The Battle of Trafalgar Square

Why Londoners just can't fill that fourth plinth.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • The Battle of Trafalgar

In our post-heroic age, it is entirely fitting that nobody has the faintest clue what to place permanently on Trafalgar Square’s empty plinth. Statues belong to the era of Great Men, where we felt comfortable in saluting collectively the efforts of individuals who fought, killed and were killed for their country.

Yet today, they strike many as imperialistic, jingoistic and elitist. Can you think of single living, British statesman whose image you would like to see erected in the centre of London? If so, can you envisage everyone agreeing on a single figure, without a giant squabble over what race or gender it should be?

It is not surprising that Westminster council has rejected even the most likely replacement: a nine-foot bronze statue of Nelson Mandela. I say ‘even’, in that the former South African president stands today as a kind of secular state. At a time where most statesmen are tolerated or actively loathed, Mandela is unique in that he commands almost universal respect and affection.

The council says its decision was based purely on aesthetics. This, naturally, has not stopped the Deeply Offended Brigade from coming to its usual airheaded and conspiratorial conclusion. ‘The decision has been condemned as racially insensitive and out of tune with the wishes of Londoners’ said the Guardian. ‘I am appalled that an all-white committee sitting in Westminster can dismiss the idea of putting a great international statesman in this prominent place’, agreed London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

What really gets me is not that Londoners have no interest whatsoever in seeing an irrelevant statue of Nelson Mandela – it’s just that this gesture seems so hackneyed and passé. Back in the 1980s, student unions got very excited about honouring the ANC leader, renaming all manner of rectories and sociology buildings in his honour. Even they realised how silly this looked, so that by the 1990s your Nelson Mandela Wing had become a Bruce Forsyth Building, and the Steve Biko Union Bar became the Sergeant Bilko Bar.

We all known that the establishment today is run by yesterday’s students: the same lot who were telling us that we would be banned from the student bar for making sexist jokes are the ones now who howl at any ‘inappropriate’ behaviour or promise to clap us in iron for being ‘unwittingly racist’.

There’s no point erecting a statue of Nelson Mandela now: when today’s students are in charge in 20 years’ time, they’ll demand it be replaced by one of The Chucklebrothers or Christopher Biggins.

  • Not in Bob Marley and Dr Crippen’s name

It’s all very well threatening to jail those who send out spam email – as the US state of Virginia plans to do – but far more pressing to my mind is the blight of email petitions. Most internet users have at some time been exhorted to put their name to a list, protesting against rainforest depletion, the practice of female circumcision or war in the Gulf, and urging us to pass it on. And what pointless, self-serving affairs they are too.

The problem with these petitions is that nobody ever hands them in to the relevant authorities – they simply get passed on and on. The email petition is the equivalent of the political protest that is designed not to change the world, but to try to convince your peers what a compassionate and virtuous person you are. It’s not about doing good; it’s about feeling good.

Does anybody actually ever look into what they’re signing up to? One doing the rounds in 1999 urged us to submit our name to stop the Brazilian government passing a law that would lead to immense rainforest depletion. Actually, that piece of legislation had been put to the Brazilian parliament two years before – and rejected. A current petition calls to stop the execution of a Nigerian woman, condemned to be stoned to death for adultery on 3 June. That is actually her appeal date, and she hasn’t been sentenced to death at all. And my favourite was the recent call to boycott American goods…like, say, Hotmail, Yahoo, AOL etc?

If you feel the same, do what my brother does: substitute the names of Dr Crippen, Bob Marley and Joseph Stalin in the middle of the list, and pass it on.

  • Civic snide

A while ago Viz published a map of ‘The Shittest Isles’, illustrating an outline of Britain with cartoons within it depicting each area in its most unflattering light – Liverpool is portrayed as full of hub-cap thieves, Manchester with drive-by gangsters, Portsmouth with shell-suited paedophile hunters.

The Idler magazine is now following in this trend. It is currently running an internet poll as to what is Britain’s ‘crappest city’. Currently at the top is Hull, followed by Portsmouth and Liverpool. Of Scouse Central, one respondent laments: ‘There is a dull pallor clinging to the facades of the once great Georgian architecture that limply cries that it just can’t be arsed anymore.’

Having travelled around Britain considerably I agree. From the closed-down feel of Stoke, the soul-destroying 1960s nightmare of Luton to the sheer overpowering ugliness of Doncaster, urban England is largely a shabby and depressing affair. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see inhabitants being so candid and often so funny about their own towns’ and cities’ shortcomings. Even if England possesses some of Europe’s grimmest places, in my experience, its inhabitants are too down on themselves.

It can lead to a strange paradox – one I experienced in Barnsley two weeks ago. When asking for the best pubs to go to, I was met with consistently warm, friendly replies from locals saying: ‘You want to just stick to the Prince of Wales. This place is full of really rough folk.’

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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