Boris and Benn form an unlikely plinth alliance

Sir Keith Park was a hero of the Second World War, a New Zealander who played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain by commanding RAF squadrons in the defence of London.

Yesterday, more than 30 years after his death, Sir Keith was plunged into another tussle for the heart of the capital as a row over Trafalgar Square's empty fourth plinth sparked a furious standoff between some of the country's most eminent statesmen, historians and artists.

In one of the unlikeliest alliances of recent times, the idea of erecting a statue of the war hero alongside Nelson's Column as a permanent reminder of the nation's erstwhile defenders has been mooted by Boris Johnson, the Tory MP and candidate for London Mayor, Tony Benn, the stalwart socialist politician, Norman Tebbit, the Conservative peer, and Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrats' mayoral hopeful.

But fighting the proposal with equal bombast is a group which includes the current Mayor of London, Labour's Ken Livingstone, the Tate Gallery director, Sir Nicholas Serota, and the White Cube gallery's Jay Jopling, as well as the artists such as Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry. They insist that a rolling series of contemporary artworks, which has featured Marc Quinn's naked and pregnant statue of Alison Lapper, best suits the plinth's function.

After days of political barbs between the two camps, tensions exploded yesterday as Mr Paddick turned up to a photocall in support of the statue of Sir Keith, only to chastise Mr Johnson for his absence. "It's a pity Boris Johnson can't be bothered to turn up to this important event," he said. "It is time he put his money where his mouth is. The statue is an important recognition of the bravery of all the veterans of the war."

The Tory mayoral campaign group responded: "He thinks we don't celebrate our history enough and we do not pay due tribute to people who have shown bravery in the past."

Terry Smith, the campaign leader for a statue of Sir Keith, said he strongly believed that the plinth should be dedicated to commemorating the "defenders of the nation".

Not one to be left out, Mr Livingstone also weighed in, explaining that, while he supported the idea for a memorial to Sir Keith, he believed the present rotational system of changing artworks on the plinth ought to continue. "Sir Keith Park's contribution to defeating Nazi Germany has not been recognised and I support efforts to identify a suitable location in the capital," he said, but added that he was fully backing the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group's rotation plans.

The debate has not only exercised the city's politicians, however. It has also reignited concerns among the artistic community about the purpose of the fourth plinth, with comments from several leading figures hinting at a backlash to the controversial contemporary works that have hit the headlines in recent years. This year's six submissions include a burnt car transported from Iraq by Jeremy Deller, a podium for public debate by Gormley and a sculpture of meercats by Tracey Emin.

Terry Smith said: "The square was built to commemorate those who saved the nation and defended it. It was not intended as a contemporary art fair."

The historian Antony Beevor, another signatory, alongside the broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore, added: "Meercats would be fine in the Tate, but I'm not sure how suitable they would be at a memorial site.

"It depends to what degree you think gimmick art, which has sometimes been referred to as 'Kleenex art', is going to endure."

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