Imperial reminders: Arguing about statues and commemoration in Oxford

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This report, produced as part of ETHOS WP4.3, examines UK opinion leaders’ understandings of justice and fairness in the commemoration of British history. The specific context is the city of Oxford, whose history and heritage has recently come under criticism for its role in British imperialism and its contemporary complicity (at a minimum) in the promotion of an colonial view of Britain’s place in the world. The study explores how tensions between different justice claims, especially those relating to racial, ethnic and class categories, emerge in the context of British imperial commemoration. As in previous ETHOS reports, recognition, redistribution and representation constitute the main analytical framework of the investigation, but attention is also given to other ideals of justice which play a central role in the debates analysed.
Opinion leaders’ views were collected by means of a fictitious vignette describing the projected renovation of a central statue representing Lord Mountbatten, last Viceroy and first Governor-General of India, who oversaw the violent partition of India and Pakistan and was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1979. Eight semi-structured interviews were conducted with Oxford residents between December 2018 and January 2019. All participants exerted influence as political activists, including on social media, or were engaged in the arts or held a position of esteem and respect. Interviews followed a semi-structured format, alternating readings of the vignette with general questions designed to elicit views on the events described. Each interview lasted approximately an hour and was audio recorded and transcribed.
The analysis of discourses reveals that commemoration is simultaneously perceived as a local, national, continental and global issue. However, these territorially defined scales of justice are linked and blurred by frequent allusions to non-territorial communities such as the Black, South Asian or Irish diasporas. In addition to redistribution, recognition and representation, ideals of restoration, reproduction and deliberation play a prominent role in philosophies of commemoration. Discourses evince a consensus on the framing of Mountbatten as a symbol of colonial violence feeding into contemporary racism. This understanding coexists with a much more controversial one that emphasises the preservation or reproduction of White British culture. Restorative, anti-racist and reproductive commemoration is generally discussed as a form of deliberation which should be underpinned by principles of normativity, relevance and publicity. Normatively, it should focus on events from which moral lessons can be drawn due to their positive or negative implications for the parties involved. Relevance should be measured based on an event’s capacity to explain present social structures or its centrality to the collective identities of those involved in remembering it. Publicity refers to the correspondence between the intended effect of commemoration, its audience and its context-specific meaning. Participants offered detailed views on the interaction between substantive, formal, descriptive and symbolic representation in decision-making on commemoration. The formal procedure of public consultation was understood as a necessary but not sufficient condition for substantive representation to take place, especially among racialised, working-class or younger citizens. The notion that personal characteristics tended to generate specific experiences and perspectives was widely accepted, but nearly all participants acknowledged that considerable ideological diversity may exist within a given social category. They also considered that various forms of protest in the vicinity of controversial statues could enrich political debates but disagreed on how disruptive, provocative and respectful of public property they should be.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019

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  • Migration Mobilities Bristol


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    Anderson, B. & Dupont, P.


    Project: Research, Parent

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