UK says ‘retain and explain’ statues of slave traders

LONDON — Custodians of statues across England have been told to “resist being driven by any politics or agenda” when they decide what to do with controversial monuments.

New guidance published by the U.K. government’s Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer, and which will apply in England only, recommends a strategy of “retain and explain” for relics that have come under fire for their links to the slave trade or colonialism — a move that may anger campaigners seeking to remove such items.

In 2020, activists dropped the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol Harbor, amid the global Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd in the U.S.

Other monuments linked to colonial Britain, including a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University, have been subject to campaigns calling for their removal.

But the government — helped by academics and heritage experts on its Heritage Advisory Board — has instead argued that such monuments should be retained, with an explanation provided of the historical context.

“History is nuanced and complex. It is full of grey areas, which is what makes it so interesting and, of course, there are times when statues and monuments depict people or events that we very much disapprove of today,” Frazer said. “At the same time, the UK has a proud history as an engine for progress, democracy and liberal values.”

She added: “That is why I want all our cultural institutions to resist being driven by any politics or agenda and to use their assets to educate and inform rather than to seek to erase the parts of our history that we are uncomfortable with.”

In her Conservative Party Conference speech in Manchester on Monday, Frazer railed against those “that want to cancel” and argued that the “very essence of our history … have come under threat.”

“Unlike some of those in the Labour Party, I am not ashamed of our great country’s culture, its people or its past. I do not want to bring down our statues or our monuments,” Frazer told assembled activists.

An earlier version of this article misstated how widely the rules will apply across the U.K.