Identity and Memory 
Must Rhodes Fall?

David Browne looks back at the RMF movement and the reasons behind its enduring unpopularity

One of the defining issues in student politics this term (and last) is likely to be the continued Rhodes Must Fall movement, and the questions and debates which it raises. Already, we’ve had leaders across the world, and in the University, weigh in on the issue – seemingly to little substantive notice from RMF themselves. While I would agree that it is very important to have debates and discussions on our colonial legacy and such issues, the approach of RMF only serves to hinder this, both in its ideology and its demands – but we should not let this distract us from seriously acknowledging the harms colonialism produced in colonised countries, or continuing the debate.


The first point to make is that RMF’s dismissal of critics as being “white supremacists” or – worse – not caring about the suffering of former colonies, is extremely disingenuous and gratuitous in its assumptions of malice on the part of its opponents. Just as you don’t have to believe that monetary reparations for colonialism are necessary to acknowledge its harms, you don’t have to wish to tear down the Rhodes statue (whether to be put in a museum or otherwise – it’s far from clear what its fate would be) to not be an apologist for his actions; we can recognise the harm that his ideology and administration caused to southern Africa (most notably the Glen Grey Act which is often considered to have laid the foundation stones of Apartheid), while also remembering what is clearly his most positive legacy in the world today: the Rhodes Scholarships, which have allowed people of all races from across the globe to receive an Oxford education for generations, as well as his donation to the University which would be worth £44 million today. And, lest we forget, it is precisely because of this part of his legacy that the statue was erected.


It is also precisely for these reasons that it is wrong to characterise the relatively small statue built into a wall as being a “glorification” of Rhodes. That honour is better reserved for the much larger, plinthed statue at UCT which was taken down in South Africa – a country which had colonialism imposed upon it, so will obviously view his legacy far differently (though it is interesting to note that the anecdotal evidence of a recent Cherwell article on the subject of Rhodes in South Africa was that he was regarded far more positively than the Boers). The two are not remotely comparable; just like some statues of Lenin and other figures have been vigorously defended against the decommunisation program of the Ukrainian government in parts of Ukraine where they are remembered positively, and statues of Genghis Khan remain in Mongolia despite the fact he is often considered one of history’s greatest villains (certainly by death toll), the figure of Cecil Rhodes will be remembered for different reasons in the UK than in South Africa.


Moreover, we need to remember that not wanting to tear down a statue that is already up is far from the same as wanting to erect a new one; the very point of erecting statues is to keep a part of history preserved in the public square – which contains our past and our present, and therefore the key to our future – for future generations. And, to RMF’s credit, they have started a debate about how we approach colonialism, a debate which was both overdue, and only possible because the statue was there. It is a debate that will not be resolved in this generation of students, and must surely be preserved for the next one.


As has also been pointed out many times, the principle of RMF – much like many other student activist movements – would demand the removal of just about every other memorial or statue, perhaps in the world. Henry VIII, for instance, forcibly dissolved the monasteries, persecuted Catholics, and presided over many political executions (most notably of Anne Boleyn), yet there has been no parallel demand for removal of statues and memorials to him by Catholics – precisely because he is one of the most important historical figures in British, or even world, history whose legacy cannot simply be reduced to, or dismissed on account of, his many flaws. Such an honour instead belongs to the likes of Hitler and Saddam. Similarly, there would be outrage among many of the campaign’s supporters if people were to demand the destruction of the grand headstone and bust on the grave of Karl Marx, despite the incalculable harm his ideas have done, and continue to do, across the world. Such an honour instead belongs to thorough villains like Jimmy Savile.


Yet RMF, in starting a debate, seems to reserve for itself the ability to dictate both parameter and result of said debate. You are not allowed, for instance, to point out nuances in the government of Zimbabwe as Rhodesia (or to question whether Mugabe’s regime has been an improvement) or else you’ll be accused of outright apologism for colonialism. Moreover, nationally, we’ve already seen the result of attempts to reduce complex characters from history purely to their worst aspects in the person of Enoch Powell. Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech is rightly remembered as obscene and overtly racist, but what is forgotten is his many achievements, most notably becoming a full Professor at the tender age of 25, and being one of only two people to have managed to advance all the way from Private to Brigadier in the British Army, and his classical commentaries are still considered some of the most insightful in academia. Attempts to remember these, however, are often dismissed as apologism for Powell’s racism when the two aren’t remotely connected.


One of RMF’s own targets for the same treatment appears to be Winston Churchill, who was analogised as “a lurking criminal” (a telling analogy in itself) on account of his responsibility for the Bengali Famine, when there was surely no more revered man in Britain (and many other parts of the world) on Armistice Day 1945. While it is important that we actually do remember that Churchill was no saint by any means (such as the Bengali Famine), it would surely be foolish to ignore his accomplishments in defeating the Nazis and ultimately ending perhaps the most brutal regime to have ever existed. Yet this is what we are faced with in the official RMF campaign: not the starting and continuing of a debate about our colonial history, but the browbeating of an exclusively-negative view of our past through typical loud and aggressive tactics, such as a determination to make as much noise as possible during their Oriel protest (perhaps to encourage caving in so that the lives of normal Oriel students are no longer disrupted) and the barracking of a floor speaker at the Union’s Reparations debate to the point where he could barely get a word in edgeways during his speech.


And in RMF we also see the usual tactics of student “activist” movements which seek to remove that which offends them. People of Colour that disagree with the movement have been cast aside, tarred with a brush perhaps even more offensive than “Uncle Tom”: namely, that their minds have somehow been “colonised” (and their agency surely lost in the process). RMF claims to speak on behalf of BME students as if they’re some kind of collective, when the only evidence we’ve got – namely, the Cherwell’s own survey – suggests that BME students are hotly split on the issue, and a simple majority replied that the removal of the statue would make no difference to their lives. And, also uncommonly, they declare Oxford “our university”, forgetting that it’s not just “their” university but everyone’s, and if everyone could make that claim, we would have no public square at all. Nor does any one group have the right to monopolise the public square so that it suits them; just as I would have no right to demand that pictures of Chairman Mao be removed from the public squares of Beijing because I consider him a monster (when he’s still regarded highly by many in parts of China), nor does any one group such as RMF have the right to demand that Oxford’s statues and place names be removed.


Yet what some on the other side of the fence have said has been less than helpful. While Lord Patten is certainly right to say that we cannot force history to conform to modern sensibilities (indeed, we would hope that in 100 years, we are also granted the charity of being judged as creatures of our time rather than being expected to conform to new standards as alien to us as ours would be to future generations), that does not entail the flippant dismissal of your opponents that they should go to another country.


This is a debate that we do need to have, precisely because many people remain unaware of them, and a debate which we should take seriously. And surely, in order to better facilitate this debate, we shouldn’t be tearing statues down but building them up; the Spectator recently suggested that we erect a statue of Matabele king Lobengula such that people can see both, and rather than confine statues to museums (where, in fact, they can be politicised – novelist D.J. Taylor has argued that this has even happened with Swedish napkins, with explanatory notes talking about conditions in napkin factories rather than about the napkins themselves), we should be creating new exhibitions, or perhaps museums, on the other, dark, side of the British Empire.