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UK Government Announces New Legislation Protecting Historic Monuments

The UK government has announced new legislation meant to protect the country’s historic monuments. If the bill passes Parliament, anyone wishing to remove a historic statue would need to first obtain listed building consent or planning permission. Councils seeking to grant such permission would be required to notify the British communities secretary, who would render the final decision about the application in question.

The proposed legislation comes just weeks after the country completed Brexit, and on the heels of a June 7, 2020, incident in which an eighteen-foot-high statue of seventeenth-century slaver Edward Colston was tossed into the Bristol harbor by protesters responding to the death in the United States of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. A statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill standing in London’s Parliament Square was twice defaced over the course of the ensuing summer, the second time being spray-painted with the words “is a racist.”

Spearheading the effort to get the legislation passed is Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, who, in January 17 Sunday Times article headlined “We Will Save Our History from Woke Militants,” described the hoped-for law as protecting monuments from being removed “on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob,” naming those who sought to do so “town hall militants and woke worthies.” 

“We cannot, and should not, now try to edit or censor our past. That’s why I am changing the law to protect historic monuments and ensure we don’t repeat the errors of previous generations, losing our inheritance of the past without proper care,” said Jenrick in a statement.

Arts and education leaders have already responded to the secretary’s assertions, with British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga tweeting, “You know, it’s almost as if they want to distract people from their lethally failed response to the pandemic and the consequences of a disastrous Brexit?” and Sharon Heal, who heads the Museums Association, an advocacy group, tweeting, “I wish we could get away from language of censure and erasure & understand this is about broadening, deepening & creating honest & inclusive narratives.” 

The proposed legislation stands in stark contrast to London mayor Sadiq Khan’s proposal last June that the diversity of public landmarks be reviewed. It is also at odds with the views of the Society of Merchant Venturers, the Bristol charity which runs institutions named after Edward Colston, which supported the statue’s removal, noting, “To build a city where racism and inequality no longer exist, we must start by acknowledging Bristol's dark past and removing statues, portraits and names that memorialize a man who benefited from trading in human lives.”