Thursday, 6 January 2022

Virtute et Industria

Robert Jenrick was so bent that even Boris Johnson had to sack him. And the jury at Bristol Crown Court precisely upheld the rule of law.

The Defence contended that the statue of Edward Colston was a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, and that it was an indecent display under Section 1 of the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981, such that pulling it down constituted a prevention of crime. That was what the jury accepted. Cold, hard law.

A jury verdict does not set a precedent, and which other statue's demolition would cause 10 out of 12 randomly assembled citizens to conclude that it had been a breach of public order and an indecent display, so good riddance?

Yet in the case of Colston's statue, such was the conclusion of 10 out of 12 randomly assembled citizens of Bristol, where the cult of Colston long postdates him. He died in 1721. The statue went up in 1895, not by public subscription. Colston Hall had gone up in 1867. Colston Tower was not even designed until 1961, and not completed until 1973.

And so on. The schools, the streets, the buns, the dinners, the church services, "Colston Day" on the anniversary of the mere unveiling of a statue: all fake, and clearly never taken to heart by the local population at large, 10 out of 12 of whom were persuaded that that statue was a public obscenity that there was, if anything, a civic duty to remove.

This has nothing to do with identity politics. The slave trade funded enclosure. There has always been One Struggle. In any case, what colour are the Colston Four? And although we shall never know, what do we assume to have been the broad ethnic composition of the jury? Bristol will no longer be the 84 per cent white that it was at the 2011 census, but it is undoubtedly still a predominantly white city, as the 2021 census returns will confirm.

Schools may have taught that the only role that Britain had ever had in the slave trade had been to end it, and hardly surprisingly if they had been named after Edward Colston. But the channels of working-class self-education have always carried the fuller story of this as of so much else, in the way that Catholics and Nonconformists have always passed it on until they and it could no longer be ignored.

Tearing down a statue is not a denial or even an erasure of history. Like putting up a statue, it is history. To erect a statue, in this case 174 years after its subject's death and mostly at the expense of his heirs, is a political decision as surely as it is a political decision to demolish a statue. Each is a judgement according to the standards of its time, although it can never be said too often that the slave trade was always massively controversial, to the point of direct action against it at every stage of its existence.

By the way, the vote of one juror ought to be enough to acquit anyone, since the Prosecution had by definition failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, as juries ought to be directed to require that it had done in order to convict. There ought then to be an absolute protection against double jeopardy. 

Moreover, there is something thoroughly distasteful about bringing a civil suit for an act that would have been a criminal offence, in order to avoid the criminal standard of proof in a jurisdiction that still had it. As New York's Judge Lewis Kaplan put it, "There isn't any doubt about what [involuntary sexual intercourse] means." Quite.