It seems most Scots now accept our city and town centres are littered with statues that reflect the values of a bygone era in which black people were slaves, and wealth bought the power to shape and thus edit history.
The owners of slaves were never the people’s heroes, but in an era where next to no-one had the vote, who actually cared? Progressive Scots could do nothing about the built environment of merchant-dominated town and city centres, except quietly disapprove.
But times have changed and weakened the learned silence of centuries. Meanwhile the covid crisis has transformed public attitudes towards the real nature of civic worth. Captains of industry scrambling for public subsidy from desert island tax havens have squandered the right to automatic respect.
People in the caring professions and key workers are the heroes now – especially members of the BAME community who are twice as likely to contract and die from the coronavirus, yet just as determined to keep performing their vital but under-paid, public-facing roles.
This long overdue recognition of the people who really add value to lives formed the backdrop to George Floyd’s killing thousands of miles away in Minneapolis, the subsequent worldwide waves of Black Lives Matter protests and the focus on symbolic statues and street names in towns and cities across the country.
Scottish society has for too long venerated many of the wrong people. Most of us understand and would like to correct that – the question is how to move forward.
Some worry that not a single statue will be left standing, and that Robert Burns’s dalliance with work on a slave plantation in Jamaica exposes statues of our national bard to the threat of removal or rebadging. Some contend that figures like Wellington, William of Orange and even Henry Dundas were acting within a context that was broadly acceptable during their lifetimes. So, should statues stay, be moved to a new “Museum of Colonial Rule”, inscribed with explanatory plaques or find themselves permanently capped with a traffic cone à la the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow?
Above all, who decides? Is it “mob rule” or do we wait for historians, councils and other members of the great and good? Professor Geoff Palmer, for example, has long campaigned for a greater use of plaques, yet I’m not sure even he would expect to be the sole and final arbiter of what happens next in every part of Scotland.
The best solution could be transformational by upending hierarchies and doing what no-one expects: giving decisions about street names and statues to local people, not those in authority.
Citizens’ Assemblies, held in Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere could provide consensual, people-led solutions to the current impasse over public space, in the same way they found agreement on the far thornier issues of equal marriage and abortion in the Republic of Ireland.
Indeed, citizens juries and assemblies around the world have shown the same thing: that groups of randomly picked citizens are braver, less restrained by “red lines” and more likely to grasp political thistles than uninvolved voters or party-controlled politicians, so long as they are given time, a sense of mission, a specific problem to solve, facilitation to make sure the loudest don’t dominate and access to evidence from every side of the argument.
Citizens’ Assemblies set up by councils to decide on the best way to modernise and democratise the streetscapes of each interested town or city would put representatives of the people in the driving seat and experts like professors Geoff Palmer and Tom Devine at the podium as expert witnesses – not judge and jury.
That could happen, but will it? The Scottish Government’s Citizens’ Assembly met only a few times before the Covid-19 lockdown, and unlike Climate Assembly UK which has met online since March, hasn’t yet made the leap to virtual meetings. This low profile may have led some to conclude that after a noisy start, the Citizens’ Assembly just petered out. It certainly hasn’t.
Others may object that micro-managing the statuary of our city centres distracts from the need to tackle racism and the near total absence of BAME people from Scotland’s leadership roles. True. But the process of change isn’t only prompted by shameful facts and figures. People respond to story-telling, counter-narratives, detail, education and discussion.
The slow unpicking of the whole stories behind contentious street names and statues could begin an oft-avoided reassessment of Scottish history. After all, until the protests of recent weeks, few Scots probably knew anything about the men on the statues we walk past day after day. Perhaps that’s why there’s a bit of pushback against taking the removal/rebadging debate any further. Who cares about the CVs of long dead men out of sight on top of plinths?
But is our sense of connection with our own built environment really that weak? Are the values and individuals allowed to dominate our public space literally cast in stone?
Many Scots now realise we are living in a permanent, stone-built shrine to Britain’s imperial past – whose full story we are only now uncovering. The idea that citizens cannot act carefully, thoughtfully and democratically to re-cast Scotland’s civic story is in itself a form of paternalism that belongs to the past.
Council and community council-led citizens’ assemblies, would also let local sensibilities come to the fore. I’m sure the bulk of urban Scots might be happy enough to see the Duke of Sutherland’s statue pulled down for example, but what about the people of Golspie? Much as I’ve rankled at its glowering presence during every trip to my mother’s home town of Wick, it’s not for the likes of me to decide.
And such decisions shouldn’t be kneejerk or unreflective. In an age of instant voting, the value of deliberation and collaborative decision making has been devalued. It’s time to change that, and retrieve our faith in democracy by devising a process that encourages patient, consensual decision-making. The Citizens’ Assembly model lets people take time to know one another, to develop trust, to explore ideas honestly and change opinions without a massive loss of face in the light of new evidence.
Some will doubtless question whether “ordinary” people are capable of sifting evidence to come to the “right” decision.
But look at the track record of our sclerotic democracy: who else will?
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