Photo by Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency
Artillery Row

Save the Guy

Consultations on statue removal have blatantly ignored public opinion

Where would Guy’s Hospital be without Thomas Guy? He was, after all, the man who bequeathed it not only his name, but also some £250,000 (the equivalent of £50 million today). Yet even such remarkable benevolence is not enough to spare him the judgement of the slavery-obsessives who, having pored through his 18th century investments portfolio, superciliously concluded that it fails to live up to our 21st century moralities and that his statue must therefore be banished from sight.

When Colson’s statue was torn down by a Bristol mob last year, and online activists then began to tentatively mutter the name of Guy, the hospital panicked. In a knee-jerk reaction without consultation, they boarded up the statue of Guy along with that of Sir Robert Clayton, builder of the associated St Thomas’ Hospital and announced their imminent removal. Within a couple of weeks, they’d rushed through the planning applications to remove them. In their virtuous stampede they’d forgotten one thing: the people. Twelve hundred objections were lodged.

If any unsolicited views did sneak past, the hospital stood ready to discount them

Undeterred by such technicalities, the decision was postponed in order to run a public consultation and “improve its prospects of being concluded positively”. This confidence was based on having cobbled together a survey bristling with ludicrously leading questions such as “Should we give honour, through statues, to people who invested their money in enslaved people?”. Inconveniently, the public ignored this moral bullying and overwhelmingly backed the statues. The hospital, down but not out, was forced to withdraw the applications. For a brief moment it seemed that people power had won through.

But the hospital wasn’t finished. Their next step was an act of blatant gerrymandering, reopening the survey specifically to share it with the King’s College Race Equality Network. They also hand-picked individuals and groups to consult “safely in a facilitated space”. Needless to say, I was not invited into this safe space.

If any unsolicited views did sneak past, the hospital stood ready to discount them. The report specifically references my actions in publicising the consultation, saying “the data must be read within the context that one group with a specific viewpoint likely dominated the responses”. How ironic that they’re happy to target some groups, but if others want a say it’s seen as a distortion that must be ignored.

The consultation should be hailed as a huge success in that nearly thirty-two hundred people responded. But given the result, with 75 per cent of people saying to keep Guy’s statue where it is, it will instead be ignored. This is by no means the first such consultation to be disregarded. 71 per cent of respondents told the City of London to keep their controversial statues, yet they still decided to remove them. When local authorities consulted on the statues of Sir Redvers Buller and Sir Thomas Picton, the idea of a plaque was only supported by 10 per cent and 2 per cent respectively. Yet the councils decided to add them anyway. More important than listening to the people is to be seen to act.

This saga highlights a serious problem with the reality of public consultations. When the government launched its “Retain and Explain” policy, it referred prominently to “consultation with the public”. But such unregulated exercises are wide open to manipulation, both in terms of content and the constituencies they target. These controversies are only being driven by tiny minorities, but the resulting consultations are then tailored and targeted to those same tiny minorities. The cornerstone of democracy is that all can be heard equally and the expressed will implemented. When it comes to statue controversies, our democratic principles have been betrayed.

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