Flying the flag for racism: It's time to get rid of unsavoury 'memorials'

Why do statues and flags matter? Because, when displayed outside universities or government buildings, they're statements of a community's values

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The Independent Online

Even as the dead were mourned and the suspect apprehended, the chosen flag of confessed Charleston shooter Dylann Roof was still on display outside South Carolina state house. As The Daily Show host Jon Stewart noted in an unusually sombre monologue last week, “The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named for Confederate generals – and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him.”

In Britain we may shake our heads despairingly at America’s lax gun laws, but this proud, public flag-flying is a different matter. That isn’t a peculiarly American madness, it’s a hypocrisy that this country too should recognise.

The widely circulated photographs of Roof picture him not only posing in front of his car with its Confederate-flag number plate, but also wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of two different, defunct, racist regimes. One is that of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the other of apartheid-era South Africa – both states founded according to the ideals of the British imperialist and white supremacist, Cecil Rhodes. This is the same Cecil Rhodes, mind, who in Britain is still uncritically commemorated by the Rhodes Arts Complex in Hertfordshire, Oxford University’s Rhodes Scholarship, and a statue that stands outside Oriel College, Oxford.

In April, students at the University of Cape Town successfully campaigned to have a statue of Rhodes removed from their campus, and, since then, Oxford University has had its own branch of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign – though so far without much success.

Why do statues and flags matter? Because, when displayed outside universities or government buildings, they’re statements of a community’s values.

Those who argue to keep these “memorials” in place would pretend that their shameful symbolism has been forgotten or softened over the decades; that Cecil Rhodes is just another Victorian gentleman and that the Confederate flag is just a neutral fashion choice. The actions of the violent terrorist Roof have shown just how misguided this thinking is.

Pack up Parliament

There’s no ignoring it any longer; the Palace of Westminster – aka the Houses of Parliament – is falling down. The official report out this week reveals that Big Ben is on the wonk, an infestation of moths nibbles holes in the ministers’ smartest suits and the whole thing is slowly subsiding into the Thames. So, what’s to be done?

For MPs the least disruptive option would be to stay put while renovations take place, but this is also the most expensive, costing at least £5.7bn and delaying completion of the work by 26 years or so. More sensible would be to decamp into the nearby QEII building for six years (as the IoS reported two months ago), a structure so impressively ugly it could seriously damage the reputation of British democracy. Why not, suggests Labour MP Graham Stringer, make this the time to decentralise British government, by moving it out of the Westminster bubble and into the real Britain? Like Manchester, say?

The fact that this latter scheme has been irritably dismissed by ministers as “utterly impractical” does much to recommend it. The move would also provide a happy chance to “lose” the statue of colonial pillager Robert Clive (“of India”) that stands outside the Foreign Office. Yet this is still thinking too small. The dilapidation of the seat of British democracy offers a once-in-a-millennium opportunity. We cannot waste it.

Speaking of wastage, residents of social housing estates long-denied refurbishment due to budget restraints may wonder where the Government will dig up the necessary billions. Campaign group Generation Rent has suggested that the taxpayer could save £120m per year if the palace were turned into affordable housing. Or why not steal from the rich to help the poor residents of Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar? The London estate is earmarked for demolition, despite the objections of prominent architects who treasure it as a Brutalist masterpiece. Savings made from an MP move would easily pay for the estate to be refurbished.

With so many great ideas around, it’s crucial that the decision isn’t left to MPs and peers. We need an X Factor-style public vote: Where should politicians spend the next six years? Text “A” for Luton bus depot; “B” for Chessington World of Adventures; or “C” for any available industrial estate off the M65.

Party island, anyone?

It’s the horror movie script that writes itself: thousands of intoxicated revellers remain trapped on an otherwise uninhabited island at a never-ending techno rave. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot. But that hasn’t stopped British dance-music promoter Sound Channel from acquiring Obonjan, off Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, and announcing plans to turn it into a permanent party island. “Our vision,” it says, is to “turn the island into a truly unique concept, combining art and music, wellness, sustainable living, amazing food and drink and fun and creative accommodation.”

Readers of this mission statement will now be roughly divided into those who are already planning a fire poi routine for their stay and those who’d rather spend two weeks locked in a Portaloo than go anywhere near it. But perhaps arguing is missing the point. This is neither a heaven nor a hell for the holidaymakers; it’s an ingenious Brits Abroad quarantine to spare the rest of the Mediterranean our notorious bad behaviour.

There’s not the remotest hope

In the year 3015, when social historians look back on the labour-saving innovations that ultimately transformed us into a shapeless blobs of fat and wasted muscle, will the car get the blame? The microwave? At least these involve some physical exertion. Now behold “Mind Control TV”, an invention being trialled by the BBC which allows users to change the channel using only their brainwaves. We might as well give up all attempts to tackle obesity now. This is the end.

Is it Boris the Banned?

He told a black cab driver to “fuck off and die”, and is gearing up for yet another clash with the Tube drivers’ union over plans for all-night service. Have we considered that Boris Johnson cycles everywhere, not because he’s concerned about his health or the environment, but because no other form of London transport would agree to give him carriage?

Twitter.com/@MsEllenEJones

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