Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Queen’s plinth?

Let’s put this sorry landmark to patriotic use

Artillery Row

Working in Manchester in 2003, I watched a BBC live stream of what Robert Fisk later called “the most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima”. US marines had starring roles this time, too. Baghdad had just been captured. First order of business? Knocking down a 40 ft statue of Saddam. Until then, I thought Iraq’s invasion wholly justified. Doubts set in as an excitable marine covered the statue’s head with the Stars & Stripes. “What,” I wondered, “is this eejit playing at?” 

Firdos Square fell ominously silent until another jarhead replaced the American colours with Iraq’s. The party atmosphere revived. The mob cheered on the M88 tank pulling down Saddam. By evening, only steel shards remained in the plinth, and a thirty-year dictatorship was over. 

No one said invasions require dramatic subtlety. 

A year later, as the Coalition of the Willing fragmented, Prime Minister Tony Blair still sounded confident. “I have no doubt Iraq is better without Saddam; but no doubt either, that as a result of his removal, the dangers of the threat we face will be diminished.” It’s a boast that aged as well as the one about the unsinkable Titanic. 

That empty plinth, briefly a symbol of hope, soon came to symbolise the chaos that left Iraq teetering on civil war. Factions fought to fill the power vacuum, some brutally. In 2018, Mosul in northern Iraq had to be liberated once more, this time from the savagery of Isis. Back in Britain, where Blair’s reputation was mud, another Iraqi sculpture was placed on another empty plinth, the one in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square. 

This imposing sculpture of a winged bull was a copy of an artefact Isis destroyed. It was the work of the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, part of his long-term project to recreate the relics of Iraq’s museums looted after the invasion. You could argue that this was a fitting monument to Blair’s imperial hubris, but only if you made your point quickly. By 2020, Rakowitz’s bull was replaced by another sculpture, a giant dollop of whipped cream with a cherry on top. 

Londoners barely noticed. Since 1999, the fourth plinth has hosted fourteen different statues. and the novelty has long worn thin. The plinth was built in 1841 for an equestrian statue of William IV. The last Hanover was not too popular, and the statue never materialised. For 150 years the plinth remained empty, until a politician who insisted we call him “Tony” took power with a thumping majority and the charisma to persuade the intelligentsia that he was on their side, man.

Thus began a shameful era that history remembers as Cool Britannia.

London was softened up with a three-punch combination. From 1998 to 2001, three new statues took turns on the plinth. The first, Ecce Homo, Mark Wallinger’s statue of Christ on trial, was technically impressive and aesthetically harmonious with the square. The next two were banal. Bill Woodrow’s Regardless of History was a surrealist pastiche depicting a giant head crushed by a book and a tree. Rachel Whiteread’s Monument was — wait for it — a plinth. Yes, a plinth on top of a plinth! Makes you think, eh? 

In its tiresome radical chic, the iconoclasm of Blairism lives on

Blair’s Culture Secretary Chris Smith decided to let this artistic merry-go-round spin forever. Twenty years on, I wish this ratio of two duds for every gem had proved a reliable pattern. In fact, of the eleven that followed, only a handful were worth a second glance. 

Amongst the best was Marc Quinn’s marble statue, Alison Lapper Pregnant. Back in 2005, the trope of using handicapped people as political props was not ubiquitous. This 13-tonne statue of an essentially limbless woman was shocking in the best possible way. In one of those dramatic perspective shifts that great art occasionally achieves, Quinn showed us a woman, whom society had defined by her disability, as a mother.

Ten years later, Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse was amusingly macabre, but its success is based on the sheer incongruity of a colossal horse’s skeleton standing in the middle of a Georgian square — a surprise that jolts less each time you see it. Diminishing returns was a common problem of the many plinth occupants, which can only be described as kitsch. There was Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (Nelson, Trafalgar Square, get it?), David Shrigley’s giant thumbs-up and Katharina Fritsch’s big blue rooster entitled Cock. Take that, Patriarchy!

The plinth’s other short-let tenants were sermons masquerading as art. Antony Gormley’s One & Other in 2009 was surely the moment the fourth plinth jumped the formaldehyde shark.

