There was a fifth member of the panel on Any Questions at the weekend, a heckler outside Reading Minster trying to disrupt proceedings. He was tolerated with evident good humour and Chairman Chris Mason even invited him to join the debate by phoning up Anita Anand on Saturday’s Any Answers. I couldn’t hear what the heckler was saying, although he seemed to be using a pretty big megaphone, but I thought I recognised the voice. I think he was the Remainer who used to disrupt the BBC newscaster on College Green night after night during the protracted Brexit debate. So I guess he was protesting about the presence of Nigel Farage on the Any Questions panel. A question arose relating to “The Colston Four”, the four defendants found not guilty of criminal damage, a jury verdict, despite the fact that they, and others, had clearly hauled Edward Colston’s statue off its plinth in Bristol, dragged it through the streets, and cast it into the harbour. Some people think this verdict was bizarre.
The SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC made the point that it was not the role of politicians to question the decisions of a jury whose members had sat throughout a case and heard all the evidence. As a former prosecutor she had frequently been enraged by apparently perverse jury verdicts, but had never felt it was her role or her right to question them. Nigel Farage took an opposing view. The fact that Edward Colston had been a slave trader, ergo monster, was neither here nor there. It might just as well have been a statue of Mahatma Gandhi that had been desecrated. It was as if it were not the Colston Four, but Colston himself, who was on trial. (When Mr Farage made this point I heard an echo of a similar remark once made by Bernard Levin who sat through the case of the Crown versus Penguin Books and the prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act for their publishing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was as if it were not Penguin, or even Lawrence, who was on trial, but Connie Chatterley herself.) Mr Farage thought this trial would have been unnecessary, if the police had done their job and stopped the mob from tearing down the statue in the first place. Well, the poor constabulary are always getting it in the neck. Either they pussy-foot around, or they are too heavy handed. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I remember seeing the footage of the toppling, the dragging, and the drowning of the Colston effigy and thinking there was something biblical about the scene. The destruction of a graven image. At least it was an inanimate object, and not a living being. However, Mr Farage took a dim view, and told us to expect to see many more similar episodes of public disorder.
Irrespective of whether or not Colston was a rotter, was his statue any good? I mean, was it a work of art? People have been minded for decades now to remove all the statues from Glasgow’s George Square. You might say that George Square, at the heart of the second city of Empire, is the absolute epicentre of the worldwide trade in tobacco, cotton, sugar, slavery, abuse, dominion, and exploitation, all celebrated in the statuary of various historical worthies. Yet the only popular demonstration against any of it is the placing of a traffic cone on the head of the Duke of Wellington, in nearby Royal Exchange Square. The only reason I can think of, that George Square remains unmolested, is that Her Majesty’s Sculptor in Ordinary, Alexander Stoddart, wrote a detailed account of the artistic merits of each George Square statue, one by one, in a blistering attack against Philistinism, second only in its eloquence and effectiveness to Mr Stoddart’s equally scathing letter to The Herald, at the time of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, condemning the intention to demolish the Red Road flats as a coup de théâtre during the games’ opening ceremony. It never happened.
What a blessing we live in a part of the world where you can debate these issues freely, stand outside a public hall with a megaphone, voice an opinion uncensored on air, and, should you become rash and hot-headed, be faced with a policeman who does not pull a gun on you, but says in a conciliatory tone, “Now just calm down, sir.” And, if needs must, one can expect to have a fair trial before a jury of one’s peers. I would feel a lot safer attending a demo in George Square than in Tiananmen Square. But we shouldn’t take it for granted. If HMG were minded to send the tanks to George Square, it wouldn’t be the first time.