As the son of a refugee and migrant from India, it has always been an uncomfortable reality to observe the statutes of those people responsible for the killing and death of so many yet venerated in Britain. In recent month there has seen much controversy over the covering of the statue of Winston Churchill and toppling of others. The British Hero of World War II, has a romanticised position in the history of this country but his legacy in the former empire is that of a man who left 3 million to perish in the 1943 famine of Bengal by extracting India’s rice from its citizens for reserves for the British armed forces. Like him there are so many across this country which brought wealth and prosperity to this Island, at the cost of untold human suffering. Consider another favourite of our history, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. His car crash exit plan from the subcontinent led to millions of people being killed in what was an avoidable genocide. My father reminds me of the anarchy he witnessed as a young boy as the British left and let all hell break lose across India. At the ripe age of 84 he still has nightmares from his childhood of making the crossing to the new Pakistan with no safeguards of a partition thanks to the beloved Earl.
I think so many years on, civil society can reflect and take an objective view to some of these people who contributed to the emergence of wealth and development of Great Britain at the expense of so many others. The slave traders, the colonisers, the conquerors even, their veneration should be reviewed and in a modern civil society the reality of their contribution to the world revaluated.
However, I think there is a bigger challenge which we really need to confront, and that is what about the slave traders, the colonisers and the sponsors of genocide today? Isn’t it just a little bit of a convenient ‘cop-out’ as it were to settle for the dead, and toppling their statues. Surely if we want to challenge the evil that some of these people represent today, we should challenge the individuals and structures that continue their legacy?
Let us consider the reality of China. Xi, creates concentration camps, gets widespread approval, ironically even from the USA, who are now calling him out. Xi, is making slaves of free people TODAY. China is making our consumables and household favourites TODAY with slave labour, and we are buying it. If we care about challenging slavery, we should care about challenging the god father of contemporary slavery, President Xi, and we should be activists in not buying products made by the forced labour of the Uyghur of East Turkestan in China.
Let us consider the new love we have for the Gulf and its stunning towers and skyline. Let us all be very clear; these are generally made by immigrant workers who are in bonded labour. They lose their passports on arrival, are sent to prison like accommodation in the middle of the desert from where they will be shipped into the cities to work all the hours of the day in unparallel heat, simply to have their wages withheld for months at a time. We pretend we don’t know this, but we do notice in the corners of the glamorous hotels, their gardens and drive ways these exhausted men in jump suits, we just choose to look through them to the shiny car taking us out.
Maybe these examples are a little further away, let us consider the device many of you are reading this from. Time and again we see how Apple is caught out with its major suppliers using child labour to build our ultra-sexy £1000 phones. We are so consumed in having the shiniest new device, we lose sight of the almost annual expose of another Apple supplier being found out exploiting children for the components or assembling our most beloved mobiles.
My point here is simple, if we really want to deal with slavery, exploitation and brutal racism, the answer is not to be satisfied in topping the statutes of the fathers of tyranny across our cities, but rather in confronting the perpetrator of the same crimes, today. I personally welcome the countless statutes of those who ruined the lives of so many to be taken down, and not placed in museums but to be melted down and made into benches.
Today I would welcome further tough conversations on the way we deal with those that continue the legacy of some of those we want to remove from our city centres. Civil society has to make tough decisions and say no to fast fashion at the hands of our children, the tallest towers at the cost of the lives of ordinary immigrants wanting to simply earn enough to educate their children and no to the sexiest mobiles if it means children are taken away from their parents forever through landslides on Bangka Island!
Let us deal with the tyranny of today, as we are more accountable for that, than anything else.