Put the wheels in mo­tion for mov­able stat­ues

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Kevin McKenna

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

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