Sectarianism rarely ends well for anybody and it’s about time we began to remember that. What begins as people standing on different sides of a debate escalates until those people are so deeply entrenched that the issues that originally divided them no longer matter as much as the chasm that now exists. That’s when each side begins to celebrate their immersion in difference and create their own ecosystems.
They start to enjoy their own culture, their own language, and they begin to demand their own space which is largely defined as the negation of their opponents who are either fascists or anarchists, nationalists or Marxists, gammon or snowflakes.
That is where we are now: at that stage in this futile cultural war where neither side is capable of recognising any reasonable part of the other’s argument. There’s no debate. No intention to have a debate. No willingness to even admit that there’s a debate to be had. Even suggesting as much means you’re a sell-out, a gutless moderate, a “neoconservative” or a “Blairite”.
The media peddle predictable lines that too often fall well short of compromise. Too little nuance is only matched by the lack of any admission that these problems are tough as an Elgin Marble and equally difficult to solve. They instead urge us to pick a side, even though neither side has all the answers. The moronic has become merciless. Twitter, the marketplace for ideas dumb enough to be explained inside 240 characters, splits down the middle. The answer has to be “yes” or “no”. There’s no room for “maybe if”.
Yet shouldn’t it be possible to suggest that whilst it would be idiotic to pull a statue of Winston Churchill from its plinth, it is equally foolish to maintain that there’s no conversation to be had about our civic iconography? Keir Starmer struck the right tone earlier in the week (as well as being in tune with public opinion) when he suggested that Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol should have already been in a museum and should not have been pulled down by a mob. You could tell he was being sensible because of the cries of outrage from those to his left. It’s a shame there has been significantly less support for a moderate position from the Tory benches.
If Boris Johnson can recognise that Britain has enough of a responsibility to three million residents of Hong Kong that he would extend to them a chance to get visas here, then surely he has a similar duty to British nationals in this country who feel that their concerns have been ignored for generations?
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That doesn’t mean the Prime Minister has to concede ground to rioters and vandals. Nor does it mean that it’s suddenly open season on every bit of civic bronze in the country. It certainly doesn’t mean that we accept a purity test for every one of our statues, otherwise Lennon the wife-beater would soon join Baden-Powell the Nazi sympathiser and Cromwell the tyrant in the melting pot. It would simply mean that the government finally extends some courtesy to BAME communities and listens when they say that certain statues are a problem. If a statue has become a point of contention, used to deepen ethnic divisions, then why would any government want to look the other way?
Yet it appears they do and that leaves the rest of us having to pick our mob. Abide by the unthinking mentality: hit, spray, taunt, lob, push, kick, spit, ridicule. Independent thought is disallowed and, lest you forget, here’s some sentimentalism that’s been weaponised. Clap on the doorstep or you don’t support the NHS. Kneel on the doorstep or you’re racist. Fly the flag or you don’t believe in your country. Sing “We’ll Meet Again” or else…
This is how the cultural sectarianism has descended into utter madness. A slave trader from the seventeenth century and a Prime Minister who led us through World War II: it serves the interests of both sides to equate the two. One lot want to ferment enough riot to bring everything down, the other wants to reduce the argument to the ridiculous so they can dismiss it entirely (“They’ll want to bring down the British Museum next! What nonsense!”).
As one side advocates more civil unrest, the other side will demand harder clampdowns. The more we allow the insults and the slurs to define the moderate ground, the less moderate ground there is left. This doesn’t end well for anybody.
The sad backstory also remains that these problems have been brewing for years and nobody has had the political will to address them. It’s been left to museums to wrestle with the extremely vexing problem of artefacts plundered during our colonial past. They haven’t always had perfect solutions, but they have handled matters with more subtlety than dumping objects in the harbour or erecting a wall of Democratic Football Lads Alliance thugs around them. Like so much around this culture war, there are ways forward. The problem is that too many of us don’t want to listen. That would involve going back to the old boring politics and who wants that when there’s a fight to be had?