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  • Hello, everyone.

  • I'm Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, and I'm delighted to welcome you all

  • to today's special event.

  • It's really a great privilege to be joined by two of Britain's most admired public intellectuals,

  • Mary Beard and David Olusoga.

  • Mary and David will be well-known to everyone watching, I'm sure.

  • Mary is a well-known classicist and David is a pioneering public historian of race,

  • slavery, and empire.

  • In their award-winning work for the page and the screen, they combine deep scholarship

  • with compelling storytelling power.

  • By shedding vivid new light on our past, they offer us new ways to understand ourselves,

  • each other, and the world around us in the here and now.

  • So, David, Mary, welcome.

  • It's really a special privilege to be joined by such brilliant thinkers to help us make

  • sense of the moment we're all living through.

  • We first had the idea of bringing you together when we spotted an exchange you had on Twitter

  • a few weeks ago following the Black Lives Matter protest in the UK and the felling of

  • the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol.

  • You seem to kind of hold differing views on the statues debate in recent years, but that

  • exchange led to the kind of sense that you might be moving a bit closer together, or

  • at least, at least that there's a kind of compromise position you might be able to hammer

  • out.

  • So today we're giving you a space to try and do that in person.

  • David, can I start with you?

  • In the past weeks, there's been a lot of airtime given to you know pretty well-rehearsed arguments

  • in the debates around statues and the politics of memory.

  • But even so, it'd be great if you could share again how it felt for you watching the

  • Colston statue fall that weekend, why it was so significant for you and for the city of

  • Bristol, and how it compares with previous flashpoint moments in recent years.

  • I wonder what you think the felling of that statue means for how far as a nation we've

  • come and how far we still have to go?

  • Well, watching those events was watching an impossibility happen in front of your eyes.

  • At the end of last year, the debate in Bristol people I know are heavily involved in, and

  • I was tapped into, was whether or not we might be able to get a contextualization plaque

  • added to the plinth, the pedestal on which Colston stood, that made mention to the people

  • who are utterly invisible in this whole memorialization of Colston, which are the tens of thousands

  • of people who were enslaved by the Royal African Company where Colston was involved and the

  • probably around 20,000 people who died in the process, either in the middle passage

  • or in the slave raids or in the other many manifest horrors of the slave trade.

  • Now, even that quite meager, modest ambition of having the victims of Colston mentioned

  • on the pedestal was thwarted and it was rebuffed by the people who defended him.

  • So I presumed that I would never in my lifetime see that statue come down.

  • So for it to come down instantly overnight in a dramatic way was an incredible experience.

  • And what I've found was when I spoke to other Black Bristolians- I live in Bristol, lived

  • here longer than anywhere I've ever lived, so I will give myself the title of Bristolian

  • without being offered it- I found myself very emotional.

  • I think what we've learned in the weeks since, is that statues are very important.

  • People constantly in this debate say, "Oh, you're wasting your time.

  • Talk about something else.

  • Why are you debating this issue?

  • Statues are taking up all the air time."

  • Well, I think what we discovered was that the removal of that statue was not the end

  • of the process.

  • What began was a process of what I've called de-Colstonification.

  • There are around 20 institutions and street names and other ways in which Colston is remembered

  • in this city.

  • Institution after institution found themselves, and the days after that statue is toppling,

  • able to do things that they were unable to do the week before, which was to disassociate

  • themselves from a mass killer.

  • The concert hall had already decided it was going to change its name, but it took its

  • name off its faรงade, as did an office block Colston Tower.

  • A school is now consulting on changing its name.

  • Another school is consulting on changing its name.

  • Institution after institution found themselves able to act in a way that they just were incapable

  • of doing a few days earlier, so that effect was catalytic in a way that I didn't expect.

  • David, before I bring in Mary, to what extent when you watch that happening in Bristol do

  • you feel that each of those incidents is one in which the institution is thinking deeply,

  • reconsidering deeply, learning, or to what extent is it simply that this has now become

  • a shifted norm?

  • And woe betide you if you don't respond because you'll be seen to be a racist?

  • And does that matter actually?

  • Do you care whether or not people are just doing it because it feels like you have to

  • do it or they're doing it through a process of thought?

