So William Ewart Gladstone has been added to the hit list, and Liverpool College has predictably rushed to deprive him of the obscure honour of a corridor of residence named after him. If “the Folks’s William” is wanting down from an Evangelical Heaven, he should regard such a minor humiliation as a simply chastisement for his sins, of which he was obsessively conscious. However ought to we in 2020 be completely satisfied about this sudden wave of historic scapegoating?
The explanation given is that Gladstone got here from a rich slave-owning household, benefited financially himself, and in his maiden speech within the Commons in 1833 defended his father from expenses of mistreating slaves on his plantation. There’s worse, seemingly not but observed by the “Topple the Racists” organizers: throughout the American Civil Warfare, he for a time supported the slave-owning Confederacy.
Whether or not this wipes out the the explanation why he has lengthy been honoured (and was loathed by the Proper) is, I suppose, a matter of ethical judgment. On the virtuous aspect of the dimensions is his creation of recent progressive politics; urging democracy as an ethical proper; trying to present Eire house rule; creating a contemporary civil service; supporting sexually abused girls; advocating Italian freedom; opposing arms spending; campaigning in opposition to ethnic atrocities within the Balkans; criticising imperialism and arguing for an moral overseas coverage, and so forth. His political file is unsurpassed – 60 years in politics, and prime minister in his eighties. He was arguably probably the most wide-ranging, clever, unpredictable, dynamic (and psychologically odd) of our nice trendy politicians – a progressive world hero worshipped by his big working-class following.
Personally, I’m not an unalloyed admirer of his moderately sanctimonious type of politics, allied with a shameless opportunism (enjoying with an ace up his sleeve and claiming that God had put it there, commented a colleague). It’s an odd spectacle to see some on the trendy Left destroying their very own heritage. However it’s a distortion of historical past: Gladstone was not a slave dealer, or proprietor, or defender of slavery. The previous is completely different from the current: the educative goal of historical past, nonetheless superficially, is to attempt to perceive that distinction, and on this case to grasp why Gladstone took the positions he did.
He thought that the authorized and peaceable abolition of slavery was to the overall good. Within the American Civil Warfare, he accepted Lincoln’s assertion that the warfare was not about slavery. He believed that it was dragging on endlessly, inflicting big struggling, not least financial struggling to the employees of Northern England, most of whom supported his need for a negotiated peace. These might have been mistaken opinions, as Gladstone later acknowledged. However they had been comprehensible, and hardly depraved.
I’m not a kind of who regard all historic monuments as sacrosanct. Nobody has the precise to a statue or perhaps a corridor of residence of their honour, and positively not in perpetuity. We are able to absolutely select to take away the statues or different honorifics of individuals we not respect, or have merely forgotten. I rejoiced when the various statues of Stalin and Lenin within the outdated USSR had been pulled down: I’d be fairly anxious in the event that they had been put again.
However my foremost motive for feeling uneasy about this current marketing campaign is much less historic than political and moral. If we crudely apply probably the most “woke” standards to figures prior to now, few will emerge untarnished, and the marketing campaign itself will quickly turn out to be ridiculous: on the hit listing already are Captain Prepare dinner and, for no apparent motive, Robert Peel (one other standard hero – for decreasing the price of meals). Extra significantly, to assault a determine like Gladstone, or vandalize the statue of Churchill, as a result of distorted historic understanding or simply for the hell of it, is a deliberate rejection of our shared historical past, not simply the dangerous but additionally the nice.
It’s a clumsy try to start out a nihilistic tradition warfare and offend as many individuals as doable. Scapegoating heroes from the previous could also be for some in Britain only a enjoyable strategy to break lockdown and really feel virtuous with no effort. However stirring up dissension on a difficulty – police brutality in the US and racial discrimination on the whole – on which most individuals agree is bizarrely counter-productive.
Robert Tombs is a Fellow of the newly launched Centre for Brexit Coverage, and he’s writing a e-book known as Offshore Island.