A Monumental Waste of Time

PAUL THOMAS on Leeds City Council’s review of public statues.

Leeds City Council’s review of statues, ordered after June’s Black Lives Matters protests, has found that only 10% of respondents supported the removal of any statues or the review as a whole.

Speaking to the YEP, Honorary Alderwoman Alison Lowe, who led the review, said that she “was surprised there were so few people wanted change”. She also said that, following the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, that “there was a belief, no fact (my emphasis), that lots of black people were angry about statues” and “a perception” that they would want to “get rid” of some. But, she admitted, “people were not really that interested”.

But where did such “surprise” and “belief” come from? After all, prior to the BLM protests, there was no longstanding issue about the city’s statues. Leeds residents were not obsessing over symbols of the past.

However, like a student union official in desperate search of ‘micro-aggressions’, to make it seem as if the review wasn’t a complete waste of time it did find that, while none of the statues were of individuals connected to the slave trade, “many were the beneficiaries of hereditary wealth and colonialism”. Which is hardly news regarding Victorian monuments. But the implication that these factors are somehow problematic today seems to ignore both the democratic progress and the actual decolonisation that has taken place over the decades that they’ve stared out at the world from their plinths.

The report also highlighted an architectural frieze at 18 Park Row, created around 1900, which includes an image of an African in a loincloth lifting a bale, which the report considers “degrading to black people”. But the image isn’t a representation of all black people, but is rather an outdated image of an African labourer in an artwork that depicts stereotypical images of workers and traders from all over the world, including Native American Chieftains and Chinese merchants, obviously reflecting the times in which it was created. Nevertheless, it was concluded that this and other works may need a “modern refresh to give fuller historical connect to why they are there”.

But, whatever the findings, why did Leeds Council feel pressurised in the first place by a BLM movement – which actually states “we do not claim to speak for anyone but ourselves” – into wasting public time and money on this review? Though, to give them some credit, at least they did consult us. Unlike in other UK cities where statues have been removed and buildings renamed without any public discussion.

Monuments and statues tell us something of their time that can be important to remember. Once erected, no statue has to remain in place forever. What is on public display should always be up for discussion, based on historical importance and aesthetic quality. And new monuments will always be erected to represent who or what current generations think should be honoured or celebrated, and which future generations may also object to.

So, it’s right that councils consult the public on what stands in the public square. But that consultation should not be based on a kneejerk reaction to unrepresentative political movements.

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon public discussion forum.


  1. I’m not so sure that Paul is right. Here are a few thoughts.

    1. In the Yorkshire Post article Alison Lowe is reported as saying “There was a belief, no facts, that lots of black people were angry about statues”. Surely she is saying that there were no facts (plural) to back up the belief. A good reason to go and find out, then. Paul’s quote is “a belief, no fact,” (his emphasis), suggesting that Alison took it as an established fact that “lots of black people were angry”.

    2. Paul thinks that Leeds City Council were “pressurised” into holding a review of statues. However LCC are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of public statues in Leeds. They have to clean off any graffiti. It would advisable to find out if any of these statues were likely to give offence.

    3. Paul refers to a group of activists who lay no claim to speak for others as “a BLM movement”. Black Lives Matter is much more than any group or organisation. It is a response by many people, not just black, to recent issues such as the increased use of stop and search by the Metropolitan police, the Home Office’s cruel treatment of members of the Windrush generation, and the way in which Covid has exposed inequalities in the UK and disproportionately affected the black community. The death of George Floyd in America at the hands of the police was the spark which set off an international protest..

    4. Paul quotes a figure of only 10% of correspondents supporting the removal of statues. But removal is not the only remedy which has been proposed by BLM supporters. Of those consulted in the report, a third suggested more statues or artworks to make for greater diversity. The full results of the survey and a list of specific suggestions can be found in an appendix to the report.See: https://democracy.leeds.gov.uk/documents/s210870/Statues%20Review%20Report%20Appendix%201B%20091020.pdf

    Unlike Paul, I recommend the report to readers.

    1. Ian,

      Thank you for your comment. To come back on some of your points:

      1. Alison Lowe says that “there was a belief” not backed by fact, that following the toppling of the Colston statue that “lots of black people were angry about statues” So, therefore, there was no “good reason to go and find out” anything..

      2. As the Review states, it was commissioned “following recent protests”. So, yes, I think Leeds CC felt pressured into holding it. Though it may have been the case based on their above-mentioned existing “belief” that they easily, or keenly, acquiesced to spending public time and money on the Review.

      I also don’t see why it would be “advisable to find out if any of these statues were likely to give offence” following the Council having to clean-off the graffiti left by the protestors. Give offence to who exactly – the vandals who graffitied them? Offence is entirely subjective and, today, ever-expanding amongst a small minority of activists actively searching for it. The Review itself is an example of such offence-seeking. If what is “likely to cause offence” has to be actively searched for then it’s not really a problem is it?

      3. You missed out from you list of what BLM is meant to stand for its opposition to capitalism and the nuclear family. Also, as BLM first came to public attention a few years back stopping people from flying abroad, maybe you could add environmentalism too. But whatever they stand for, as I quote, they do not claim to speak for anyone but themselves, so why did Leeds CC feel any need to respond to their protests?

      As for your last line, I’ve clearly not recommended people to not read the report. I’ve questioned the point of wasting time and public money on conducting it in the first place.

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