The toppling of the statue of the slaver Edward Colston into Bristol harbour earlier this month has thrown a harsh and much-needed light on some of the darker aspects of British history.
But as the debate about statues, street names and blue plaques has widened to enmesh the likes of Sir Robert Peel, William Gladstone and Winston Churchill, it has threatened to become a new front in the nation’s culture wars; one fought chiefly by armchair social media warriors.
The deep vein of antisemitism which has coursed through our national story illustrates the complexity of how figures from 1,000 years of history should best be remembered and memorialised.
Take, for instance, Edward I, who is memorialised in High Holborn and at the site of his death in Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria. Although no longer viewed, as he was in the 19th century, as “the English Justinian”, Edward is remembered for his legal reforms and his role in establishing Parliament as a permanent institution (in Wales and Scotland the brutality of “the Hammer of the Scots” has earned him a rather dimmer reputation).
But, as the historian Sir Simon Schama has recounted, Edward’s edict of 1290 also earned Britain the dubious distinction of becoming “the first country in Christian Europe — or anywhere for that matter — to expel its Jews as if they were a contagious disease”. As a precursor to this act, Edward had required Jews to wear yellow badges to aid their identification.
It is not, however, necessary to dive into 13th century history to find individuals who have rich achievements to their names but attitudes towards Jews which range from the unsavoury to the utterly odious. And some of those figures hail from quarters which — at least before the Corbyn years — might have been unexpected.
In his recently published Anti-Semitism and the Left, the journalist and author Ian Hernon offered a multitude of examples which underline the problems likely to be encountered by those who seek a neat division between history’s heroes and villains.
There are few figures in Labour’s history more revered than its first parliamentary leader, Keir Hardie. But in his anti-imperialist opposition to the Boer War, Mr Hardie voiced deeply unsettling views. In 1900, for instance, he argued that Britain had been led into war by “half a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish, to whom politics is a counter in the game of buying and selling securities”. Nor would his audiences have failed to understand his references to “men living in Park Lane, some of whom are unable to speak the English tongue” who were supposedly enriching themselves during the conflict.
Similarly, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the renowned social reformers and founders of the Fabian Society, a think-tank which is affiliated to the Labour party, described Jews as a “constant influence for degradation” in their 1897 book Industrial Democracy.
And Ernest Bevin, one of Britain’s greatest Foreign Secretaries, told the Labour Party conference in the Mandate’s bloody last months: “There has been agitation in the United States, and particularly in New York, for 100,000 Jews to be put in Palestine. I hope I will not be understood in America if I say that this was proposed by the purest of motives. They did not want too many Jews in New York.” It hardly needs saying that those words were uttered barely two years after British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen. Nor was this an isolated example of Mr Bevin’s occasional appeals to racism: during the 1947 fuel crisis he suggested that “Israelites” were engaged in the black market.
How, though, do we balance that record against Mr Bevin’s undoubted contribution to the defeat of Nazism as a leading member of Mr Churchill’s War Cabinet and his pivotal post-war role in the founding of Nato and helping to resist Soviet expansionism?
The history of the Conservative party is replete with similar dilemmas. Only last November, the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, unveiled a statue in Plymouth to Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. A Great Western Railway train newly named after her travelled to the unveiling ceremony in the city which she represented for over 25 years.
But, as some media reports covering the event suggesteddetailed, Lady Astor also has long faced accusations of being antisemitic and a Nazi sympathiser.
Campaigners for the statue — which now figures on the “Topple the Racists” list — sought to address the charges against her by suggesting that “the most controversial thing about Nancy Astor was the fact that she was a woman”.
“Astor needs to be considered in the context of the period in which she lived,” argued Dr Jacqui Turner of Reading University. “She made unpalatable statements in the heightened atmosphere of the years before World War II. Many male MPs escape such similar censure.”
Lady Astor is not alone in having both played an important role in the struggle for women’s rights while also seemingly harbouring “unpalatable” views.
As the historian Martin Pugh has detailed, a number of leading suffragettes, such as Mary Richardson, Norah Elam and Mary Allen later went on to play prominent roles in the British Union of Fascists.
Others have records which are still more complex. Arthur Balfour is justifiably celebrated for his role in helping to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. But 12 years before the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, he led a government which enacted the 1905 Aliens Act and decried the “undoubted evils that had fallen upon the country from an immigration which was largely Jewish”.
David Lloyd-George was similarly sympathetic to the Zionist cause. His replacement of Henry Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister in 1916 — a man who was decidedly hostile to the cause of a Jewish homeland — is acknowledged by historians as helping to pave the way for the Balfour Declaration. And yet, out of office in the 1930s, Lloyd-George visited Germany, met Hitler and, on his return to Britain, publicly praised the Fuhrer as “the greatest living German” and “the George Washington of Germany”.
Politicians are not unique. Examples from the literary world are numerous and well-documented. Indeed, as Jonathan Freedland wrote in a review of Anthony Julius’ account of English antisemitism: “The writer, major or minor, untainted by Jew-hatred was the exception, the one infected by antisemitism the norm.” As Mr Freedland continued, “even the record of secular saint, George Orwell, is not clean.”
Like Mr Orwell, to whom a statue was erected outside the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in 2017, many are memorialised across London and the country. And while the author of Animal Farm and 1984, as Mr Hernon put it, attempted to “understand his antisemitism and to eradicate it”, that can be said of few others.
A statue stands on the Embankment in Chelsea, for instance, to the 19th century historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, who held fiercely antisemitic views and refused to support Jewish emancipation legislation in the 1840s. (A Glasgow statue of Mr Carlyle also features on the “Topple the Racists” list and has been vandalised).
A blue plaque in Kensington marks the former home of GK Chesterton, the poet, novelist and virulent antisemite who defended the expulsion of the Jews from England.
And figures with highly controversial pasts continue to be memorialised. Last year, Westminster Abbey ignored calls from the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism not to honour PG Wodehouse with a memorial stone. He was, it said, a “literary genius who has long been considered to be amongst Britain’s greatest authors, but he was also an odious antisemite”.
The CAA cited numerous examples of Mr Wodehouse’s private antisemitism as well as a series of controversial radio broadcasts he made from Berlin during the Second World War. On its website, the Abbey omits or brushes aside the objections which were raised to its decision to honour the writer. Mr Wodehouse is hardly the only alleged antisemite honoured in Westminster Abbey: so, too, for instance, is TS Eliot.
Some of Mr Wodehouse’s admirers strenuously refute the charges of antisemitism levelled against him. No such defence can be offered by those of the children’s author, Roald Dahl, who described himself as an antisemite shortly before his death in 1990.
However, that did not stop Cardiff City Council from honouring him by naming one of the city’s modern landmarks “Roald Dahl Plass” in 2002. “What better way is there to pay tribute to one of Cardiff’s best loved personalities than naming the Bay’s entertainment arena after him?” asked the Lord Mayor, Russell Goodway, rhetorically.
The CAA’s statement on Wodehouse offered perhaps the most useful distinction when it comes to cultural and literary figures. “There is nothing wrong with admiring his works,” it suggested, “but that is very different from admiring their author.”
That distinction is perhaps exemplified by the decision of the Royal Mint in 2014 not to honour Mr Dahl with a commemorative coin because of his antisemitic views. Two years earlier, however, few voices were raised in objection when the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps celebrating his books and featuring some of his most beloved characters.
The coming weeks will no doubt see much heat, but perhaps little light, generated as the country wrestles with questions to which there are few easy answers.