During Britain’s strange summer of 2020 the statues of long-dead figures became live political issues. Black Lives Matter protesters threw slave-trader Edward Coulston’s effigy into Bristol harbour, an act that shocked many, but that was as nothing to the reaction provoked by the treatment meted out to Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. During another Black Lives Matter protest this was daubed with the claim that the wartime prime minister—voted the Greatest Briton in 2002—was a racist. The Daily Express said the statue had consequently been “desecrated.” A week later far-right demonstrators, many of them associated with racist views, gathered near the statue, ostensibly to defend it from further attack, some of them chanting “Sir Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own.” By then however the statue had been boarded up and hidden from view.
Some saw the defacement of Churchill’s statue and the response to it as another episode in Britain’s culture wars, an unwelcome development in the country’s increasingly fractious politics. But the statues of great figures have always been political, their sponsors invariably hoping to impose their view of the notables’ significance onto the future, to keep them in some way permanently alive. Yet such statues even at the moment of their creation can be subject to contestation: the Churchill statue’s 2020 defacement is not as novel an act as it might at first appear.
After Churchill retired from front line politics in 1955, his supporters put up numerous statues and other memorials intended to make permanent their preferred remembrance of his wartime role as the nation’s saviour. Most notably, soon after Churchill’s 1965 state funeral, the House of Commons commissioned a statue to be placed in the Members’ Lobby. When the House unveiled the statue in 1969, according to the Guardian correspondent, “there was an audible intake of breath” from those present. “It was,” he went on, “for all the world as though Churchill had himself thrown off his coverings by taking a sudden step forward. There he stood once more… avid for new burdens.” Indeed, such were the statue’s presumed magical qualities it quickly became the practice of Conservative MPs to stroke its left foot for luck, something responsible for the foot being almost worn away.
Even before that effigy was completed, in 1968 Conservative MP John Tilney started the process which would end with Churchill’s Parliament Square statue. Tilney called for the creation of another likeness “of perhaps the greatest leader of this nation and the greatest Parliamentarian for centuries.” The reaction to Tilney’s suggestion however revealed the partisan nature of his request. Then Prime Minister Harold Wilson was reluctant to endorse the sentiment and so dissembled.
But, reflecting the enmity in which Churchill the class warrior—as opposed to national saviour—was held amongst South Wales miners, Labour MP Emrys Hughes sarcastically questioned whether another statue was “absolutely unnecessary because nobody can forget him?” Undeterred, Tilney raised the matter a few months later. Wilson remained unwilling to back the project and refused it state funds but promised to facilitate the statue’s construction should broad support be made evident, which he doubted.
When the matter was raised in the second chamber the Labour leader of the Lords, Lord Shackleton, claimed to be not unsympathetic to the initiative, but then proceeded to list all the memorials then dedicated to Churchill, clearly implying another one was unnecessary. But another Labour peer, Lord Blyton, a former miner, was more direct in his criticism of the scheme, pointedly stating that, “I think we should remember that he [Churchill] did not win the last war by himself. He had men like Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin.”
After Tilney received the support of 150 MPs, and various other worthies, Wilson was however obliged to endorse the formation of a committee to oversee the creation of a statue, which was unveiled in November 1973.
Since then, and especially after the turn of the century, Churchill’s statue has regularly been defaced or subject to lèse-majesté as perspectives about his contribution to British history have changed. During London’s May Day protests of 2000, someone placed a strip of grass on the statue’s head to give the impression Churchill sported a Mohican haircut.
Those responsible evaded the police but James Matthews, the 25-year-old former soldier who sprayed the statue’s mouth with red paint (so it looked as if blood was dripping from it), did not. To him, “Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and of imperialism and anti-semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and to independence in India.” Ten years later, in what the Daily Mail described as an attack on “respect and common decency,” young protestors at a demonstration against an increase in university tuition fees showed what they thought about Churchill by urinating on the statue’s plinth. In 2012, in order to highlight problems associated with mental illness, campaigners placed a straightjacket on the statue in recognition of Churchill’s increasingly well-known bouts of depression.
Even before it was unveiled, Churchill’s Parliament Square statue was the subject of dispute. Those well-placed figures who regarded him as the man who single-handedly saved Britain from defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany prevailed. But their view of Churchill’s place in history—and of the character of Britain itself—was always contested. Similarly, culture has been a constant political battleground: the events of the summer of 2020 are not so unique after all.
Feature image by Arthur Osipyan via Unsplash