The tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue, and the defacing of many others, is not new. Love them or hate them, statues of gods, saints, heroes, and prominent individuals have always littered our streets. For as long as they have been in public locations, we have also challenged them; from melting down old Roman emperors, to religious iconoclasm. However, as society becomes more secular, modern statues seem to fill an uneasy gap once filled by gods, saints, or dictators. Their position on our streets, and our problem with it, goes to the very heart of a wider problem which plagues history in politics – an obsession with ‘great men’.
The current challenges surrounding coronavirus, race relations, and even Brexit all have focussed on individuals: from Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, through to Winston Churchill, Edward Colston, and, although an uncomfortable comparison, George Floyd. My problem with these individuals is not that they are male, nor that the majority of them are white – a problem for a different debate. The wider issue is that they are all representatives of the Great Man Theory.
Before I try and justify a comparison between an infamous slave merchant and a black victim of police brutality, here is a quick insight into the theory. Put simply, it is the past through the lens of individual greats. Individuals who offer partial explanations for history, like Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing World War One, Hitler World War Two, or Napoleon the Napoleonic wars. It is the reason why we have multiple statues of Churchill, and goes to the very heart of how we imagine things to happen. And certainly, leaders or ‘great men’ can play important roles in human affairs.
However, just because these ‘greats’ are important, it does not mean that they are the most important factor in shaping human history. Moreover, while the theory is as old as history itself, the repeated failures of humanity shows that politics has not learnt from its flaws. Personally, I see these flaws as twofold: the Great Man Theory pits individuals as greater than the collective; and it turns people into binary and divisive figures.
That first factor is the most dangerous trap which we have fallen into recently. On a basic level, the removal of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol is representative of the backlash against ‘great’ men as the crowd tore down an individual. Yet while we challenge perceived ‘great’ men, we do so through the very theory which created them.
The current focus on slave trading individuals – as statues are reviewed across Britain – risks whitewashing the society they were a part of. Yes, Edward Colston transported 80,000 slaves across the Atlantic, but our focus should not be on him, but the millions whose lives were destroyed and the society which they invested in and deemed this acceptable. Moreover, we should not allow our obsession with great men to historicise contemporary issues, absolving modern factors of any blame. The very fact that Colston is being talked about, rather than institutional barriers to equality in opportunity, underlines this great flaw.
Similarly, as we remember George Floyd, we must not succumb to the ease of singling out the individual or his attackers, but remember him as a representation of the millions of black people who face injustice every day. Once the statues have been pulled down, and George Floyd’s killers have been brought to justice, is a continued focus on Great Man Theory really helpful as we try and tackle the wider problems which the individuals present?
This leads onto the theory’s divisive nature – and the anger growing within history and politics. But with space limited, I can only leave you with some more questions for History in Politics, rather than any answers. My first is whether we can do without individuals as quick explanations altogether? Looking at previous bouts of iconoclasm, monotheism, or the constant citing of Hitler or Churchill, I think not, but I would love to hear other interdisciplinary thoughts on the subject. Secondly, what is the link between individuals, the media, and politics, and is it inevitable that individuals will be singled out? Furthermore, if we can’t do without them, how can we avoid politics being so divided when it turns out these individuals weren’t so great? Historical characters seem to be much like my exes: far more complicated than merely good, bad, or ugly. Is there any way we can talk about them today without getting angry?