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ThinkIn with James Harding: The battle for truth | Does truth even exist anymore and, if so, who owns it? Welcome to Season One of ThinkIn with James Harding

Rhodes Must Fall and the battle for truth

Rhodes Must Fall and the battle for truth


For a long time in the UK, the arguments about our modern-day responsibility for empire and slavery – the acknowledgements we might make, the debts we might owe – seemed muted. The silence came to a noisy end in 2016 with an argument over a tiny statue on the front of an Oxford college. It was a taste of bigger arguments to come.

Episode 1 in Season One of ThinkIn with James Harding, The Battle For Truth.


  • Bonnie Greer, author and critic
  • Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, author and Rhodes Must Fall activist
  • Max Hastings, journalist and historian
  • Zareer Masani, historian


James Harding: Hello and welcome to a ThinkIn with me, James Harding. Over the years I’ve come to love the arguments in newsrooms. Not just the reporting of the story, but the debates… sometimes the standoffs, those disagreements over what it means, what’s at stake. I suppose it’s because in those arguments – much more than in the meetings where we go over the newslist or where we commission stories – it’s in those arguments that you really find out what you do and don’t know. And in testing those different points of view, you come to a clearer sense of what you actually think. And a ThinkIn is intended to do just that: it’s intended to try and cut through the noise and the news, and come to a clearer sense of what to think.

It’s in the same spirit as a news meeting, I should say – it’s informal and it’s opinionated. And I suppose it’s got a chaotic logic of its own: it’s a system of organised listening. So welcome to this series of ThinkIns, in which we’re going to examine the Battle for Truth. In each one we’re going to relive a moment in the news, hear the competing arguments, explore what’s at stake and, well, here’s hoping, come to a better informed point of view.

Over the course of this series we’re going to talk, no doubt, about Big Tech. We’re going to talk about fake news and filter bubbles, but we can’t finger technology for everything. Some of the hottest arguments have been rumbling long before Facebook, long before Twitter were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

They’re out the truth of our past. So today in the Battle for Truth, we’re asking, can we trust our history? Because I suppose there’s this tendency to think that there’s a relationship between time and truth: that with the passage of time, we do get closer to an agreed truth. We trot out this phrase “a first draft of history”. And I suppose we hope that in the second draft, and certainly by the third or fourth, we’re beginning to get somewhere. We’re beginning to get at the truth. 

But the more you look around, the more you think that actually history is the essential battlefield. That is the home of the real cultural argument. That is the starting point for today’s arguments about truth, because we are disagreeing now more than at any time that I can remember about our past.

They appear in arguments about statues, whether it’s statues of Confederate generals in the South, in the US…

US Newsreader: When Mayor Jim Gray announced on Saturday, the day Charlottesville erupted in violence, that Lexington would take down two Confederate war statues here, he knew controversy would follow…

Mayor Jim Gray: There are still different points of view in my own…”

US news clip

Or the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol… 

“This statue of a 17th Century slave trade owner, Edward Colston, in Bristol stands no more. Protestors then dragged it through the street to the harbour…”

UK news clip

While arguments about singing Rule Britannia on the last night of the Proms, street names, army bases, concert halls, libraries, what goes in museums, where they go, should they be allowed in museums at all? And these arguments, of course, are anything but academic: they’re so passionate these days. And for good reason, because they’re not just about how we’re seen, who’s seen – they’re not just about recognition. They’re about restitution and about reparations. 

The Battle for Truth is a vast subject, one that defines each of us and the society we live in. And as you can imagine, when we try to think about how we tackle it… we were overwhelmed. We were struck by the fact that it’s just enormous. And so we tried a few different things. We thought, well, let’s slice it by theme. Let’s see if we can tackle particular ideas.

But in the end, we came to the conclusion, the real way to go after this was just to take a moment, to relive that moment, and then try to understand what it told us. What different people saw in it. What were the issues at stake? So in each of these six episodes, we take a moment in the news and try to come to a deeper understanding of what it means; what to think.

And we start today with this argument about whether we can trust our history, whether or not we’re honest with our past – with one symbolic argument about the history of the United Kingdom. The story of Rhodes Must Fall.

“A month ago, students actually started a protest with one of the students throwing excrement at the statues…”

“The protest movement that began in South Africa then got another statue of Rhodes outside Cape Town University removed…”

“The council decided last night to remove the statue, sparking widespread celebrations…” 

“Rhodes is Cecil Rhodes, a Victorian empire builder and philanthropist who endowed the Rhodes scholarships and whose statue stands outside an Oxford college…” 

“The statue’s of a racist, enslaving murderer. The architect of apartheid being uncritically honoured until now.”

“Rhodes must not fall, that is the verdict of the chancellor of Oxford, Lord Patten.” 

“But I don’t think that this issue should focus simply on Cecil Rhodes, whose endowment has produced 8,000 scholarships over the years.” 

“Put it somewhere else, don’t put it where it is going to offend us.” 

“But our cities are full of buildings that were built with the proceeds of activities – the slave trade and so on – which would nowadays be regarded as completely unacceptable.”

“For the second day cities across the country held rallies.”

“Take it down, take it down, take it down.”

