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Rewriting history in 2021

Robert Jenrick wants to make sure you definitely don’t look at his track record and preferably look somewhere else instead, says KEITH FLETT

COMMUNITIES Minister Robert Jenrick announced in the Sunday Telegraph in mid-January and subsequently in the House of Commons that he plans to make any changes to historic statues and monuments subject to planning laws.

The considerable number of statues and monuments that are already protected (mainly against property developers) are already subject to law. 

The historian Dan Hicks tweeted that he doubted that statues which are not already covered would be found to be worthy of being so.

This did not stop Jenrick from using Trumpian language. Anti-racist protesters were described as a “baying mob” while democratically elected local councillors became a “cultural committee of town hall militants and woke worthies.” 

If we were to lower ourselves to Jenrick’s level what he is actually proposing is to override local democratic processes with decisions by a coterie of racist Tory ministers.

Jenrick is right that British history should not be censored. I wasn’t aware that anyone was arguing this, but just in case, it’s worth keeping in mind the family history of Tory MP Richard Drax who has been less than keen for his links to Barbados sugar plantations (which he now owns) to be in the public domain (although they now are).

The wider point is that Jenrick was trying to launch the first Tory culture war of 2021. 

In this case perhaps the aim was to distract from his own woeful performance as housing minister which is what he is actually meant to be doing.

It wasn’t a very good attempt, as his statement rambled on about plans to protect the wider built environment and cited the late poet and architectural critic John Betjeman as an example of the model he wanted to follow. 

While Betjeman may have seemed like a Tory, in fact he realised that the battle against profit-led developers required a wider approach. 

He appeared, for example, in a Labour Party TV broadcast in 1962 talking about the matter.

Further bad news for Jenrick came when the City of London Corporation, not normally associated with left-wing socialist views, announced the results of a consultation it had run on Black Lives Matter. 

It plans to remove two statues of politicians at the London Guildhall who had associations with the slave trade. 

It is also reviewing other statues and place names in the Square Mile of the City.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic in the days before the end of his presidency on January 20, Donald Trump published a document on US history from a body he set up in autumn 2020 — the 1776 Commission. 

It was a response to the earlier 1619 Project which had focused on issues of racism and slavery in US history. 

Perhaps needless to say, given it was Trump, none of the people responsible for the document were historians. They were all right-wing ideologues.

Joe Biden talked in his inauguration address about the need to tackle “systemic racism” in the US. 

Socialists will query how much he will actually do about it, given his previous record as Barack Obama’s vice-president.

One thing that was done, however, on the day Biden took office was that the 1776 Commission report which the Trump White House had posted online just a few days before was taken down.

Its wording sounded curiously familiar. It claimed the US was “the most just and glorious country in all of human history — the nation’s great founding truth. But anti-Americans are disregarding this great patriotic truth.” 

Replace US with Britain and you have the present British government’s position.

Taking down statues is hardly an important task for 2021 but calling out right-wing attempts to rewrite history remains important.

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