After a period of consultation the governing body of Oriel College has decided that Cecil Rhodes will continue to overlook Oxford High Street from his lofty alcove. Not having been consulted I wasn’t required to form an opinion, so it was only when I heard the news and felt my own disappointment that I knew what I thought. Five minutes reading some of the hair-raising pro-Rhodes comments on the Telegraph website strengthened my sense that an educational opportunity had been missed.
I have considerable sympathy for whoever had to make the decision. They have taken abuse from both sides – from some of the protesters, naturally, for deciding in favour of the status quo, but also from the noisier supporters of the status quo for even entertaining the possibility of doing anything else. But I’m sorry there wasn’t space for a more imaginative solution.
Whatever the protesters were hoping for, and whatever images are lodged in our minds by the words Rhodes must fall, moving Rhodes from his prominent position above the door need not have involved toppling him like Saddam Hussein. A less dominating place could have been found, where his figure might have been joined by representations of some of the victims of his imperialist practices, and a more appropriate gatekeeper chosen for the High Street site. What an opportunity that would have been to commission some new sculptures, providing employment for artists, and engaging students and the public in a greater understanding of the issues!
Some argued that any such compromise would lead to a political cleansing of the nation’s statuary, licensing iconoclastic mobs to tear down images of anyone whose views have fallen out of fashion. Like most slippery-slope arguments, this doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Perhaps there will be a clamour to have Churchill removed from Parliament Square. Perhaps enraged environmentalists will occupy the centre of Monmouth until Charles Rolls is taken down from his plinth. As soon as either of these campaigns is launched, you can sign me up for the opposition. But there’s no universal principle that statues must never be moved, and we should consider the case of Rhodes on its own merits.
People have been saying that we mustn’t rewrite history. But we rewrite history all the time. It’s what historians are for. What we shouldn’t do is erase bits of history and pretend they never happened. That Cecil Rhodes existed, that he donated a substantial amount of money to Oriel College who named a building for him, and that his statue has stood over its door until now are historical facts that should not be forgotten. That shifting demographics in the Oxford student body and evolving attitudes to Britain’s imperial past have brought about a campaign to have this statue removed is also a historical fact, and I hope that won’t be forgotten either.