Series of news clips about Rhodes Must Fall

As you’re going to hear, I struggled to keep this ThinkIn together. It was testy and urgent. And even when we’d wrapped up, people wouldn’t leave. There were just so many stories. There’s so much to say.But I came to – and I hope you do too – a clearer opinion about how the wealthy and powerful try to bribe history; try to write a cheque to posterity. About Britain’s self-defeating tilt to nostalgia, and its tendency to erase the crimes of empire in our telling of the past. And – spoiler alert – how people you might not expect do, in fact, think that Rhodes must fall.

So, what is this all about. What’s happened? What does it mean? Trying to make sense of this and to argue it out, I’m joined by Dr. Sizwe Mpofu-Wals, who’s an author and an activist and a founding member of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. He’s a postdoctoral fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg.

James: Sizwe, thank you for joining us. 

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh: Sorry, James, I missed the flow of the conversation – just to know who’s going where?  

James: Sizwe, the lucky thing is you don’t need to worry about that, because you’re first. 

Sizwe: Ah, perfect. 

James: Hello, Bonnie…

Bonnie Greer joins us. She’s a playwright and critic and she’s the host of Audible’s In Search of Black History with Bonnie Greer

Bonnie Greer: Crazy life, I’m telling you. I’ve become the unraveller of Britain as far as America is concerned. I don’t know why I got that… But anyway, so I’m living on EST and GMT at the same time. 

James: Bonnie, listen, thank you so much for doing this…  Professor Masani, hello. 

Zareer Masani: So Dr Masani. 

James: Doctor… It was a free promotion.

I’m joined, too, by Dr Zareer Masani, who’s also a historian and an author.

His latest book is Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist

James: We’re just waiting for Max, is that right? Oh, I can see Max. Max, hello – how are you? 

Max Hastings: I’m very well. I’m just sitting here writing about the Cuban missile crisis. 

James: Is that because you’re focusing these days on happier times?

And Max Hastings, who’s known to me, obviously, as an editor of great renown – national newspapers the Telegraph and the Standard. But these days are more and more consumed by writing history. And his most recent book is Chastised: The Dambusters. And as I was just hearing, he’s now stuck into the Cuban missile crisis. And then, too, by Ellen Halliday, who is my colleague, a reporter at tortoise. And between us I hope we’re going to try to make sense of Rhodes Must Fall.

James: Let me start by asking you though Sizwe, what should it tell us that these issues, these arguments in the United Kingdom, tend to be blown in from abroad, whether it’s George Floyd, or whether it’s an argument on a campus at UCT? What does that tell us about the way in which the British approach their history?

Sizwe: Well, I think it tells us how British history resonates powerfully in other places in the world. Particularly because of its colonial legacies. And when we look at the two places in question here, the United States, and the conflagration surrounding the death of George Floyd, and South Africa and debates about Cecil Rhodes, I think it’s no small coincidence that British colonialism and imperialism play a role in both of those territories.

So I think in many ways there are, perhaps in even more ways than in most cases, deep links between global history and British history. But I think it also shows us that part of the reason that Rhodes Must Fall resonates so strongly is because there’s a sense in which Britain hasn’t reckoned with deep questions of its past in the same way that certainly South Africa – and I would even contend places like the United States – have. I was shocked to find when I arrived at Oxford, expecting nuanced, developed, searching debate… that in fact debates about historical memory, public history, heroic statuary were actually decades in advance of where they are in Britain. And so I think what it also tells us is that unlike other places in the world, Britain is only really beginning to have an honest and a frank conversation about public memory, about history and about colonialism. 

James: And Sizwe what do you say to people though, who say, well, that that may be a fair critique of Britain and its relationship with its history, but what you want to do, what the Rhodes Must Fall campaign wants to do, is erase certain parts of British history. Take away the statue of Cecil Rhodes, and in the words of Boris Johnson, the prime minister, tell lies about the past. 

Sizwe: Well, this has been the constant refrain. As soon as Rhodes Must Fall emerged it was quickly framed and strawmanned into a movement to, quote, “erase history”. And this simply couldn’t be further from the truth and also betrays a profoundly impoverished understanding of history.

I think Cecil Rhodes’s current public memory owes, in no small part, a great deal to Rhodes Must Fall. We have, in fact, taught people more about Rhodes than any textbook, or I dare say historical work, in the last decade, at least in Oxford. So firstly, we have placed history on the agenda, but secondly, this question of history is a much more detailed one than simply the removal of heroic statuary.

Because I think we need to appreciate that statues don’t just represent history. Firstly, they represent a view of the past. Secondly, they represent the moment at which a statue is erected. They also represent the present, and how a heroic statue is interpreted in the present moment. And they speak about the future.

And what Rhodes Must Fall did was inaugurate a debate which brought into conversation all of those temporalities with the purpose, not only of bringing Rhodes’s as legacy into sharp relief historically, but also to suggest that the ways that we understand history through heroic and colonial statuary actually obfuscate history.

I would challenge anyone to name me one of Rhodes’s victims. The reason you can’t name one of Rhodes’s victims is precisely because they were erased from history. And so simply erecting statues without any form of nuance, without any context, is a way of preserving fairytales – to the cost of history 

James: Sizwe, I want to come back on that, and I want to definitely come back on your phrase, you know, the temporalities and how they should, or shouldn’t, inform the telling of history. But I can see that Bonnie wants to come in and Zareer too. Bonnie Greer…

Bonnie: I want to, first of all, add that I’m a former deputy chair of the British museum. I was on the board for eight years and I’m back there now at the invitation of the director to look at reclamation and all of its aspects. And we did this before BLM happened. I want to say something, respectfully, to my brother Sizwe. It’s very important to say, and it’s kind of been triggered by Max in a strange way, because when he started talking about the Cuban missile crisis, I suddenly thought I remember myself at school, you know, being told by the nun in our school – we had Black nuns who told us little Black kids, “you might not come back tomorrow”. You know, we’re thinking, oh my God, because Kennedy was going to make his address. We didn’t know what was going to happen. And I’m also thinking of the movie that just came out, Judas and the Black Messiah.

