28th June 2020

I Campaigned Against the Gladstone Petition. I Was Wrong To Do So

Opinion pieces are the view of the author and in no way reflects the view of the Liverpool Guild Student Media or Liverpool Guild of Students.

In 2018, I campaigned against the petition to rename Gladstone Halls. I was wrong to do so. Here’s why…

First of all, I don’t mean this article to serve as an expression of white guilt or as a request for forgiveness. I simply wish to demonstrate the ways in which we, as white people, are blind to racism. My involvement in this campaign, a campaign which prioritised outrage over the commemoration of statues and names over contemporary police violence and discrimination serves as a prime example of this privilege. What we choose to make our fight is ultimately an expression of our environment and how we see ourselves. It is no surprise then that those of us who have never experienced racial violence or discrimination have a warped sense of what is important when it comes to remembering our imperial legacy. Whatever anxiety we may feel over historical commemorations of colonialism is irrelevant when it comes to the experiences of people of colour today.

The History of Gladstone

For some context, in 2017, Liverpool students Tinaye Mapako and Alisha Raithatha launched a petition to re-name Gladstone Halls following its refurbishment. Although I was successful in the campaign to resist the name-change, the issue came up again this month following the death of George Floyd and the University has taken the decision to change the name.

Many debates can be had over whether the good outweighs the bad when it comes to Gladstone’s legacy. I still believe Gladstone achieved many great things, including extending franchise, fighting for home rule and laying the basis for the welfare state. I also still believe it is important to distinguish contentious figures like Gladstone from more obviously abhorrent figures like Colston or Rhodes. However, to single out only the vilest historical figures is to miss the point.

Racism, like any other form of prejudice, isn’t something created by individual figures, but a systematic problem which we all uphold with our complicity. William Gladstone was not himself a slave owner. But his maiden speech in parliament was a defence against allegations that his father mistreated his slaves. Gladstone may not himself have been a proponent of slavery, but in a speech in Newcastle in 1862, he expressed support for the South in the American Civil war, by declaring that the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis “had made a nation”. He may not have made money from the traffic of human beings himself, but he was still the beneficiary of what is now equivalent to £9 million pounds as part of the reparations paid to his slave-owning father.

So, while it is important to note that Gladstone was critical of slavery, it should be noted that this was only at a time when support for abolition was popular. Rather than tackle slavery through force, Gladstone suggested that European powers use their influence with the Confederacy to promote the “mitigation, or if possible, the removal of slavery”. In 1863 Gladstone expressed concern that emancipation could not be won via civil war. The following year “he spoke with astonishment of the eagerness of the negrophilists to sacrifice three white lives in order to set free one black man, even after it was shown that there was no disposition among the negroes to rise to their own defence”. Gladstone supported the abolition of slavery, but the way he expressed this support is important.

A False History

In 2018, I made the mistake of viewing the changing of the name of Gladstone halls as an “erasure of history”. I no longer believe this bourgeois view that history comes from statues or commemorations. History isn’t made in records or names, it’s made in action. It’s made in the way we choose to remember our past. Gladstone may not have been a proponent of slavery himself but in putting his memory on a pedestal we are holding on to this false view of history that racism comes from individual people or individual acts and we are ignoring those who upheld it with their complicity. As Franz Fanon once said:

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”

Franz Fanon

When I first came to university, I very much came from the liberal perspective I described earlier. In politics, I believed you had those with abhorrent views and that the vast majority of people were reasonable and that any issue could be sorted in the great marketplace of ideas. That blinded me to the myriad of problems we face today, whether that be the marginalisation of trans people or racial violence. But transphobia, misogyny or racial violence are not the results of a “few bad apples”, they are upheld by the very structures of our societies.

Misogyny isn’t just upheld by virulent sexists, it’s held up by those who don’t speak out when their friend makes a sexist remark, it’s held up by those who are disgusted by women who refuse to shave their legs, it’s held up by those who ask women what they were wearing when they report sexual assault. Racism isn’t just held up by Colston or the KKK, it’s held up by white middle-class liberals, it’s held up by those who take more issue with a name change than they do the death of people of colour across the world.

Constance Markievicz

How we choose to remember our past determines the world we live in today. We could choose to focus our history on people like Gladstone or Robert Peel, I’m sure a strong case could be made that they achieved many great things. But who did they achieve those great things for? How did they go about it? Why are we remembering them at the expense of someone else?

Consider Theresa May’s unveiling of the statue of Nancy Astor last year. Many know Astor as our first female MP, as a pioneering figure who paved the way for women in politics.  But Astor was not the first woman to be elected as an MP. That honour goes to Sinn Fein’s Constance Markievicz who won a seat in 1918.

Constance took part in the Easter Rising, fought for women’s right to vote and campaigned against the First World War. Astor, by contrast, campaigned for temperance and expressed little support for the suffrage movement. She also remarked that Hitler would have to do worse than “give a rough time to the killers of Christ” for the UK to risk Armageddon to save them and that the Observer was full of “homosexuals and Jews”. So, why do we choose to remember Astor over Markievicz? Because Astor took her seat in parliament and Markievicz refused to do so. In other words, Astor better fits our worldview. That change is won slowly, through piecemeal parliamentary reform.

Westminster's first woman, 100 years on - Counterfire
Constance Markievicz, 3 years before her election

A Better Future

So, when it comes to debates over commemorations of our past, I simply ask you to consider why we remember the figures we do. Yes, it is true that not all historical figures are as loathsome as Colston. But they did very little to counter the colonialists or the fascists of their time.

Recently, there have been petitions to erect a statue of Marsha P Johnson, the LGBT rights activist and prominent member of the Stonewall Riots in her home town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in place of a statue of Christopher Columbus. Columbus’ history is murky and is the subject of much debate. But ultimately, Columbus is a leftover from a worldview we no longer recognise. I wholeheartedly endorse his replacement with Marsha P Johnson. Let’s not focus on remembering remnants of a colonial worldview but focus on the history worth remembering in order to create the world we want to create.

Feature Image Credit: Liverpool Guild of Students