Baden-Powell’s legacy should be celebrated, not toppled

The Scout movement he founded has brought people of all races, classes, nations and cultures together.

Jim Butcher

Topics Politics UK

In the aftermath of the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, a website called Topple the Racists has produced ‘a crowdsourced map of UK statues and monuments that celebrate slavery and racism’.

The map has been shared on social media by well-known campaigners, including Guardian columnist Owen Jones. It includes the statue of the founder of the Scouts, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, on Poole Quay, looking out to Brownsea Island, the site of the very first Scout camp. Now the local council wants to remove it and place it in safe storage to counter the supposed threat from campaigners.

Baden-Powell served in the British Army from 1876 until 1910 in India and Africa. He was heroically involved in relieving the Siege of Mafeking during the Second Boer War. ‘BP’ specialised in scouting, map-making and reconnaissance, and trained soldiers in these essential skills. On returning home in 1903, he found that the handbook he had written for soldiers, Aids to Scouting, was being used by youth leaders and teachers. William Smith, founder of the Boys Brigade, asked Baden-Powell to devise a citizenship training scheme for boys. The experience of the Boer War had led to fears that British youth lacked the fitness and skills necessary for the military.

In 1907, Baden-Powell took 20 boys to Brownsea Island on an experimental camp. Boys from different social backgrounds participated in camping, observation, woodcraft, chivalry, lifesaving and patriotism. This was the start of scouting. There was soon great interest and demand for scouting across the world. Today there are over 54million scouts, operating in almost every nation on earth.

I know about this legacy not from my own experience – I was never much of a scout – but from my family. My father was a scout and scout leader. He played a part in widening the horizons of thousands of young people in Paisley and then Derby where he lived. He was proud of the legacy, and rightly so.

My own children have benefited greatly from being in the scouts. One of them, when aged 14, attended the 23rd World Scout Jamboree in Japan. He returned having made friends from many countries, rich and poor, black and white, and with an invaluable insight into the world and its cultures. Local scout leaders are community heroes, without whom the lives of many children would be poorer. At a time when children can feel their lives are overregulated, and parents that their offspring don’t get out enough, the scouts are especially important.

How many people have left a legacy of this magnitude and worth? The statue-toppling crusaders prefer to ignore Baden-Powell’s real legacy and focus on aspects of his life that were reactionary, yet commonplace at the time he was alive. On retirement in the 1930s, he warmed to some of Hitler’s visions, and in a 1939 diary entry he described Mein Kampf as ‘a wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation etc’. A certain admiration for Hitler was, in fact, shared quite widely among sections of Britain’s elite in the 1930s. Besides, none of this has any bearing at all on his scouting legacy today.

More significant than the ‘Topple the Racists’ website has been the official response. Vikki Slade, leader of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council, when announcing the removal agreed with the statue topplers that ‘there are some aspects of Robert Baden-Powell’s life that are considered less worthy of commemoration’. Such conformism is dangerous. Authorities who remove statues in this way, based on little more than a handful of nameless people putting a map on a website, amplified through social media, are encouraging campaign groups to feel they can have a veto on public culture.

The idea that Baden-Powell’s statue has some connection to the murder of George Floyd, or contemporary issues affecting black people in the UK, such as the Windrush scandal, is risible. Rather, this is performative outrage by a minority seeking to ride on the back of the horror of Floyd’s murder to assert a quite different agenda.

I have never met anyone involved in the scouts with any sympathy for racism. They are far too busy looking after and providing great activities for the boys and girls in their group. I am sure no one walking past Baden-Powell’s statue has ever, as a consequence, been attracted to his views on the Nazi Party, homosexuality or masturbation (views which are thankfully no longer influential). His legacy is an organisation that brings young people together across race, class and culture. The world’s largest youth movement will continue to do far more to challenge racism than the removal of a statue ever could.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer and writer on tourism and politics. He blogs at politics of tourism and tweets at @jimbutcher2.

Picture by: Getty.

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Jim Lawrie

15th June 2020 at 12:40 pm

I wonder is there an element of envy and resentment that The Scout Movement has 500,000 members and refuses to employ leftist commissars or preach their rubbish, that parents value that, exercise their freedom to act upon it and do not want the movement feminised.

The numbers would be bigger if more men could be found to act as scout masters.

The attacks on the statues reflect the thwarted dreams and ambitions of the left, and their rage that we choose Brexit.