I worked with Fred Hampton in Chicago. I wasn’t the Panther – my brother was – but I served breakfast in Fred’s programme. And also when our school locked down, my university, to teach Black history, and this was 1969, Fred came and stood guard for us while we took over the school. So it’s not quite correct to say that these things haven’t been confronted before – they have. What hasn’t been dealt with is… What happens with people of colour, especially Black people, is erasure.

We’re not in charge of the way history is disseminated and who teaches it. So our younger generations don’t know sometimes all of the stuff that’s been going down, particularly in the Black British community, which has been extremely active over the last 30 years that I’ve been in the theatre and also here, in trying to bring up facts about British history and about Black British history, they’ve been extremely active in doing so. The only difference is most of them didn’t go to Oxford. So it wouldn’t have impacted necessarily on that campus, which let’s face it, is a little world in a way. 

James: Bonnie, then, can I just cut to the chase. Are you in favour of pulling down the statue of Cecile Rhodes?

Bonnie: It doesn’t get rid of Cecil Rhodes. I mean, if it did, if it just erased him completely, that that would be fantastic. It doesn’t.

James:. So you’re ambivalent about whether the statute stays up or goes? 

Bonnie: No, I mean, if people want to do that… but if their goal is to look at Cecil Rhodes again, or to even erase him, that’s not going to happen.

James: Zareer Masani, what do you make of this? 

Zareer: Well, I am sympathetic with a lot of what Bonnie’s just said. I have to disagree strongly with Dr Walsh, however, because I think the history of the British Empire is pretty widely taught at the moment. And we tend to hear quite a lot about the atrocities of the British Empire and its evils and much less about its positive legacies, which I’ll come to later as a historian.

I definitely feel the past is another country and we should not be sitting in judgment with our moral standards on Victorians like Cecil Rhodes, whatever his faults were. And I know he had them. Secondly, I think the governing body of Oriel must not be stampeded, as they were, by mob violence, into removing a statue of a benefactor without whose benefactions they may well not exist.

So I think at the moment as a commission, which is going to report – it’s had a large number of submissions. The process needs to be followed. There needs to be, in my opinion, more democratic consultation as well, such as the University Council, the City Council, and eventually the Secretary of State who represents the government we elect.

The other point I’d make is on an ethical level. I think whoever wants to remove the statues, and it includes institutions and Rhodes scholars, must be prepared to return that blood money, which they consider blood money, at today’s prices. So I would like to see Oriel do that. I would like to see Dr Walsh do that. 

James: Zareer, I just want to bring in Max Hastings, because it’s brilliant to frame the conversation and get a sense of different points of view on it. I want to hear Max what you think, and then I’m coming to you in a moment Ellen. Max? 

Max: I’ve got enormous sympathy with Sizwe, and also with some of the points made by Zareer and Bonnie.

I find myself, and I don’t think I’m alone among historians in this, very muddled in one’s thinking. First of all, all historians who are any good recognise that we are constantly reviewing the past. I often tell audiences, as soon as they see a book which has written on the jacket, “this is the definitive history” or “the definitive biography” – throw it in the bin because there ain’t no such animal.

So the revision of history is vital. Secondly, I think that nostalgia is one of the setting vices in Britain and accounts for many of the worst political decisions that get made in this country. Yes, I think those like Sizwe who argue that there has been a willful misreading of the past… I’m often amused, on all sorts of issues I write about, that one tries to get audiences to see things in a less nationalistic way. It’s bloody difficult, because they like clinging to an awful lot of old myths. I don’t think we should see all this, especially the statute issue, as just in the context of race. It’s in the context of a whole lot of other stuff.

In that, for instance, every time I walk up Whitehall, I see Whitehall dominated by the statues of Earl Haig and the Duke of Cambridge. Both of whom were among the most disastrous military figures in British history. And I’m sort of wryly amused by them – I’m not enraged by it. I just want it pretty odd, that we are sort of not too bothered about all that stuff.

James: Max to be fair that’s because most of us walk up Whitehall and have no idea who those people are. And the fact that Whitehall is celebrating incompetence on a colossal scale is, you know, is a joke or a dark joke that’s enjoyed by you… 

Bonnie: But they’re still there, that’s his point. They’re still there. 

Max: They are. 

James: No, no and Bonnie, I’m trying to make… I’m trying to make the point that it actually raises questions about the whole business of erecting statues and keeping them up at all.

Max: Let me give you one specific example about the study of history. I’m a vast admirer of Winston Churchill. I believe that his virtues far exceeded his vices, but I got in a bit of trouble when I first started writing about Churchill’s deplorable role in the 1943/44 Bengal famine. For many, many years I freely admit I too, like many of my generation, I was oblivious of all that whole issue.

Well, now that one is aware of it I must confess, I do feel an embarrassment – and there were other episodes too. I mean, there were famines in East Africa. 

James: Max, sorry. Can I just make a point about that? Because it cuts to Sizwe’s point about how you respond to that. Do you think that you therefore pull down the Churchill statues? Do you rewrite the current history of Churchill?

