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“This land is your land, this land is my land” – so sang J. Lo at the inauguration ceremony of President Joe Biden. It was a moving performance about the soul of American people and their country, straight after a particularly stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by Lady Gaga.

A soothing balm it seemed after intense turmoil in that great country. Culture wars, identity, the flag, history, monuments, statues – every certainty and every norm was being challenged. It leapt across the Atlantic and we began to look at our own history, our own revered figures. Statues to which we had scarcely paid any heed were now the target of angry crowds. In response, the Government has evolved a policy of ‘retain and explain’ – keep the statues and provide more information so that the history is put in context, without hiding aspects that we today would find unacceptable. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has called for a “considered approach” and also took the opportunity to take a swipe at “town hall militants and woke worthies” and “baying mobs”. We shall soon see the first test of this as Oxford University has decided to have the (in)famous Rhodes statue moved to a museum, while other dons are opposing this.

What is the right policy for Conservatives in this area? In a Britain that is diverse, with communities whose forefathers hail from all over the world, and with fourth and fifth generations of these communities living and working in every town and every profession, how does the Conservative Party deal with culture, history and identity?

I sought to explore this in my own town to see what people thought. Addiscombe is a ward in Croydon in South London. The East India Company (EIC) used to own much of the land here, wherein was located their military college. Here young cadets would be trained and sent around the world to manage all aspects of the EIC’s army – a huge force that helped conquer many countries and build the British Empire. Several streets here are named after historical figures connected with Empire – Havelock, Elgin, Clyde. Having lived in this area for more than 30 years, I had only vague knowledge about this history. On occasion I may have mused about a lad trained in Addiscombe fighting against my great-great-great-Grandfather in the Anglo-Sikh Wars of the nineteenth century – no more than fleeting thoughts and mild curiosity. Looking into figures such as Havelock, one discovers their activity in crushing the Indian Mutiny of 1857. It was war, terrible things happened – I confess that this did not, however, move me to anger. 

I arranged an event to discuss the matter with local people. What did they think of this local connection with Empire? How did they feel about these street names? Is there a desire for more knowledge, for displaying more information, for changing street names? There were no pre-conditions. Publicising the event and sending out invitations revealed some interesting responses. A few balked at the very idea of discussing this, some verged on hostility, all were interested and engaged. Two experts were invited – a professor of history in this area and a think tank director who has much expertise in history and identity. Step one: present the facts. The professor laid out the history of the EIC and the local connection. Through this dialogue with attendees, some interesting themes emerged. First, this issue can be addressed in a way that includes people in the process. The very act of inclusion reduces hostility. Secondly, no matter the views initially held, learning about the facts was enlightening for all. Two primary school teachers in the audience expressed a desire to be able to teach more about the history of Empire to their classes of very diverse students. The consensus was that more local information should be displayed about this history, and more should be taught in schools. No-one wanted to change any street names.

What do we learn from such experiences that helps us to formulate a liberal conservative approach? At heart ‘culture wars’ are about identity. I believe the outcome desired is not the removal of statues, unless there is a particularly egregious example for which the case has been made. Ways must be found to make people feel included and valued through monuments in the public realm. Therefore, create new monuments and plaques that reflect figures in modern Britain, just as those of previous eras raised statues of notable figures of their time. Include local people in the process – it leads to wise and accepted outcomes. And knowledge is not to be feared. We need much more open, honest teaching of Empire in school curriculums. 

If we are to avoid the American intensity of the culture wars, we have surely learned that facts are the place to start.

Jeet Bains is a member of Bright Blue and a councillor in the London Borough of Croydon and was a parliamentary candidate in the 2019 general election. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Kwh1050]