remote control. The late, great comedian and social visionary Eric Morecambe pioneered this in a memorable Christmas special with Diana Rigg. I think it’s now an idea whose time has come. Instead of criminalising those who insist on placing a traffic cone on the statue of the Duke of Wellington at Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square I’d make an annual ceremony of it, perhaps to mark the date of one of his adventures of empire in Europe. In the same way, we could garland other monuments to shady aristocratic dealings in a similar fashion. What about sticking a grass skirt on old Henry Dundas?
It’s easy to march up to an old statue and pull it down while posing for a selfie. Each year, though, in a land of plenty, we meekly accept the modern slavery of inequality, low wages, premature death and a government that erroneously and wickedly targets foreigners in its haste to leave Europe. Leave the old slave traders alone and pull down these modern ones instead.
Mary Barbour, activist and city councillor. Photograph: Alamy