How do you get a calibrated view of the past? Because one of the arguments against Sizwe’s position is that it’s too binary. You’re either a, you know, you’re a good guy or a bad guy. And how do you deal with the full story of Churchill? 

Max: All the time… So the whole business of historians is nuance. It’s recognising, first of all, the whole history of mankind is the oppression of weaker people by stronger ones. So that’s nothing to do with race. That’s just the fact of how human beings behave towards each other. And secondly, I think most of us in the business, every day, of making judgments… of course, all human beings are flawed, including Churchill.

But to me, and to many others, although recognisingChurchill’s flaws, his virtues and his services to mankind vastly outweigh them. So, all the time, it’s a matter of nuances. One further small point I would like to make. I think it’s a dreadful mistake to allow students to decide any of these issues. The nature of being young is to be intemperate and irresponsible.

I don’t believe that the youngest should be allowed decisive votes on issues, many of which they’re incredibly ill-informed about, as we all were when we were their age. 

James: Well, let me, on that basis, invite the intemperate and irresponsible Ellen Halliday, who’s the youngest amongst us. What’s your view of this, Ellen? 

Ellen: I did want to say, I mean, I was a student of history at school, at university through four years of study and I would take issue with what Zareer said, that the British Empire is taught widely. The first time I encountered anything in the curriculum to do with empire was in the third year of my bachelor’s degree.

And that was having been in history faculties for several years. So I would take issue with that because it wasn’t something that I was exposed to. I was raised in a city built on slavery, arguably – Edinburgh. Educated in a school where the institutions included the names of former slave owners and none of that was ever discussed.

And in the topics that were in the curriculum, which included, of course, World War II several times through primary school, secondary school and so on… we talked about the home front, we talked about the Battle for Britain, but we didn’t ever talk about those other elements to Churchill’s legacy either.

So I can only speak from my experience, but I, as someone educated in the British school system, British universities, wasn’t exposed to those ideas for a long time.

So here’s where we go next. Few people are going to dispute the point that Max made, which is that history itself is always being revised. But the questions we’re going to look at now are these: who does the revising? Who holds the pen in the writing of history? What is the purpose of revising history? How much are we mollycoddled by nostalgia? How much is our version of the past an obstacle to future progress? 

And on what terms do we revise history? What are the risks of applying modern morals and contemporary political agendas to the past? After all, so many of those Confederate statues were put up, not right after the Civil War, but at the turn of the 20th Century, by segregationists in the South using the past to make a contemporary political point. 

I put it to Sizwe that he was just doing the same, trying to fight modern political battles and doing so by weaponising the past.

Sizwe: I actually think that the question of the Confederate statues actually only aides my point, because it shows how people advanced a certain narrative of history through the use of heroic statues – a narrative that was deeply embedded in white supremacy. And the exact argument is that the Rhodes statue at Oriel college is an exacting instantiation of that problem.

Why do I say that? And again, I allude here to Max who says that people are misinformed. People are very misinformed about the Rhodes statue at Oriel, and it’s a statue which I’ve given a great deal of study to. It was actually expressly demanded by Rhodes and the money came from Rhodes’s estate to build the statute.

It was an attempt by a person who had looted a great deal of Southern African wealth to bribe history into absolving his memory, and to suggest that allowing that to continue without any contextualisation is somehow an attempt to revise history or use the standards of the present to complicate the past… I think strains the bounds of credulity. The statue was put up for a very specific reason, that reason persists and it needs to be challenged and it hasn’t been challenged in over a century. 

James: Sizwe, can I just check – sorry, forgive me for interrupting – can I just check one thing? Are we then really having an argument about statues or about history?

Is this really just about the exceptional business of people with egos or causes that use plinths to try and advance their name or their interests? 

Sizwe: James… I think it’s about both and I think it’s about their interrelation. And I think it’s about the way that a specific genre of heroic statue, almost always displaying a great man and accentuating certain parts of their history while erasing other parts.

It’s about complicating how that contributes to any nuanced understanding of history at all. And so I think the two questions are linked and that’s exactly what Rhodes Must Fall actually did – beyond the way we were framed, which I think has constantly been extremely unfair, and we’ve been pathologised and demonised, often. We were trying to have a nuanced debate about history and public memory.

James: Can I just… I’m just worried because I can see Zareer on the screen… our listeners can’t… and he’s going to spontaneously combust. Will you respond and I’ll come back to your Sizwe. 

Zareer: Yeah. Firstly, I want to say, I just want to pick up a point of Max’s and I’m willing to send you chapter and verse on this Max, but Churchill was not responsible for the Bengal famine.

He, perhaps, should have done more, but he was fighting a world war and I will send you happily my article in The Critic, which details the grain statements, grain shipments he did make right through that period. But it’s an example of how people get demonised. I’m not an expert on Rhodes. I’m sure he did a lot of dreadful things. He also did a lot of positive things. In some ways helped to make the nation that is now South Africa. He helped to endow scholarships which have educated people like Dr Walsh. I think it’s a question of recognising someone as being a rounded personality with faults, as well as virtues. And I think what’s wrong with a lot of this debate it each applies to the whole empire debate is that people pick up on the atrocities – and there were occasional atrocities.