In what sounds like a particularly implausible Brass Eye sketch, 2,400 volunteers took turns standing on the plinth for one hour over a hundred days. This was the nadir of the worst recession in half a century so I guess it was easy to find people with a time on their hands. In what Gormley called the “elevation of everyday life”, every minority in Britain was included — even people from Sheffield. In case any volunteer did the decent thing and jumped, the plinth was surrounded by a net and stewards standing vigil 24 hours a day. You could watch Posh Big Brother anytime and anywhere. Sky Arts sponsored a live feed of the action. One hopes that any pervert who tuned in is on a registry somewhere. Ever modest, Gormley said that he’d given Britain space, “to reflect on the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in contemporary society”. 

When the zeitgeist insists that no one belongs on a pedestal, every slob must get a turn. Worthy celebrations of the common man by the cultural elite were fashionable under Blair and, alas, survived his downfall. Danny Boyle’s NHS homage during the 2012 Olympics was a similarly patronising affair. This Soviet-style posturing seemed harmless until the pandemic — who can forget how quickly the common good, narrowly defined, was used to thrash civil liberties?

In 1984, Big Brother’s subjects struggle to recall if they are at war with Eurasia or Eastasia. Orwell makes clear that their anxiety is intentional. Intentionally or by accident, London’s empty plinth has become a stage for signalling to the proles how they must feel about The Current Thing. Samson Kambalu’s Antelope, the sculpture that presently occupies the plinth, is an allegory of colonisation — which apparently is a very bad thing. Next year comes 850 Improntas, an edifice composed of the cast faces of hundreds of transgender folk — a very good thing indeed. 

Moralising from on high, remote from everyday Britain and completely ignored, the fourth plinth has become the visual equivalent of the editorial page of The Guardian. In its tiresome radical chic, the iconoclasm of Blairism lives on. Those who are bored of fast-fashion, those who yearn for something more traditional, will be told that there’s no alternative, that Multicultural Britain is a country with no common ground, no centre. 

Can that be so? 

Katharine Birbalsingh, the “Tiger Headmistress” of north London’s Michaela Community School, reports that royalist sentiment in Britain’s ethnic communities is strong. That should not be surprising. For seventy years, Elisabeth II was a model of discipline, stoicism and faith, qualities that the minorities of Britain’s appreciate far more than the louche tzars of high culture.

The 20th Century was not kind to monarchs, but somehow, in the midst of the levelling storm, a flame endured which had been lit a thousand years ago by a Saxon king of Wessex who dreamed of a kingdom united, of a greater Britain. What luck that was, to enter modernity with parliament’s power balanced by an apolitical monarch’s prestige, an arrangement that profits all British subjects.

Put the plinth to the work it was built for: supporting royalty

Human Toby Jug Peter Hitchens has a prickly persona but get him started on royalty — “a beloved, softly glowing monarchy, full of splendour and ceremony” — and he gushes like a lady-in-waiting. This stuff makes most Irish eyes roll, but the monarchy is undeniably a check on presidential pretentions at No 10. Or rather it was. Like the snake into Eden, Hitchens believes that a “hard-edged new era of naked government” snuck into Britain with Blair and his Tory doppelganger, Cameron. “Reverence of the kind we increasingly give to politicians,” he laments, “should be reserved for the Head of State, who is like the king on the chessboard, mainly important because he prevents anyone else from occupying his space.” 

Blair came to power with an inane anthem that predicted things can only get better. Brexit revealed that a majority of Britons thought that Blair’s decade in power had left everything worse — much worse. The lingering schism of Leave/Remain and ruination of the Middle East make a fit obituary of Blairism and the fourth plinth is its monument.

Why give “Call-me-Tony” that honour, though? When Elisabeth II was crowned, she vowed to “restore the things that are gone to decay”. Having exhausted the alternatives, why doesn’t Britain take up that gauntlet? The good old cause is not yet lost. Put the plinth to the work it was built for: supporting royalty. Britain has any number of classically-trained sculptors — Ellen Christiansen, Alexander Stoddart or Mark Richards for example — who could carry it off handsomely. Erect a statue of the late Queen. Call it London’s coronation gift to her son and pay for it by public subscription, on the strict condition that it be executed in a style befitting its noble surroundings. 

Alfred’s kingdom needs restoration. Let it here begin.

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