“Get in the bin!” The far right ‘guarding’ British monuments

Protesters throw statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour. PA/Ben Birchall

Introduction

Across the globe, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has held major protests in order to show opposition against practices of institutionalised racism and police brutality. In Britain, just like in many other countries, a variety of (mostly) peaceful demonstrations have taken place in order to show solidarity with the movement. These demonstrations have sparked a variety of important debates in society, monuments and statues of historical figures becoming major focuses of contention.

In what follows, I summarise the ongoing discussion surrounding British monuments and the different responses these debates have triggered. From this, I suggest that the ‘guarding’ of British monuments has been motivated by asymmetrical multiculturalism. Asymmetrical multiculturism is the belief that all racial and ethnical identities should be celebrated and maintained apart from white identity.  I suggest that some people would perceive the ongoing controversy surrounding British monuments as a threat to their British identity, thus a form of asymmetrical multiculturalism, motivating them to ‘guard’ British monuments.

British monuments

Monuments have been and continue to be erected in Britain in order to celebrate heritage and the deeds of historical figures. However, many of these celebrated historical figures have a chequered past. For instance, Edward Colston (1636-1721) is considered one of Bristol’s most celebrated philanthropists, contributing to a variety of charitable and educational programmes, both during and after his lifetime. In 1895 a statue of Colston was erected in order to celebrate his philanthropy. Nevertheless, during his lifetime Colston was also heavily involved in the slave trade, as he was an active member of the Royal African Company, where it is believed he made much of his fortune. Due to his active participation in the slave trade, there have been a number of calls for his statue to be removed. However, it was not until the George Floyd Protests (2020) that a group of BLM protestors toppled the statue and dumped it in the Bristol Harbour. Following the toppling of Colston’s statue, there were calls for other monuments and statues to be taken down, as BLM protestors began targeting and defacing war memorials and other statues of historical figures. In response, the British authorities introduced new legal measures for this sort of vandalism and took steps to protect its monuments from damage.

The British authorities were not the only ones who responded to the targeting of British monuments. Up and down the country images began to appear of groups of people ‘guarding’ British monuments from protestors and damage. Among these groups were British far-right groups that called on their supporters to take to the street and defend British monuments from further destruction. On 13-June 2020, for example, a number of far-right groups visited the capital in order to demonstrate against the vandalism of British monuments and to protest against what they believed was the authority’s hesitant response to the unlawful destruction of British heritage. The far-right’s demonstrations erupted into clashes with the police, resulting in over one hundred arrests.

Following the events that transpired in the capital on 13-June 2020, those who demonstrated on the streets and ‘guarded’ British monuments began to be characterised as bigots and racists. A new ‘statue’ appeared where Colston’s monument once stood that depicts this characterisation. This new statue was a sculpture of a brutish-looking figure wedged into a wheelie bin, with the sentence “Spoiler alert: St George was Turkish” stencilled on to the front. In one hand the sculpture held a miniature globe and in the other a phone with the message “England for the English” on it. The meaning behind the piece is unknown, yet the sculpture can be assumed to be a caricature of those who took to the streets and ‘guarded’ British monuments. By wedging the sculpture into the bin, the piece can be interpreted to suggest that those people who ‘guarded’ British monuments should “get in the bin”, an English slang phrase that expresses one should be quiet rather than expressing their beliefs. Similarly, it can be assumed that the objects that the artist chose to place in the sculpture’s hands are intended to represent the stereotypical attitude that motivated these people to ‘guard’ British monuments. For instance, the small globe could be a reference to the far-right groups being small-minded, whilst the phone with the message “England for the English” exposes their xenophobic and racist attitude.

This overtly trite interpretation of why people took to the streets in order to ‘guard’ British monuments may disguise vital discussion from the contemporary debate. Hostility towards multiculturalism, or racist and xenophobic attitudes may have been the motivating factor for why some people took to the streets to ‘guard’ British monuments. On the other hand, suggesting that this was the motivating factor for all people who ‘guarded’ monuments excludes voices and positions from the debate. Without a doubt, some people took to the street not in order to protest against multiculturalism but rather what they perceive as the process of asymmetrical multiculturalism.

Asymmetrical multiculturalism is defined by Eric Kaufmann as the belief that all racial and ethnical identities should be celebrated and asserted except for white identity (Kaufmann, 2019: 53). I would suggest that some people in society would perceive the current contention around British monuments as a process of asymmetrical multiculturalism, thus threatening their British (I would propose British rather than white owing to British identity being based on heritage, culture, etc. not exclusively skin colour) identity. Groups of people took to the streets to ‘guard’ British monuments in response to the perceived threat they believe the process of asymmetrical multiculturalism poses. Thus, some people who ‘guarded’ British monuments from vandalism may have not been necessarily motivated by xenophobia or racism but by opposition to asymmetrical multiculturalism and the perceived threat it poses to their British identity. For instance, in Vincent Wood’s article for the Independent one demonstrator claims that “There’s no racism, it’s our history.” This demonstrator’s testimony provides a clear example of a person who ‘guarded’ British monuments due to opposition to asymmetrical multiculturalism and a desire to maintain their British heritage.

By examining the concept of asymmetrical multiculturalism as a potential reason for why groups of people took to the streets in order to ‘guard’ British monuments, I have demonstrated that there are a variety of different motivational reasons for why people ‘guarded’ monuments, not just the overgeneralised assumption that their racist and xenophobic attitudes motivated them. As I see it, in order to continue to engage with the debates and discussions that the BLM movement have sparked and in an attempt to resolve many issues that the movement have brought to light, such as the contention surrounding British monuments, we must avoid generalising people’s motivational reasons for why they choose a specific position on the debate. In other words, we must strive for nuanced analyses that add complexity to what often are simplified events. Doing so will avoid excluding voices from the discussion, those same voices that we must engage with in order to prevent future animosity in society.

Mr Callum Downes is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Exeter. See his profile here.

© Callum Downes.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).