What Does it Mean to Have a ‘Conversation’ about Empire?

Tuesday, 9 June 2020 7-minute read

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight last night, Dr Priyamvada Gopal spoke about the recent tearing down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. I have little to say about the toppling of the statue that hasn’t already been said by the protestors. Nor do I have anything to add about how patronising Dr Gopal’s co-interviewee Jeremy Black’s conduct was in the discussion. Instead, what I found intriguing about the interview was the way it was framed, and how this reflected a wider problem in the way political figures address these questions.

Ritula Shah opened the interview with the following question:

‘Those opposed to statues being toppled […] will say it’s “mob rule”. Those in favour will say “symbols matter”. Both points of view […] are argued with passion. But what I want to explore is whether one way to bridge the divide between […] direct action and the law would be a conversation about empire and the way it shaped modern society. Dr Gopal, is that something you’d welcome?’

There is a lot to unpack in this question. At the risk of writing like an analytic philosopher, serialising which we have:

  1. The pejorative and violent connotations of the phrase ‘mob rule’
  2. The false dichotomy between what are reductive characterisations of arguments both for and against
  3. The false equivalence between the moral and political assumptions behind both ‘sides’ of the argument on the basis that they are argued with passion.
  4. The middle-ground decency politics that assumes ‘direct action’, which is fundamentally disobedient in nature, can or should be ‘bridged’ with the ‘law’.
  5. Moral assumptions about what the law means, in contrast to (1).

This question is posed to Dr Gopal as a binary about whether or not she would ‘welcome’ such a ‘conversation’. This is an unfair question: any attempt at a nuanced or considered response that addresses each of these assumptions is open to being misconstrued as dodging the question, and a negative answer protesting these assumptions can be mischaracterised as acceding to ‘mob rule’. Never mind that the interviewer would likely only allow the interviewee to get a single breath in before interjecting.

Dr Gopal answered that she would absolutely welcome an ‘honest, difficult, demanding conversation on history’. What was especially revealing, however, was Shah’s follow-up question, ‘what does that mean, honest and difficult?’. The more important question here, and the unspoken assumption across all of these debates in the media or in politics, however is what the word ‘conversation’ means. Again, serialising these questions:

  1. Who is having this conversation?
  2. Where is it happening?
  3. What is the tone or environment like?
  4. Who is being kept out of the conversation?
  5. In what language is the conversation happening?
  6. What rules of decorum are being enforced, and whose interests does decorum serve?
  7. What are the hierarchies of power like between interlocutors?
  8. What is the impact of the conversation specifically on the wellbeing of the participants?
  9. What would a resolution of the conversation look like?
  10. What institution or organisation does the Conversation then empower to act?

Whenever someone answers any political question with ‘we need to have a conversation’, they need to be cornered and pinned down to answer these questions. Otherwise, it is just a meaningless homily.

The so-called ‘conversation’ has already been happening: it has been going on for years at the foot of the statues, in public squares where rallies have been gathering, where Black protestors excoriated the way our cities memorialise a slaver. The people who are now calling for a conversation just haven’t been listening.

Keir Starmer, with his forensic incoherence on the matter, tried to have it both ways in an interview on LBC, where he said:

‘It shouldn’t have been done in that way. … um completely wrong to … um pull a statue down like that. But um stepping back that statue should have been brought down a long time should have been taken down long, long, time ago. […] That statue should have been brought down properly with consent and put I would say in a museum’.

It was intriguing that he said ‘brought down’ at first — the same phrase he used to refer to the protestors’ actions — and then corrected himself to say ‘taken down’, and then qualifies it afterwards saying ‘brought down properly with consent‘. This invites a number of questions, the most important being whose consent exactly does he want here, and who is it exactly who will be doing the ‘bringing down properly’ of the statue?

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, rather than tearing the statue down and chucking it in the harbour, the protestors should have written to their councillors and started a petition to Historic England, all of whom would then seek the consent of Edward Colston’s living descendants and hold a series of public consultations and town halls. All of these are ways of having conversation. But, like Dr Gopal’s interview, all of these are conversations where the institutional authority, rules of decorum, composition of participants, and terms of conversation are stacked in the interest of preserving the status quo. Demanding protestors go through a narrow set of channels regarded by those in power as ‘legitimate’, channels which by nature of their bureaucracy and structure are difficult and exhausting to navigate, is a tactic to frustrate protest. There already have been petitions. All of them have been ignored.

In reality, the so-called ‘conversation’ has already been happening: it has been going on for years at the foot of the statues, in public squares where rallies have been gathering where Black protestors excoriated the way our cities memorialise a slaver. The people who are now calling for a conversation just haven’t been listening. This departure from the established channels of ‘conversation’ that favour the status quo represents an inversion of the hierarchies of political power immanent in those institutions. This is a tactic that protestors have resorted to when other such campaigns have failed. Likewise with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the University of Oxford refused to take down Cecil Rhodes’ statue because alumni donors threatened to withdraw their funding of the University. To characterise direct action as ‘mob rule’ is an attempt to undermine its legitimacy. To suggest that the actions were done without ‘consent’ is to co-opt the language of democracy and liberty to describe the approval of those in power.

Home Secretary Priti Patel described the protestors’ toppling of the statue as criminal and unlawful whilst using racially coded dog whistles to delegitimise them. The emphasis on decency politics and moving the goalposts to demand peaceful protests (in the face of devastating systemic atrocities, no less) is a political tool that those in power use to contain and frustrate political activism, and to invalidate the pain, grief, and anger of the people affected by these injustices. Moreover, the ‘law’ merely serves to protect property and the interests of those in power. It is rather rich that the police and the Government are more exercised by addressing the protests that toppled the statue than the material and social injustices that contributed to the protests in the first place.

When people call for ‘having a conversation’ about Empire, what they are shifting the focus from the political issues in question about the impact of these injustices on our society today. Instead, they are attempting to stymie movements towards social change by shifting the political terrain of the discussion to one which is fundamentally reactionary and inactive. These so-called ‘conversations’ that they want will never be equal. But fundamentally, we are past the point of having ‘conversations’ about empire and race. What we need is concrete action by people in power that address these injustices.