They don’t look at all the institutions that were built; all the civil society benefits that were given. On the question of education, I just want to respond to Ellen’s point because I’ve been, in the 1970s, an anti-racist campaigner in schools, having exhibitions about slavery. This is London. I don’t know what happened in Edinburgh, but certainly in London schools, there was a lot of teaching about slavery, about empire: we are here because you were there. And this was something I promoted a lot in my 1970s Trotskyist days, which I’ve totally turned away from… but people like me were out there in the schools, teaching kids about it. So I think there’s a lot of hot air around this kind of lack of proper teaching about it.

But I would like to see as a historian, I would like to see much more teaching of history, but I don’t think the British Empire is being unfairly taught.

James: Zareer, can I just ask you one thing? Bonnie, I’m coming in for one moment. I just want to examine one thing though for Zareer before, before I come to you, Bonnie, and I will in one moment, which is: can you just examine for us the emotion in this, right. When I hear you speaking, and when I watch you listening to Sizwe, I’m really struck by your frustration. I want to understand, and as you probably thought about this a good deal, why this infuriates you so? 

Zareer: Because I think the other side of the coin to Sizwe, of the question you were putting to Sizwe, is that I think these issues are being hijacked and used for present purposes. I think a lot of the Black Lives movement is about promoting people who would otherwise not be promoted. This is happening in academia. It’s happening in the media. I see it all the time. So I think a lot of this is self-interested and it hijacks history. It hijacks proper scholarship.

James: Just say, I love audio, but if only people could see your faces. Bonnie Greer…

Sizwe: I’d like to be able to respond…

James: Sizwe, one moment. 

Bonnie: The first thing that I say in my podcast In Search of Black History is that history is written by the winners. The losers don’t write history. They do, but we don’t get it.

Okay. The second thing is Winston Churchill was an unabashed buccaneer who said in his work… history is going to say nice things about me because I’m going to write it. The third thing is that history is a construct. Of course it is. How are we going to know about it if it’s not a construct? The question is who constructs it? That’s what my generation asked. And then we got too old and got lazy. And then young people are asking again, who has constructed this history? What is their purpose for constructing it? 

You can’t sit and say Cecil Rhodes was a good person, he wasn’t. So the next issue is how does a young Black person – or any person – look at that statue today and relate to it?

We have to listen to what they say. My problem with taking a statue down is the same problem… I call it the Auschwitz situation. I went to Auschwitz and I knew all about Auschwitz growing up, but I couldn’t have imagined what it was until I saw it. If we take these things away, there’s going to be a time when people are going to tell you they didn’t exist.

My point is curate. Teach. Teach this stuff. Take him down and then teach him everything he did, but make people see him. Don’t take him away. 

James: Bonnie, thank you. Sizwe, you wanted to come back and I’m going to turn to you Max if I might. Sizwe? 

Sizwe: James, I would because I’d like to respond to a number of the things that Zareer has said. Just, in point of fact, firstly, I’m not a Rhodes scholar. So his constant suggestions that I somehow benefit from Rhodes’s legacy are just not right or true. 

The second is this idea of democratic debate and his suggestion that there is some kind of mob rule going on. I think when you start framing people who try to bring nuanced debate and important historical conversations as a mob, I think that’s a very unfair thing to do in this debate.

And unfortunately that has been to the detriment of history and the debate. And, just in point of fact, on democratic process: the Oxford city council has voted for the statute to go. Oriel College has voted for the statute to go, and you can check this and verify it all you like. I’m very familiar with the facts.

Oriel College’s governing body and the Commission have now voted that the statue should go. So this notion that there hasn’t been a democratic… there has been five years of painstaking debate. And at every point we have won the debate. And suddenly when we win the debate, people turn around and say, no, no, you have to jump through another hoop.

So the fact of the matter is, at what point do we accept that the debate has been won? And then finally, for Zareer to come onto a Rhodes Must Fall debate and say he knows nothing about the legacy of Cecil Rhodes – which shows – I think it’s quite scandalous. How can you not know about the history of Rhodes? Have a deep understanding of his role in South Africa, the British South Africa’s company police, his role in the formation of Rhodesia, his architecture of the system of apartheid… how can you be oblivious to that history and think that you can enter a debate… and call people misinformed at the same time. I think that’s quite ridiculous. 

Zareer: I must come back on that Sizwe since it was addressed to me. I was being modest Sizwe, unlike some people, and I do not know nothing about Rhodes and I’m not oblivious about some of the awful things he did. 

Sizwe: What were some of the awful things he did?

Zareer: But I must correct you on the point about the commission. The commission appointed by Oriel College has not reported, and under the listing system, because it’s a listed monument the city council has to go through a planning process. 

Sizwe: Shall I bring up the statement? 

James: Sorry, excuse me. I’m going to just, I’m just going to call it… pause it… Because what I’d like to do if I might, because I think Sizwe, just forgive me, uh, and Zareer too. I’d like to actually just park for a moment the exact debate about Rhodes Must Fall because there’s a danger that we discuss that and we actually miss, Sizwe, the point that you made right at the start and the issue that we debated right at the beginning, which was the way in which we in the UK learn and discuss and interpret our history.

And I want to, if I can go back to Max and Bonnie and talk about this issue of nostalgia. And Max, you made this point about the UK having a susceptibility to nostalgia and how much it informed our politics. We are in the UK the year that we’ve left the European Union with an idea of quote-unquote Global Britain.

And I just wondered whether you could explore for us what you think that means how that nostalgia informs the way the UK operates today. 

