Council leader Tony Newman doesn’t tend to enjoy having his judgement called into question, but a councillor-backed petition to remove the image of the wartime leader from the side of a town centre building appears to do just that, as our Town Hall correspondent KEN LEE reports
There have been calls for Tony Newman to sack one of his most trusted councillors, after “Thirsty” Chris Clark helped to launch a petition calling for the removal of a mural in central Croydon which depicts Sir Winston Churchill.
The mural was granted planning permission by Croydon’s Labour-run council just four years ago.
Clark jumped on the “Churchill is a racist” bandwagon yesterday, after the Parliament Square statue of the wartime leader was defaced by demonstrators on a Black Lives Matter rally. Clark has been a Croydon councillor since 2018, and the mural is in his Fairfield ward, but yesterday was the first time that he has raised so publicly his apparently strong objections to the work.
“Back him or sack him” was one message from Croydon Tories directed at Newman, who only in April promoted Clark to the role of Paul Scott’s puppet chair of the planning committee, which came with a handsome £6,000 hike in his council allowances.
Human rights lawyer and apparent Labour supporter Jessica Simor QC tweeted in response to Clark’s virtue signalling over Churchill, “How to keep the Tories in power forever and why Johnson has an 80-seat majority.”
And Tory MP-turned-housing-lobbyist “Lord” Gavin Barwell took time out from his many company directorships to wallow in this bit of sneering: “This [is] the modern Labour Party in Croydon. Campaigning to remove a mural to the man who did more than any other to defeat Nazism, a Prime Minister Labour Ministers proudly served under. Keir Starmer has his work cut out dragging a once great party back into the mainstream.”
More than 24 hours after it had started, Clark’s petition – addressed to the council and Sarah Jones, Croydon Central’s Labour MP – had yet to attract 500 signatures.
Among those supporting the petition is Leoni Descartes.
Descartes, who has been a Labour Party supporter, runs Matthew’s Yard, the café and art gallery to which Clark and a fellow Fairfield councillor recently handed £8,000 towards the business from their taxpayer-funded ward budgets.
Listing examples of Churchill’s racism, Descartes tweeted, “If Croydon is anti-racist or at least trying to be so, the mural of white supremacist Winston Churchill has gotta go.”
The petition itself states, “Croydon is a rich, multicultural community, so why do we have an old, racist, bigoted, white man looking down on us?
“Whatever you [sic] opinions on him being a ‘war hero’, he led atrocities in Ireland, Kenya, and India which still have lasting repercussions today. He is a controversial figure who was openly bigoted and racist…
“… With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum, I think removing this mural and replacing it with something reflective of Croydon would be an important demonstration of solidarity. Churchill wouldn’t like our community. He wouldn’t be proud of the Croydon we know and love today so I don’t see why he gets to be here when we could surely replace him with a mural of someone less divisive or more appropriate for the Croydon community.”
The somewhat tangential connection between Churchill and Croydon went unremarked in 2016 when the Labour council was agreeing to the mural being commissioned, through the former bankrupt art dealer Kevin Zuchowski-Morrison and his Rise Gallery.
Described at the time, somewhat misleadingly, as a “masterpiece”, it was done in a single night by David Hollier, who was flown in from New York for the purpose. It is suggested that Zuchowski-Morrison may have acted as a selling agent for Hollier, marketing his work in London. So a giant-sized mural at a busy junction in the town centre, with an admittedly controversial subject, will have served as a significant advertisement for Hollier and the Rise Gallery.
According to reports at the time, the Churchill mural was intended as “a conversation piece”.
Given that the mural is sited on the side of a privately-owned building, it needed the building owner’s permission as well as that of the council for it to go ahead. Its removal or replacement will require similar permissions – though Clark and his petitioners have yet to have a whip-round to pay for any work. And there’s £8,000 less in the Fairfield ward budget to pay for any such work, too.
Clark may have created several unfortunate precedents – starting with the calling into question the judgement of his council leader, Tony Newman, who has remained an enthusiastic supporter of Zuchowski-Morrison’s artwashing of the town centre.
But if Churchill goes, what next might need to be given a Croydon makeover?
Will the East India conservation area, which takes so many of its street names from the exploitative and imperialist company’s former college on the site in Addiscombe, have to have its name changed?
And will there be objections to any links in the borough to John Whitgift? As the Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth I, Whitgift was in a position of some influence and power as over 25 years at least 50 Catholic priests were executed – many of them burned alive – while he also signed the death warrants for three Puritans in 1593.
Clark should be very well aware of the consequences of his enthusiastic support for the removal of the Churchill mural because, as he informed one of those on social media who responded to his call, he does have the benefit of a History A-Level.
Eminently qualified then.
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