Woke activists, take note: there is no public appetite for erasing British history
The people of Sheffield can see that changing street names is both a senseless and a pointless endeavour DAVID ABULAFIA 4 December 2021 • 5:00pm
The good people of Sheffield have decided they would rather keep the names of streets that commemorate individuals associated by activists with the slave trade and other imperial ventures. Some people are supposedly tainted by family association, including Gladstone, who also supported compensation for slave owners after abolition – but would abolition have been politically possible without this enormously costly concession? Even George Canning, who opposed abolition, is acceptable to the citizens of Sheffield. Cancel culture is imposed wherever activists have the chance; but the public simply does not want it.
The sheer pointlessness of excising names should be, but never is, obvious to activists. If people’s names are forgotten, what will happen to the memory of the acts of which they are accused? Actually, it is physically impossible to excise their names. Take the case of libraries. In Oxford, the Fellows of All Souls, who include some of the cleverest people in the land, seem to have forgotten that each and every book acquired before Codrington’s name was removed from the great library he endowed carries his name on the book plate. Meanwhile Codrington College in Barbados, which he founded in the hope of benefiting the Afro-Caribbean population, has no intention of renaming itself.
Another library under pressure to change its name is the Seeley Historical Library in Cambridge, easily the best undergraduate history library in the country. Whereas Codrington’s library is housed in one of the most magnificent buildings in Oxford, the Seeley is nowadays housed in a hideous structure designed by James Stirling in the 1960s. It was established by the nineteenth-century Regius Professor of History Sir John Seeley. He has long been forgotten, apart from his remark that the British Empire was acquired ‘in a fit of absence of mind’, and one might have thought that his opponents would simply accept that he has faded into obscurity. No students ever noticed that his motto, emblazoned on the glass doors of the library, is IMPERIUM ET LIBERTAS, ‘Empire and Freedom’, but of course even elementary Latin has not been required for admission to Cambridge for over half a century. Is every volume to have all its book stamps solemnly blotted out with cleansing fluid?
What happens when the activists scale everything upwards from Codrington and Seeley to bigger institutions? There is no known evidence that its name deters people from applying to Imperial College. The story used to circulate that at the time of the proposed (and failed) merger with University College London the negotiators from Imperial proudly argued that the new institution should adopt one name from each college – Imperial from Imperial and College from UCL.
All this is a great opportunity for branding companies. When I put those two words into Google I was informed that there were 1,870,000,000 relevant sites. Admittedly, the industry is a little smaller than that; but the passion for rebranding is based on a false premise, as I realised this week walking through the streets of Cambridge. The present fashion among students is for padded jackets emblazoned not with a ghastly college logo (my own college uses a silhouette of its well-known Gate of Honour) but a good old-fashioned coat of arms.
In any case, none of this is much consolation to the residents of my own street, Trafalgar Street, if Nelson and his achievements are deemed unacceptable. No one is going to pay me for the time and effort in notifying every website, office or institution across the world where my address is recorded; and the dragon in Cambridge Post Office who recently, in defiance of Royal Mail rules, refused to hand over a parcel addressed to my wife because I showed her a utility bill in my name, but not hers, will have even more cause to hold on to mail addressed to a street that no longer exists. And this problem will then be replicated thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times, in homes, shops and offices across the country.
Since the public is opposed to changing street names, new politically correct names will have to be imposed from above. How long will they be deemed acceptable? The Russian case is instructive: Stalingrad has already disappeared from the world map, and Peter the Great has won back Leningrad. The best way to deal with people and events whose reputation is now being questioned is actually to preserve their name so that their admirers can admire and their detractors can luxuriate in the sinister pleasure they find in detraction.