Learning from our past
Shaping our future
Like most, I was shocked and appalled at the horrific killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis late last month. Since then, we’ve seen largely peaceful demonstrations across the world and more instances of shocking police brutality in the United States.
The behaviour of so many American police forces has been reprehensible and that’s why I added my signature to a letter from my colleague Dawn Butler to the International Trade Secretary, urging her to halt all exports of tear gas, rubber bullets and other anti-crowd equipment to the United States. We have seen far too many cases of peaceful protesters – and even press and innocent bystanders – being violently attacked and injured by those who should be there to protect them.
The anger that people are feeling about these incidents and the issue of racism more broadly is entirely understandable. Whilst we are fortunate that these sorts of incidents are less commonplace here than on the other side of the Atlantic, it is very clear to me that sadly racism remains a problem in some quarters in this country. Whether it’s violent threats and intimidation on the streets, the misuse of stop-and-search powers, or vile abuse in the email and social media inboxes of prominent BAME celebrities and politicians, it needs to end.
Change in attitudes towards race and inequality can be frustratingly slow, but great progress has been made since my childhood and much of this has been achieved through peaceful campaigning and the power of democratic politics. Because of this, I was saddened to see small minorities of protesters engaging in violent acts during recent protests. Violence and vandalism cannot and should not be condoned. This runs against everything that the organisers wanted and runs the risk of enflaming tensions and alienating the public from the cause.
But these protests have also sparked an important and complicated debate around history, statues and monuments – in particular about our colonial past. It can be hard to face up to this history, but it is absolutely vital that we do so, so that we can learn from it and better understand the world we live in and how certain inequalities have emerged, deepened or alleviated.
Right here in my constituency we have one such opportunity to learn from our history. The prominent Duckenfield family became plantation owners in Jamaica and North Carolina and as a consequence, owned African slaves (and they weren’t alone. The Hyde-Clarkes did the same). Yet hundreds of years on, the heir to that family – Thomas Duckenfield III – a man of mixed-race heritage – was warmly welcomed to his ancestral ‘home’ of Dukinfield during a visit from Jamaica last year, where he visited the statue of his distant ancestor, Colonel Robert Duckenfield, which is situated outside the Town Hall. And although Colonel Robert pre-dated the family owning plantations in the Americas, he has a chequered past too, as a key Commander of Cromwell’s forces during the English civil war. He was involved in numerous murderous atrocities, including in the Isle of Man and against Catholics in Ireland.
And this is the point. As someone who studied contemporary history at university, I am quite uneasy about statue removals because we need to understand our country’s full history – the good, bad and frankly also the ugly. We cannot air-brush history, and nor can we judge people in history without appreciating these figures are stuck in the time in which they lived and operated – they do not have the luxury of ‘moving with the times’ – and their views and actions need be considered within the context of the society and era in which they lived. Not to excuse their actions, but to learn about what they did and why – with 21st century eyes – their views and actions are unacceptable, or even abhorrent.
Let’s, for example, teach in detail Britain’s colonial past to all pupils in schools because the full picture is important, to understand who we are, and how we came to be as we are. Let’s place explanatory plaques on controversial statues explaining why some people would find the actions of that person offensive today (such as activity in slave trade or involvement in terrorism or persecuting minorities), alongside the good deeds they obviously did to onetime deserve public recognition. We should never shy away from exploring and debating the more shameful episodes in our history or how this relates to the present day.
Now is the moment to re-learn our history. Only by doing this can we take the most important step, which is to come together and make sure that everyone – regardless of race or any other characteristic – is treated with the respect and dignity that we all deserve, living free under the rule of law and democracy.
I have always believed that all humans are equals, not just before the law, but in how we should treat each other, and that’s why black lives matter… because all humanity matters. The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has shown just how precious and fragile life can be. With this in mind, I hope that this debate is carried out in a civil, peaceful and safe manner.