Supporters of the 4 people charged with pushing the Edward Colston Statue into Bristol Harbour rally outside the Merchant Venturers HQ in Bristol. Picture Credit: JMF News/Alamy Live News

Nothing ventured

Why the statue-smashers can’t tolerate civil society

Artillery Row

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind”. 

The famous words of Burke in of themselves explain much of what the great army of technocratic statists stand foursquare against. Whilst the culture wars are often played out in public, in high profile cancellations, in institutional capture, such as the National Trust, in specific set pieces, such as the Colston Statue or Rhodes Must Fall. 

They are seen as feral, unconstrained, unregulated, wild, irresponsible, autonomous

In many ways the most insidious method is the quiet, but incessant, bullying of those individuals and institutions that the new aristocracy of virtue do not yet control. Britain, and England in particular, has always been a nation of joiners. Be it the Rotary, hospital charity, Legion, golf, local business, guilds, mason, churches, cricket, BMX bikes, civic societies, historical societies, organisations for the preservation of every tangled, gnarled aspect of of society even Dungeons and Dragons and Meghan Markle appreciation societies. 

The point is we join these organisations voluntarily and set up committees for their governance. A prime aspect of all these being that they exist beyond the parameters of the state.

And because of that they are seen as feral, unconstrained, unregulated, wild, irresponsible, autonomous and all things terrifying to those who see safety in homogeneity and control and power in the accretion of power to the centre. 

One such example is the Society of Merchant Venturers in Bristol. The Venturers trace their existence back to a 13th century Bristol Merchant’s Guild, building Almshouse in 1445. By 1496 they had commissioned John Cabot to cross the Atlantic where he went on to be the first (recorded) European to arrive in North America. 

They went on to receive their first Royal Charter in 1552 when the “The Master, Wardens and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol,” were granted rights and privileges by Edward VI. Since then they were deeply involved in the Slave Trade, initially very much in favour, petitioning to break the Slaving monopoly held by the Royal African Company, but by 1796 they had elected as their leader a leading abolitionist.

It was about this time that the Society’s focus switched from Merchant activities to focus on its charitable activities. It funded the Clifton suspension Bridge, was a founder of the Great Western railway, it opened schools hostels and was instrumental in the founding of both the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England. 

It is without doubt a big charitable cheese in the city.  

However one of its key members was Edward Colston, infamous for his involvement in the slave trade. He of the toppled statue. He, who like Thomas Guy, is famous and was honoured not for how he earned his money — there were many like him and far far richer than him — but for how he spent it. Being childless he poured largesse across Bristol. Most of the schools and medical ventures alluded to were initially founded by him, and to a large part also financed.

They want the society which has provided tens of millions in charitable support to be shut down in its entirety 

The Society made an error. It defended one of its own, and argued against tearing down the statue; it was proud of his and its involvement in bettering the people of Bristol for the past 200 plus years. And it didn’t take kindly to the mob mentality that swept the country, and Bristol dockside in particular in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

Now it is firmly in the sights of shouty leftists who see an opportunity to bring the venerable institution down. One of the charitable activities of the Society was the opening of Clifton Downs to the public, formerly farmland owned by the Society it became 330 football fields worth of public recreation area. In 1862 an Act of Parliament set the management of it, and the contiguous Bristol Down into joint management between the City and the Society, an arrangement that has worked well for 150 years. 

Now, following its links to Colston and with that hatred of organisations beyond their control, Bristol MP Thangan Debonnaire has followed fellow Labour parliamentarian Karin Smyth in calling for the Societies’ disbandment. They don’t just want to wrest control over the schools and institutions supported and funded by the Society. But they want the society which has provided tens of millions in charitable support to be shut down in its entirety. 

“Why do rich people join the society?” demanded Smyth, being incapable of realising that the philanthropic instinct lives in the breast of successful men and women. (Her answer must be they do it just to conspire against the poor.)

Debbonaire states: “The Society of Merchant Venturers is an unaccountable, undemocratic network which aims to control important decisions in our city from the shadows. It should disband.”

“Organisations like this should not be running schools in our city. And the history of the Society means it has no place in a modern, multicultural Bristol that welcomes everyone”.

And there you have it. Any organisation that predates the current crop of politicians, that predates the beginning of the last century, will have had some aspect that is unpalatable to modern sensibilities. Of course it will. But for these destroyers that is merely an excuse. An opportunity to destroy the independent, self-sustaining, small platoons, and the loyalties that sustain life outside the reach of the state.

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