Neil John

15th June 2020 at 6:00 pm

There is much hatred from the left for Scouting, though sadly it has become feminised to a degree, unlike Guiding which is still effectively female only.I have had family in both at quite senior county level, the Guiders all resigned after the feminist’s took over and destroyed much of the good work done before, the current chief scout having ‘taken the knee’ is leading scouting down a similar path I suspect.

Dominic Straiton

15th June 2020 at 12:19 pm

When I had kids 25 years ago in my early twenties I never thought id see the day where Id have to defend my “bame” grandchildren who live in Tower Hamlets, who are all in the scouts, salute the flag and war memorial at 11 oclock on the 11th of November. How odd.

Philip Humphrey

15th June 2020 at 11:26 am

This is part of the agenda though, get rid of all history in a sort of year zero, and then replace it with a new history. It doesn’t matter that much of the history being gotten rid of is overwhelmingly good (as with Baden Powell or Churchill). It’s all got to go and special “new” heroines and heros will be dredged up and largely reinvented to suit the new agenda. You might notice it’s straight out of the playbook of many former communist regimes and Orwell’s 1984. Trouble is our universities have surrendered to this sort of thinking a long time ago and now it’s spilled out into the media and on to the streets.

Mike Coops

15th June 2020 at 10:43 am

A crowd source map… The police will be glad of the information… but will they turn up… I guess not… but they might take the knee…

steven brook

15th June 2020 at 9:43 am

Baden-Powell was part of the British expeditionary during the Anglo-Ashanti war
In his book, The Downfall of Prempeh – the brutal African King who sold his people into slavery Baden-Powell wrote: “ the main reasons and objects for the expedition:–
To put an end to human sacrifice.
To put a stop to slave trading and raiding.
To ensure peace and security for the neighbouring tribes…
King Prempeh, like other Ashanti leaders, had a penchant for human sacrifice which drove his slave trade.

Gareth Edward KING

15th June 2020 at 9:17 am

Well, it’s up to the people of Poole to make sure that the puritans in local government don’t get their way. David Starkey has made so very useful points about the ‘puritanism’ of the ‘Year Zero’ mob; well, he’s right. In Spain over the years it’s been pretty obvious that the scouts have brought kids and youths out of the home and into the fresh air-Spanish kids can be just as molly-coddlied as those in the UK.

Mor Vir

15th June 2020 at 9:47 am

No one objects to kids getting out in the fresh air, the concern is that the scouts were intended in concept to raise fitness and skill levels among British youth so that they could man the British Empire as soldiers. Baden Powell was alarmed at the fitness levels of soldiers in WWI and so he set up the scouts. It was not conceived as an ‘outing’ but as preparation for militarism in the Empire, with all of its subjugation and brutality. Of course, the scouts are not that today, but that does not change the intention of Baden Powell.

He also supported sending homosexuals to concentration camps in Germany, and thousands would die that way. He was part of the British force that set up concentration camps in SA in which tens of thousands of Boer women and children died. It is not surprising that people raise questions about the suitability of statues to him today.

Mor Vir

15th June 2020 at 12:58 am

BP worked with Ribbentrop to build ties between the scouts and the HJ as part of an effort to build friendship between UK and TR. BP had uniformed scouts present at TR rallies as part of the effort. He was an admirer of BM in Italy and an avid reader of MK.

That was not totally unheard of among the British ruling classes at the time (indeed the young present ‘queen’ was videoed giving stiff arm salutes with her uncle Eddie who made propaganda visits to Germany), but it would be wrong to trim the facts about BP for convenience.

Ray Diator

15th June 2020 at 8:31 am

…young present ‘queen’ was videoed…..

Really? That must have been a very early prototype video camera, I assume

Mor Vir

15th June 2020 at 9:11 am

Yes, the Sun released the footage a few years back, and you can view it on YT.

Elizabeth was only 7 at the time, but the Queen Mother is also featured making salutes, along with Edward who was a fanatic. It seems that the entire family may have been NS. As was the family of Prince Philip in Germany.

Ray Diator

15th June 2020 at 9:57 am

I was actually making a joke about the word ‘videoed’. I suspect they were probably filmed. But the joke fell flat so maybe just forget it

Mor Vir

15th June 2020 at 10:08 am

Yes, hilarious, nice one there. Videoed is past tense, not sure the technology affects the use of the verb but whatever.

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