A perversion of Puritanism
The toppling of Colston’s statue in Bristol sends a terrible message to today’s would-be philanthropist
Perhaps the most revealing moment in the Black Lives Matter protests took place when the main event was over. Appalled at the mess and desecration, a group of young men turned up in Whitehall with bin bags, water, detergent and scrubbing brushes and began the great clear-up off their own bat. As they were working on the monument to Earl Haig, they were accosted by a young woman: white, whinnying-voiced and with a bright yellow top.
“Couldn’t even wait a day, not one day,” she berated them. “Because of their precious memorials,” she added in a sneering aside. The young men didn’t take the bait but silently continued scrubbing. “Excuuuse me!” she interjected, in the tone used to get attention in Harrods.
It’s pure English comedy. Which means it’s all about class, not race: hoity-toity, woke middle-class miss bossy-boots versus a bunch of nice working-class lads, who, it appears, were in the Household Cavalry. But it’s also a snapshot of Brexit, the last general election and now the full-blown culture wars unleashed by the BLM protests.
The last is the most important. For consider that possessive adjective: “their precious memorials”. These “precious memorials” included the statue of Churchill, which had been daubed “was a racist”, and the Cenotaph itself, on which one rioter climbed, and choosing carefully, tried to set fire to the Union flag. These are the central symbols of the nation. But they are “theirs”, not “hers” or “ours”.
A nation is a collective: the ultimate “our”. Or, as Burke described it, a contract between the living, the dead and those yet to be born. The supreme moment of this collective endeavour, enshrined in national memory, is the Second World War. It was Churchill’s — and Britain’s — “finest hour”. But that was not enough for the angry young black man who daubed “was a racist” on the plinth of Churchill’s statue and was utterly unrepentant about the fact. “I tagged up the statue of Churchill because he’s a confirmed racist,” he boasted on the BBC. “He fought the Nazis to protect the Commonwealth from invasion. He didn’t do it for black people.”
This, to call things by their proper name, is the purest narcissism. There is no “our”, no collectivity and no shared experience, real or imagined. Instead, if it’s not about me, or people of the same colour as me, or people that I identify with, it’s wrong or it’s not “relevant”. And imagine for a moment a history, a nation or indeed a world that was constructed according to this principle — one that was only by, for and about blacks — and weep.
This is the psychosis of Black Lives Matter. But BLM is also a religious movement. Or more precisely, it’s a peculiar perversion of Puritanism, which is why it is at its most rampant in the Anglo-Saxon world. Like Puritanism, it is intolerant and Manichaean: black good, white bad. Like Puritanism, it breeds witch-crazes (we are in the middle of one), book-burnings and iconoclasm. Above all, like Puritanism, it believes in original sin. This it identifies with racism, which has become the new sin against the Holy Ghost.
The aim of Black Lives Matter is to delegitimate the whole of British history
“Tag”, in the words of the man who defaced Churchill’s statue, somebody with racism — be they Churchill, or Drake, or Nelson, or Peel, or Gladstone, or Grey — and all their other achievements, whatever they are and however great they are, are rendered worthless; their monuments must be defaced or torn down and their reputation trashed in a modern version of the Roman damnatio memoriae.
“Oh! It’s only a few mouldy old statues of slave traders,” the Appeasers say. The Appeasers are wrong as usual: Black Lives Matter has other, bigger fish to fry. Its aim is not just to topple a few statues and trash a few reputations but — using slavery and imperialism as a battering ram — to delegitimate the whole of British history.
The model is how the atonement for Nazism and the Holocaust have delegitimated all German history since the rise of Bismarck. Hence the repeated claim of BLM that the slave trade was genocide or mass murder. It wasn’t of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many blacks in North America or the West Indies. Or indeed in Britain.
The slave trade, unlike the Final Solution, was also banal. That is to say there is nothing unusual or exceptional in Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. Slavery and slave-trading instead are universals, practised in one form or another for most of human history and by almost all people and in almost all places. Until 1833. Then, at the height of its wealth and power and after an agonised process of soul-searching, political debate and hard-nosed financial bargaining, Britain decided that slavery should be abolished in the British Empire and the international slave trade extinguished.
Britain’s wealth bought out the slave owners’ property rights at a cost equivalent to the rescuing of the banks in the financial crisis of 2008/9. And the British Navy — larger than all the other navies in the world combined — devoted about a fifth of its might to suppressing the slave trade itself.
The British abolition of slavery is probably the largest single altruistic gesture in history. Unlike Britain’s earlier involvement in the slave trade, it was unique. And it marked a moral revolution of which Black Lives Matter is the distant and
But the moral revolution was only possible because of the Industrial Revolution. This supplied the mechanical muscle which — for the first time in human history — began to make the human muscle of the slave redundant.
And the Industrial Revolution is, in its origins, uniquely British too. It was a product of a not yet fully understood and sometimes paradoxical concatenation of circumstances: of the wealth generated by Empire and slavery abroad and of freedoms — political, legal, economic and intellectual — at home, all spiced by consumerism and a precocious mass market for luxury goods.
This is a brief sketch of British history “in all its complexities”, which one noisy Labour MP claimed to want. But I doubt if he’ll be satisfied with it since it doesn’t yield the easy moral certainties — of goodies and baddies, of victims to be lauded and villains to be booed — that Black Lives Matters and its white liberal fellow-travellers crave.
That this messy, creative British history had begun — before BLM started to tear apart the precious, delicate threads that bind us together — to deliver perhaps the world’s most successful multi-ethnic society probably doesn’t count either. Puritans, like BLM, have never heard of the adage “the best is enemy of the good”. They only want perfection and they don’t care what or whom they damage to get it.
Slavers traders had statues because they used their wealth for the good of society
Finally, a word for slave traders. Mostly they weren’t, of course. Instead, like any other sensible investor, they held a well-balanced portfolio of which the slave trade was a part. In any case, they had statues, not because they were slave traders or even successful investors, but because they used their wealth to found hospitals and schools, build churches and docks, or endow universities and scholarships. In short, to do the kind of things that our urban communities — especially multi-ethnic places like Bristol — are going to need to overcome the economic ravages of the Covid crisis.
But what sort of message does the toppling of Colston’s statue into Bristol harbour send to today’s entrepreneur who might be thinking of bestowing his wealth on good works? Why bother, he will decide, if a change of moral fashion means his reward will be to have his reputation posthumously trashed.
Bristol’s (half) black mayor rejoiced — Obama-like — in the “poetry” of the ducking of the slaver’s statue. Will he, I wonder, have reason to regret his words as he tackles the hard “prose” of steering his city through the coming catastrophe of unemployment and urban blight?
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