KEN TOWL on a tale of two (or is it three? Or four?) online petitions
“What, another one?” is my default reaction these days to online petitions.
There seem to be more of them than ever, perhaps a symptom of coronavirus. Alright, not a symptom, maybe more an unforeseen consequence. We are less inclined to get out of the house and engage with our fellow humans, more likely to work online, shop online, politic online.
When I read in Inside Croydon that Fairfield ward councillor Chris Clark had endorsed a Change.org petition entitled “Remove/replace the mural of Winston Churchill in Croydon town centre”, I was not surprised.
When Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd after torturing him for eight minutes and 46 seconds, he launched a global backlash of righteous anger and gave new momentum to a movement for change that had long existed. He also gave rise to another unforeseen consequence: a veritable industry of virtue signalling.
So desperate are the virtue signallers to display their non-racist credentials by calling for the removal of Churchill’s mural that they are diluting their efforts. While searching for the Chris Clark-endorsed petition online, I came across more evidence of the growth of the petition industry.
The first was rather curious. It had five signatures, and was addressed to Chris Clark. Most curious of all it was from… Chris Clark. It’s closed now, so you can’t join Chris Clark in petitioning Chris Clark “to show Chris Clark that online petitions do effect change and are an adequate rage outlet”, but you can see it, by clicking here, if you want to. What a strange online legacy we will all leave!
The next petition I found was not by Chris Clark, but it was a Change.org petition to remove Winston Churchill and his words from its Park Street site.
For followers of dodgy goings-on at Croydon Council, the provenance of this petition is curious indeed. The originator of this other “Remove and replace the mural of Winston Churchill in Croydon” is someone who signs himself as N Siri, which seems likely to be the nom de plume of none other than Clark’s old campaign partner, and ex-councillor of Fairfield ward, the self-styled “founder of Croydon Momentum” and “JC’s DJ”*, Niro Sirisena.
Inside Croydon’s loyal reader will recall that Sirisena resigned as a councillor, abruptly, under a cloud last October after a “serious incident” that led to a by-election.
So, if anyone wants to feel as virtuously anti-racist as Messrs Clark and Sirisena, they have two petitions to choose from. In fact, why not sign both? I mean, really, why not? Every little helps, doesn’t it? We’ll soon shake off the yoke of oppression like this.
But if there’s one thing worse than a petition to do something tokenistic, it’s a petition to maintain the status quo. It’s unimaginative, it adds to the unedifying proliferation of stupid petitions, and it reinforces the unhelpful dichotomy that turns the “difficult conversation” that we need to have into an impossibility.
And there is something palpably pointless, isn’t there, in campaigning to not do anything?
Of course, there is just such a petition. It’s called “Keep the Churchill mural in Croydon”, and by the time of publication today, it had attracted 400 more signatures than the two other, “remove Churchill”, petitions combined.
As many in the Black Lives Matter movement have said, we need to have a difficult conversation. We need to look at who we celebrate in our public spaces and think very carefully about where we draw the line between acceptable and not acceptable, offensive and tolerable. These petitions appear to promote the avoidance of that conversation.
There is confusion in the ranks, too. The first comment on the “Keep the Churchill mural…” asserts, “Our history good and bad like any other countries can’t be changed”. This is a red herring. History is a construct. It is the past that can’t be changed. We know that keeping or removing a mural does not alter the past. Street art and public sculptures reflect the choices we make about the present, reflect what we want to celebrate (or at least tolerate). History lives in books, on websites, in schools and universities, and in our parks and streets and squares, and it is written, famously, by the victors.
But who can blame the writer for confusing the past and history when we have a Prime Minister who does the same? On Friday, Boris Johnson said, explaining his opposition to removing statues of slave-traders, “Those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”
This is the same Boris Johnson who, in 2010, as Mayor of London, cut spending on Black History Month from £132,000 to £10,000, so concerned was he about impoverishing the education of London schoolchildren.
Would it really be more educational to replace the statue of the slave trader and Conservative MP Edward Colston on his plinth in Bristol, or to put it in a museum and so treat Colson’s memory with the contempt it deserves? If it was really about education, we would put up statues of Hitler. After all, we must remember the Second World War, mustn’t we?
The thing is, it is not about education and most of us understand that.
Churchill was a war hero. Churchill was a war criminal. Churchill expressed racist views. Churchill called for a “united states of Europe”. Churchill sent armed troops to quell the Tonypandy strikers (though they never opened fire – the only miner to be killed was killed by a police officer). Churchill led a National government with Clement Atlee as his deputy. Churchill was a drunkard. Churchill was steadfast in his opposition to the white-supremacist Nazi German regime.
All these are true and all go to show that the simplistic celebrate Churchill/demonise Churchill dichotomy is unhelpful.
Indeed, as the Croydon Alderman, and former cabinet member for the arts, Timothy Godfrey, thoughtfully suggested when he heard of the various petitions, “To understand is not to approve. To admire the man is not to regret. Ireland. South Africa. Imperialism. More. But [Churchill’s] foresight and passion for a peaceful, democratic, united Europe has endured…
“Read the full speech that this mural is made up from. Churchill is a great Briton. Read up on the man to see his fatal flaws that enabled him to be the war leader we needed. Understand his history, where his values came from. What horrors that shaped him.”
The Croydon Churchil mural, on the corner of Park Street, was painted in 2016 by artist David Hollier, and is made up of words from one of the wartime leader’s most famous speeches, delivered in the House of Commons after the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940:
“I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government – every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.
“The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
A close look at the portrait might be helpful at this stage.
A characteristic of the artist David Hollier’s work is that his portraits are made up of words spoken by his subjects. Thus, the Park Street work is made up entirely of the “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech in which Churchill swore that we would never surrender to “the odious apparatus of Nazi rule”. That spirit is what the work celebrates.
The artist himself has said he has little truck with Churchill the man. While the tracksuited Little Englanders get themselves to London to “defend” Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, and perhaps try to tear down its neighbour Nelson Mandela (or, as it turned out, urinate on a memorial for PC Keith Palmer, who died tackling an armed terrorist), we should be, if not proud, then at least tolerant of a work which exhorts us to stand up against the brutality that the faux-patriot Yaxley-Lennonist tendency represents.
I would argue that Churchill’s role as the arch-Antifa of his day probably gives him a pass.
As for the petitions, feel free to sign any and all of them, if it makes you feel better. After all, that’s what they are for.
But perhaps we could have that difficult conversation first.
*For the avoidance of any confusion, JC here stands for Jeremy Corbyn, not Jesus Christ. DJ stands for disc jockey, not dinner jacket.
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