  • I can't speak for the thought processes and the discussions within organizations that

  • I'm not privy to.

  • What I would like to think is that this has gone a bit deeper.

  • Is that they've looked at the passion.

  • They've looked at the directness with which those protests have targeted a single statue

  • in that city.

  • This wasn't thuggery, which is what the right-wing press would like us to believe.

  • If that were the case, there's a statue of Edmund Burke nearby.

  • There's other statues.

  • All of them were untouched, as was every shop window and shopfront or places that could

  • have been looted.

  • It wasn't thuggery.

  • It was a very targeted political protest.

  • I think what institutions have looked at is that this isn't just a change in the political

  • wind.

  • This is a change of consciousness.

  • And it's brought about by a generational shift.

  • And what I hope happened is that the morning after, people woke up and thought, "What have

  • we been doing defending a mass murderer for all of these years?"

  • His toppling allowed a clarity of thought that just had been obscured and blurred before

  • the toppling.

  • And I'd like to think that people suddenly realized that this wasn't worth it, that this

  • is drawing a line in the sand over someone who just didn't deserve it, who was not worthy

  • of this level of defense and protection, was a losing battle.

  • Not just one that they were going to lose, but one that wasn't worth morally fighting.

  • Thank you, so much to come back to there.

  • Mary, I'll turn to you.

  • You had a pretty clear position on the Cecil Rhodes statue when the campaign for its removal

  • first began several years ago.

  • I'm interested in how your views have changed since then if they have.

  • You said you were happy to see Colston fall.

  • Yes, I was.

  • I was delighted.

  • Tell us about the distinction between Rhodes and Colston.

  • I think the problem about this for me is that there isn't-- This is where we never get to

  • agree entirely.

  • There's no hard and fast rule.

  • There's no set of criteria which says X falls and Y doesn't.

  • I felt very much like David that I'd watched much more distantly the debates about Colston

  • and seen an impasse happening.

  • I'm extremely keen on the idea of interventions with these old guys standing up there.

  • Sometimes removal, sometimes additions, sometimes a contextualization.

  • That seems to me wholly good.

  • As far as I could see, that had gone on for months if not years.

  • And in the end, I felt too when I watched it, I felt exhilaration that someone, in the

  • end, said, "Enough is enough.

  • We're getting rid of him."

  • Now, I have all sorts of slightly old lady views about direct action and I worry about

  • that, but I have to confess, I thought, "Right.

  • Done it."

  • Now, I think that, for me, the point is that - I have different views on different statues

  • and on some I disagree with David - the bottom line is that there isn't a single person in

  • the world who's not a sociopath of some sort, who thinks that every statue should remain

  • up.

  • [chuckles] If we had a statue of Goebbels in the center of Reading, he would not be

  • there any longer.

  • It's not a question of saying: to remove any statue is to remove or to erase history.

  • Sometimes the removal of a statue is the creating of a new history, which I'm very happy to

  • be part of.

  • I suppose what I worry about is in a sense where on the spectrum any one statue falls,

  • how we make our minds up, or even without going to the Trump side, what we might lose

  • when we lose some of these people in our midst.

  • And I went back and I looked at the Bristol newspapers in 1895 when Colston's statue was

  • erected.

  • Bristol was a Gladstonian town.

  • I could only guess what the arguments had been behind it.

  • I looked at the way he was being honored hundreds of years after he died as a philanthropist

  • by people who I thought were not constitutively blind to slavery but somehow just passively

  • didn't see it.

  • They were getting together to celebrate this guy in a late Victorian civic occasion.

  • I suppose what made me think is my question is, how could they have done it?

  • When those guys and some women got together and they cheered and they were pleased, what

  • was going through their minds and why did they?

  • How was it that they did not see what we see now?

  • More to the point, I thought, what is it?

  • He reminds me, and that occasion reminds me, of all the things that we're not seeing about

  • ourselves and our own morality which will, in one day, be as abominated as that of Colston.

  • I think that these statues are much more dialogic than people give them credit for.

  • They are about challenging us.

  • One thing you can say is they don't have agency.

  • They're just a piece of metal and we can just pull them down.

  • We have the power here, not them.

