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The name’s gone

Society needs to end the charade of delegating moral judgments on historic benefactors to schoolchildren

Artillery Row

In Great Expectations, when Pip discovers that his benefactor is a convict, he renounces his inheritance and stands by his benefactor. The City of Bristol, however, is notable for doing the exact opposite: keeping the cash while throwing its benefactor under the metaphorical bus.

Yet here we are, in our 21st century ivory tower, disparaging the morality of our forebears and disowning our society’s benefactors, whether they be of wealth, of knowledge, or of art. Now Colston’s School — which owes its very existence to Edward Colston, a man who committed no crime in his time — has decided it will renounce his name.

They should not, of course, have to renounce anything — name or fortune — because it is fundamentally mistaken to judge history by our own standards as if perfect and absolute. Blanket condemnation of eras supposedly less enlightened than ours helps nobody. It hinders our understanding as, rather than searching for context and nuance, we are encouraged simply to judge and to damn. This undermines our identity and confidence in ourselves as a nation, whilst simultaneously feeding a dangerous complacency that leads us open to division and attack.

People cannot necessarily be trusted to make the “right” decision

The people know this is wrong. When the school consulted the general public, 81 per cent rejected the renaming. We saw a similar story at Colston’s Girls’ School (now Montpellier High School), which asked the same question last year and similarly ignored the result (63 per cent against). Former pupils are angry, with one telling me the decision was a “disgusting betrayal” of the “strong collective identity and ethos built around the school’s founding values that many former pupils hold dear”. He further explained that it was never about “glorifying” Colston’s relationship with slavery, only “duly recognising him as a central part of our story and how we are where we are today”.

What is the will of the people in the face of convinced moral superiority? This superiority says people cannot necessarily be trusted to make the “right” decision and so we don’t always have to abide by democratic votes. We might call this the “Brexit Principle” after one such notable instance. They tried it in the City of London when they originally ignored 71 per cent of popular opinion to expel their “controversial” statues from the Guildhall, only to then row back and issue a reprieve. Whenever they are asked, the public unfailingly stand up for their historical past by a significant margin.

To get around this in Colston’s case, both schools used their children as an escape clause. There is a reason we don’t let impressionable children vote in society. Given the overwhelmingly left-wing nature of teaching staff, did Colston ever stand a chance in the hands of these children, who are themselves in the hands of their teachers? It brings to mind Holy Trinity School in Richmond last month, which decided to change the name of one school house from Churchill to Rashford after a process apparently “led and driven” by its primary age schoolchildren.

Surely society needs to end this ridiculous charade of delegating decisions to children and idolising them as if they have some special genius of perception (a certain climate activist also springs to mind), rather than the intellectual and moral sponges they are? We need to respect the overwhelming weight of public opinion, and stop condemning our history.

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