Max: Well, I’ve written many times in recent years… I want to live in a country that’s looking ahead to the 21st Century with all that that means. And I don’t believe that means more isolation. I do believe that underpinning the whole Brexit movement, underpinning the ascent to power of Boris Johnson has been a vision that there’s something glorious about standing alone on the white cliffs of Dover in 1940. I think many British people still believe that. And I have written many books about the Second World War, the one thing I’m quite sure about… There was absolutely nothing glorious about our predicament in 1940, with nothing glorious about being alone.

I sometimes despair, though, the British willingness to wallow in the past while others… I was dog walking the other day with a great friend, Robert Harris, and these issues we are discussing now with Sizwe and Bonnie… we would not agree about every aspect of this, but Robert said, and I totally agreed with him, we must be willing to engage.

And this is the British instinct – is to foreclose on this. I would like to ask everybody an issue that troubles me. I totally agree that Cecil Rhodes was in most respects, many respects, an absolutely deplorable figure, but he was only one among many people who lived deplorable lives and did terrible things to mankind. And then in their last years became great philanthropists in order to, as I think Sizwe said, deliberately to redeem their memories. Look at the Fords, the Rockefellers… Nobel… all the others. Most of the great philanthropists to this day. You and I know people in Britain today who’ve led awful lives, who frankly have been crooks of one kind or another and who are now supporting our great national institutions.

I’m genuinely unsure what we do. Do we say we won’t have your money because we know you’ve spent most of your careers as crooks. Much of the arts philanthropy in Britain…  

Alright, you’ve got wonderful people like the Sainsburys. But you also get a lot of outright crooks who keep the arts institutions of Britain on the road. 

James: Well, Bonnie Greer, you’ve grappled with that problem. What do you think? 

Bonnie: You are absolutely right about the wallowing in nostalgia. I’ve been on the Board of the British museum for eight years. I was deputy chair for four.

There were wonderful people in there, there are wonderful people now. What we fought was the government – who has its own nostalgia merchants in it. We fought the public, because there are people who want that Union Jack up there and they know what that means. And that’s the end of that. Okay. 

So listen, Max, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been on government commissions, where I walked into rooms that have been nothing in there, but ex-public school, military white men in there who think that they have absolutely the right to determine everything that goes on. 

And the fourth thing is, one of the reasons I know that I’m abroad is when I turn on the TV to look at a documentary and it’s not about World War II. I mean, the fact is if it wasn’t for the United States, if it wasn’t for the Empire, I mean, people over, you know, abroad. Britain would have lost. Britain did lose. Technically it did lose, but you would never know it if you didn’t… If you listen to the World War II vets born in 1958, who actually run the country. 

So what young people are saying, what I’m saying… enough. And you’re saying it too Max: enough, it’s over. It’s very painful, but this has to be reckoned with. This country’s got to get out of this nostalgia or it’s going to be finished. 

James: Bonnie, can I just, firstly, I’d just like to make a point… and the point that you make about the government, you know, I said at the beginning, this isn’t academic, there are issues here about restitution, reparations, there’s live issues in the UK about government policy towards the arts, the policy of quote-unquote “retain and explain”, the pressure from the government on what is and isn’t in museums. But I want to know whether you can help us give a sense of what’s happening outside the UK and particularly in the  S and other countries, Bonnie? Because I have a genuine question, which is whether or not the United States, and whether or not in your experience, countries like Japan or Germany, are any better at this, are any better at having a difficult look at their own history?

Bonnie: I was awarded an honor by the Queen that’s got an empire at the end of it. Now I buried that metal with my mother, she’s… on her corpse. Maybe if somebody did steal it, it was on the South Side. This country’s raison d’etre, its sort of selling point is nostalgia. It’s about the past. It’s about being in the past.

Americans… they have an image of the United Kingdom as being staid, conservative, quiet. So what is the issue? The issue is the Empire. The issue is the point that at one time we were kings, this country is locked in empire. It is why it can’t listen to young people. It’s why it can’t listen to people of colour… because empire is “bloke” country, and it’s the country where men – white men – ruled. And that’s what Brexit and all of this is trying to get back to – it’s dooming this country, and it’s making the country look bad. 

James: And Bonnie, I just want to ask, I want to ask you, and then I want to ask Ellen too, because there’s a chicken and egg problem here, isn’t there? Which is until you begin to revisit your history you’re not going to be able to visit the hierarchies of power in your country. And at the same time, until you revisit the hierarchies of power, you’re not going to have the license to re-examine your history. It’s really hard to work out. How do you change the teaching of history or the teachers of history?

Bonnie: Let me just say quickly – what we did in the United States, and I’m not saying it’s perfect, and it’s against the law in this country actually. What we did, we just put people in place, just put them in there, you know, put them there and then let them teach. That’s what I’m doing at the museum. Just be there. Sometimes it’s important for people to walk in a room and see a Black person teaching them something. That in itself is a revelation and a revolution. Put people in there, put them in place and then the whole thing will follow. It’s the same with women. If we put women in place, which is what affirmative action is, then eventually the tide changes, but not if you don’t do that. We have to change the scenario. The scene has to be changed. 

Zareer: So I just want to come back on the point about history and Bonnie’s point before it gets lost. I think the problem with putting people in place is that a lot of that is happening across academia. And it’s being dominated by left liberal people who are putting in place a certain kind of history, a certain kind of history teaching.

