But will they ever put up a statue of Ken Livingstone?

If he revives London's transport, then a smiling bust of Ken should be placed in a tube station
  • @indyvoices

Whatever the new mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, may say, I shall be very surprised if Major-General Sir Henry Havelock and General Sir Charles Napier are ever banished from their plinths in Trafalgar Square.

Whatever the new mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, may say, I shall be very surprised if Major-General Sir Henry Havelock and General Sir Charles Napier are ever banished from their plinths in Trafalgar Square.

In the 140 years since their statues were first erected, they have twice resisted removal. In the 1930s there was some discussion of replacing them with admirals Beatty and Jellicoe, naval commanders at the First World War battle of Jutland. But the soldiers stood firm and instead the naval heroes were commemorated by bronze busts on the north wall of the square.

Then there were plans to replace the Victorian soldiers with figures representing toiling railwaymen, merchant seamen and miners. But Havelock, who brokethe siege of Lucknow during the Indian mutiny of 1857, and Napier, who captured Sind for the Empire, didn't budge.

The fact is that we don't like putting anything away, even if the object has lost its purpose or we no longer know what it is for. To take some examples - the Privy Council has been redundant for more than 200 years, but it still meets and registers certain government decisions.

We only removed hereditary peers from Parliament the other day - and then not completely. The wearing of wigs has survived in the law courts. Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs remain figures of consequence in their counties.

We are the least revolutionary of peoples. Not since the 16th and 17th centuries, propelled as we were by religious fervour, have we pulled down monuments.

Ken Livingstone says that not one person in 10,000 going through Trafalgar Square knows anything about the two generals. I am one of the ignorant crowd. Yet statues are history lessons. The square was built in 1840 and it was envisaged that both Queen Victoria's immediate predecessors, William IV and George IV, would be commemorated with statues.

George IV's was built with the money which he had left for the work, but William's was never made because he hadn't made financial provision. In the case of the generals, however, their imposing bronze representations were financed by public subscription. Now that we ask, we learn that Havelock and Napier represented the evangelical nature of Victorian Britain at its most extreme: the righteous soldier. Havelock was a fervent Christian, puritanical and pompous yet brave, riding in front of his troops in the hottest of battles. It was Napier who, coming across a Hindu ritual burning of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre, instructed carpenters to build a scaffold. "You may go ahead," he told the mourners, "but in my country it is the custom to hang murderers and there are your gallows."

The supreme example, nearly 40 years later, was General Gordon, besieged in Khartoum and hacked to death, for whom Lytton Strachey remarked that two facts alone were significant: "there was the Bible and there was himself; and all that remained to be done was for him to discover the Bible's instructions, and to act accordingly." General Gordon's statue, by the way, is in Victoria Embankment Gardens. He is shown holding a Bible and under one arm he has the cane which he habitually carried.

I understand Mr Livingstone's point. He says that the people on the plinths should be identifiable. He could put the generals on a new site near the Thames - close to General Gordon. He's not going to melt them down. But while this is all so reasonable, it is not how such things should come about.

It's no use having consultations, as the mayor proposes. Such a procedure lacks all spontaneity. Some 7,000 people contributed to the erection of a statue of Field Marshall Montgomery in Whitehall. President Kennedy's bust in Marylebone Road was paid for by Sunday Telegraph readers. The desire to honour somebody publicly must form naturally. It was enough that a sufficient number of admirers wanted to commission a statue of Sigmund Freud and that five of his great-grandchildren unveiled it in 1970.

As for Trafalgar Square, I say wait. Probably long after Mr Livingstone's time, it will become obvious what great person, unknown now, should stand alongside Nelson's Column. Meanwhile, I have a suggestion. Please make sure that all London's statues are labelled so that as we gaze at them, we can learn such lessons as they teach, and admire - or not as the case may be.

As for Mr Livingstone himself, if he succeeds in reforming and reviving London's transport system, then I propose that a smiling bust of him be placed in an underground station, say Holborn, where these days you must queue out in the street to enter the station.