  • But I think of myself slightly cheering on the removal of Colston's statue with my mobile

  • phone in my pocket, which was made by child labor that is as close to slavery as anything,

  • in someplace that I can't see.

  • I always have this sense that these blokes, now mostly blokes, hardly single one of them

  • I'd want to sit down and have dinner with, let alone approve of their politics and morality.

  • They're constantly challenging me to think, what will I look like in 200 years' time?

  • What am I doing that's going to seem as absolutely outrageous as them?

  • They're part of the dialogue with the past and the present.

  • Now, the problem in Bristol was, as David said, the fact that there was no further attempt

  • to contextualization meant that that dialogue was stopped, but I very much like the idea

  • of them challenging us about our own selves as much as we want to challenge them.

  • Look at Charles I outside Charing Cross.

  • [chuckles] What's he doing?

  • Well, actually, in some ways, he reminds me that some form of democracy, limited as it

  • was, won in this country.

  • [chuckles] We're not sitting there putting reeds in front of his statue.

  • There's a much more complicated relationship between the statue and our own politics and

  • morality than I think comes out in the debate.

  • That said, I was jolly and pleased and cheered and enjoyed a drink when Colston fell.

  • David, we have an agreement about Colston and that tearing of that statue was not only

  • welcomed but also important.

  • In terms of what Mary said, as a historian, in what ways do you want to qualify a kind

  • of view that anybody of the past who behaved in ways which are clearly unacceptable now,

  • should as it were that we should not in any sense commemorate them, or that we should

  • entirely condemn them?

  • I'm interested in what your view would be of that kind, a view of history I would imagine

  • you would find reductive.

  • Absolutely.

  • I'm not for the removal of all statues and that would be ridiculous, but I'm also not

  • for the retaining of all statues and everybody, whether they admit it or not, is somewhere

  • along that spectrum.

  • It's very easy to think of political, historical figures that anyone would reject a statue

  • or would want one removed if they could find it.

  • Everybody's somewhere in this spectrum and nobody is a purist saying all statues should

  • stand, or all statues should fall.

  • I think all statues following on, the obvious corollary of that, is that every case should

  • be taken as an individual case.

  • Absolutely, I also think that the idea that our age wanting a statue to be removed or

  • to be contextualized is not us saying that our morals are right.

  • I've written and thought a lot about, what about this age will future generations find

  • outrageous about us?

  • I read documents by people in the 18th century.

  • And you look at the doublethink about slavery.

  • Good, decent Christian, incredibly moral people in lots of ways, who were slave traders.

  • I think our age will have the same contradiction.

  • I think our relationship with the natural world, our failure to seize this moment to

  • stop the climate crisis will be condemned by future generations who will live with the

  • consequences and will rage against our refusal to give up on some of the luxuries that we

  • have when science was telling us that we had to.

  • I think our relationship with animals and factory farming will be seen as an abomination

  • by future generations.

  • They will judge us the same as we judge people of the past, but the way we judge them and

  • the arena in which we judge them is through history.

  • Statues are another thing.

  • They're about memorialization.

  • I think this is where this debate gets lost.

  • Pulling down a statue is not erasing the past because statues aren't about the past.

  • Statues are about the memorialization of men who at a certain point in their history, 175

  • years after his death, in the case of Colston, people decided should be memorialized.

  • This debate about statues has brought out all sorts of hidden histories about where

  • these statues actually came from.

  • And Mary's written about this really well.

  • What I find fascinating looking at some of the pictures in the American South is that

  • you have Americans from the baby boomer generation standing out in front of statues, defending

  • statues of Confederate generals when those statues are younger than many of the protesters.

  • They're defending them as if they're objective history.

  • They are younger than most of the people protesting because they were put up in the '60s in the

  • response to a moment when the version of the Civil War that had been created in reconstruction

  • in the 1870s was challenged.

  • This idea that statues represent history when sometimes they're younger than the people

  • worried about the loss of history, I think, shows the complexities here.

  • It's not a simple debate, but I think there's an important distinction.

  • There are people like, say, Nelson.

  • It's two sides to the ledger on Nelson.

  • He's one of the greatest naval tacticians the world has ever seen.

  • He was a brilliant commander and he was someone who had a view on slave trade I wish he hadn't