It’s not a tool looking at the kind of legacies that might be positive, you know? Yes, the empire was ruling over people but it did create nation states. It created states like South Africa and India, which wouldn’t exist otherwise. It created parliamentary institutions. It created the rule of law schools, colleges, hospitals, all the rest of it. So I think Britain has a lot to be proud about without being nostalgic. 

James: Zareer, thank you. Ellen. 

Ellen: I think we can all agree that history is complicated. There’s nuance. We’ve discussed this, and this is something that we all agree on. But the problem is that that nuance is not currently there. That most people don’t currently, who are educated in the UK, have the chance to critically think about these issues, are not exposed to enough variation in the teaching. And as Bonnie said, part of that is about who is teaching. Part of that is about the texts that they’re reading. But if you want to bring a richer understanding of British history, whether that’s to incorporate some of the ideas that Zareer thinks.. some of the stories that are currently erased… in any case, we need to bring about a more critical study of history that currently… it just isn’t there. Most people are not thinking about these issues critically. 

James: Can I just ask Max a question that follows on that. Max – because there’s been an argument and you hear it from Conservative politicians, who worry aloud that if you start taking away from people, the myth – so they acknowledge they are myths, they acknowledge that they’re nostalgic myths – but if you start taking those away from people, don’t be surprised if they become not more progressive, not more forward-looking, but in fact, more reactionary, more angry, less certain of who they are in the world. And that, although the history that we’ve got and the people we’ve got on statues, sorry, statues on plinths are not perfect, when you start ripping them down, you strip people of a sense of their identity, of their national values and the risk that you run is greater than the progress you make. What do you think of that argument? 

Max: Truth about almost everything lies in the middle, and something in what they say about identity. But on the other hand, I come back to the point we’ve already discussed. I do think Britain has called itself into a very, very bad place as a society. Because of this obsession with the past and with nostalgia and with the myths about the past. I’m not, I’m certainly not one of those, like Zareer, I do see certain virtues in the history of the British Empire. On the other hand, I was a young reporter… I was deported from both white Rhodesia and white South Africa. And I remember just what repellent places they were. And I’m very aware of that – when we discussed the whole history. When Zareer says the creation of South Africa. I just remember how repulsive South Africa was in those days. And I saw some of the terrible stuff that went on there. 

So I, on the whole, I think I would rather at the moment take the risk of reviewing pretty ruthlessly some of our history than I would just carrying on as we are… I would like to pick up one point you raised earlier… I am depressed by how few countries around the world do feel able, honestly, to examine their history. I could read you a long list. France. It has never published an official history of the Second World War because French people could never agree about what took place. If you’ve gone to Japan, China, Russia… most of the reasonably objective studies are banned from sale or publication. Certainly… not in Japan, but in China and Russia.

And so it is depressing how few countries in the world are winning… and so, in other words, we shouldn’t think of ourselves as alone about this. Whereas I, on the other hand, I do think that we’re alone in this obsession with trying to run our affairs today on the basis of this largely fictitious… as if we were still fighting the Battle of Britain. 

James: Max, as we come to the end of our time together, I do want to get one thing clear. What does everyone think about the statue itself? Max, would you pull it down? Would you put it in a museum? What would you do with it? 

Max: I do not have a problem. Cecil Rhodes was an exceptionally unpleasant human being and his record was appalling. You know, I’m not worried about his statue being removed from Oriel. I am worried, if we’re going to say… we’re going to remove all the statues of people who did bad stuff in their lives, somehow I do think we can get into the territory where you do start tearing down a whole national identity. 

James: I understand that Max, but a friend of mine used to say to me, I’m not worried about the thin end of the wedge. I’m worried about the thick end of it. On that basis, on the Cecil Rhodes statue itself, what would you do?

Max: With some reluctance I would say I think it better come down. 

James: Thank you. 

Max: I’m not comfortable about that. 

James: Bonnie Greer. 

Bonnie: I always say don’t cancel – curate. So take him down, but put him somewhere so that people can always know what he’s about. Keep him alive. 

James: Ellen?

Ellen: I would also say to take him down to study his life, contextualise him and understand him cannot be a bad thing. 

Zareer: I think public spaces belong to the public. I don’t think Rhodes will come down because the public doesn’t want him to come down, whatever his faults and my approach as a historian is the default mode should be to leave public spaces undisturbed unless the public, in very exceptional situations like Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, wants to pull them down. 

James: Zareer, thank you. Sizwe, I think we know what you think about whether or not the statue of Rhodes should come down, what happens next? 

Sizwe: Well, firstly, I’d like to issue Max and Bonnie official Rhodes Must Fall membership cards. Glad to have you on board. Look, I think this debate has gone the way many of these debates go: you first get the scary picture of what this is all about, and then you actually engage with the people who began Rhodes Must Fall and begin to see that this is a deep argument. 

Firstly, I think these kinds of conversations were precisely the target of Rhodes Must Fall. We knew that if we picked a very controversial central statute, we would be able to have a wide set of debates about a wide range of questions, of race, questions of history. And I just like to say that this language of tearing down and pulling down… We may have been a bit naughty in using the term Rhodes Must Fall, but hey, come on, it was good for a bit of attention. But we’ve never said the statue should be torn down or pulled down. In fact, our position has always been, and if you go back right to our first statements, Bonnie’s position, Max’s position. Recontextualise the statute. Take it off its pedestal. Let us see Rhodes face to face and eye to eye. 

Zareer: Send him to a sin bin. 

Sizwe: Here we go. Here we go. 

James: No no, Sizwe, do finish your point. 

Sizwe: Thank you. Recontextualise him, place him in one of Oxford’s museums, which looks at every empire since the Egyptian, except Britain’s… and start to teach Rhodes’s history so that people, when they actually are put on the spot to tell us about Rhodes’s history, actually know what it is and start to read and appreciate the devastating legacy of apartheid. And of Rhodesian white supremacy that has torn Southern Africa to shreds. And from which it’s only now beginning the very early stages of recovery. 

James: Alright, well Sizwe, thank you. And Zareer, let me if I might just try and pull together at least what I heard, because I should say a really heartfelt thank you to you all because Max kicked off by saying that he was rather muddled by this. But by no means, Max, as muddled as I was. And actually, in the course of the last hour, I did come to a much, much clearer point of view. The first is that actually on the subject of the statue itself, I find this much less difficult than I expected. Revising history is the business of history. It’s the business of being present. And so actually the decision to take down the statue, to put it in a museum, to curate and understand history better seems to me to be an entirely welcome and positive thing. 

The issues that seem much more profound to me, and much more searching, are these: I am really struck by Sizwe’s phrase that Cecil Rhodes was seeking, quote, “to bribe history”. And the point that Max was making, too, about those individuals who quite knowingly are seeking to bribe history. What do we do to those people who are successors to that bribe? Are we willing or not to be bribed? And what do we do in the present when we see that happening? That seems to me to be a very current and, and searching issue. 

The second is that nostalgia, and the idea of the nostalgic nation, is something that I think should deeply trouble the UK. I think this comes at a moment when we are fragile in the sense of ourselves, the global financial crisis, Brexit, the handling of the pandemic, questions now about the future of the union or the Royal family, there is a sense of self that makes us quite defensive and this nostalgia is not helpful. 

And I’m struck too by Max’s phrase about the British instinct to foreclose on the debate. And that seems to me to be deeply unhelpful and not an easy time to open that up.

But I suppose the issues that I come to at the end and the ones that feel most difficult, but most important to me, are the issues that Bonnie raised around erasure. Around what happens for those people who are not written into history – who holds the pen in history? And I’m aware of the fact that, you know, that Zareer’s point about a nuance and understanding of the good and the bad that is done in our past is really important.

But what about those people who are just not written in at all? And this takes me to Ellen’s issue right at the end, which is… we talk about nuance and everyone in history, everyone in current affairs, talks about the nuance of the issues, but they are quite hard to communicate. And I suppose I end up with, if you like the one, kind of uplifting or positive statement that rings in my ears is that rather than worrying so much about pulling statues down, that we take to heart your point, Bonnie, about putting people in place. And that I think seems to be the work that’s ahead of us. If we are going to deal with the issue of nostalgia, if we are going to deal with the bribery that comes from the past and into the future. And so I do come away with a clearer sense about the questions of Britain and its history. 

So a big thank you to Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, to Zareer Masani, Bonnie Greer, Ellen Halliday, and Max Hastings. Thank you for sparing the time. 

James: Zareer, thank you. Sizwe, thanks very much. 

Bonnie: Thank you everybody. It was good to meet all of you 

That may have sounded like the end… 

Bonnie: I just want to say before I go… 

… but the debate continued… 

Bonnie: We need to make sure that people have a rounded view around the story about history and bring in the people who have been erased.

All the guests had more to say. 

Bonnie: That to me is the most important thing when we do. We’ll begin to actually begin to tell the story. 

People have more to say about who’s involved in history. 

Zareer: Before we go, may I send you my essay in The Critic about Churchill and the Bengal famine? 

There’s more, it seems, to say about the Bengal famine.

Zareer: It may persuade you that he was not as much to blame as you think. 

Max: What I was so cross about your letter in the Times accusing me of fake news… Of course he wasn’t responsible. He was responsible for that… for the response to it, in which he said the Indians will just have to tighten their belts as the British have. I think, on the whole, I’d rather see Cecil Rhodes come down than Rhodes stay up and be treated as a symbol by British people who want to pretend that Rhodes was something to admire.

Bonnie: He wasn’t. 

Zareer: He’s not going to come down and I’m quite happy about it. 

Bonnie: He’s coming down, Zareer. 

And here, I really am going to sign off. All this tells you two things. One is that the conversations about our history are unfinished. And the other is that, as a general rule, the most interesting things happen before or after you press record.

As you’ll know, this ThinkIn came out of a series that we held in our newsroom at Tortoise, a series of ThinkIns on the Battle for Truth. We hold ThinkIns everyday atTortoise, you can easily book them in the app. And our thinking, our journalism, is better informed by your involvement and engagement.

I really appreciate how much our members are helping us get a better, deeper, more thoughtful understanding of the world and the times that we’re in. Look forward to seeing you at a ThinkIn soon. 

Thank you for listening to the Battle for Truth. I’m James Harding. My producer is Katie Gunning. Tom Kinsella wrote the original music, and its podcast from Tortoise Studios, which is run by Ceri Thomas.

Next in this file

Cancel culture and the battle for truth

Cancel culture and the battle for truth

Is cancel culture a way to wrest the mic from the powerful? A means of stifling debate? Or both? Late last year, Suzanne Moore left the Guardian after a letter signed by over 300 staff was sent in protest of the newspaper’s alleged “pattern of publishing transphobic content”. Moore and other guests join us.

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