History, Changing Prisms and the absurdity of Rhodes Must Fall

Do you remember when Sir Thomas Moore was a man for all seasons?

Henry VIII's luckless Chancellor was lauded in the latter half of the 20th century as a man who stuck to his principles even in the face of death. Refusing to sanction the divorce of his monarch when everyone else caved in, he lost his head while all about him were cravenly keeping theirs.

This honourable stubbornness earned him among other things Catholic Sainthood and a rather good play. Paul Schofield got an Oscar for playing Moore on film in 1966 and the characterisation was so popular that Charlton Heston remade it just twenty or so years later, selflessly directing himself in the starring role.

How times have changed. Sir Thomas, it seems, is not a man for our current season at all.

His appearance in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall of 2009 and its subsequent TV series was as a sinister Catholic Taliban figure, happy to torture for his Faith and blockheadedly unable to compromise. Wolf Hall elevated instead Thomas Cromwell's cool pragmatism, which had hitherto been seen as a rather shifty opportunism.

Sticking with the Cromwell family there's a statue of Oliver outside the Houses of Parliament that rouses very different emotions in a lovely couple who live in Highgate and so stroll past it from time to time.

She is Irish Catholic and so quite naturally despises "God's Englishman" for his military depredations across the Irish Sea.

He's Jewish and, while he sees her point, he can't help but retain a soft spot for the dour old puritan. Cromwell it was who - fired by zeal for the Old Testament and zeal for ready cash - permitted Jews to return to England following their expulsion by Edward I three and a half centuries before.

What these two little stories have in common is the point that history may well be about them, then, on the surface, but really it's all about us, now.

The facts of Moore's life have not changed between the publication of Robert Bolt's play and Mantel's book. The facts of Cromwell's are not different for one half of my couple than for the other. All that changes is the prism through which we look back.

RMF is not interested in the better angels of Cecil's nature

The Rhodes Must Fall movement was looking back at the end of last year and it decided in so doing that statues of the British imperialist par excellence, Cecil Rhodes, ought to be removed from the seats of learning his ill-gotten fortune helped to fund or found, at first in Africa and now in England too.

RMF is not interested in the better angels of Cecil's nature, for Cecil was a racist. There's really no effective answer against this charge. He was a man who described Africans as "despicable specimens of humanity." Racist he was.

The fact that everyone else was too, then, rolls off RMF. And because racism is the unforgivable crime du jour, they will very probably get their way.

And that might be a shame, because given his background as a clergyman's son who died as one of the richest men on Earth, it wouldn't take a huge shift of the look-back prism to see Cecil as a prime example of social mobility.

It's also rather easier to look back and ask why Rhodes and his ilk were honoured at the time for pillaging a continent than to look at the present and ask why that pillaging still goes on with the connivance of the continent-in-question's own leaders

I therefore recommend Tom Burgis' 'The Looting Machine' to those who think the removal of a couple of Victorian statues is going to be a game changer.

More about the author

About the author

Born and raised in Swansea West, one of the safest Labour seats in the country, David is perhaps unsurprisingly a High-Tory, Euroskeptic Royalist Libertarian with an unhealthy adoration for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As a result he is seldom pleased by anything that ever happens, and always on the verge of quitting the whole jamboree. A former Special Writer at the Wall Street Journal, he knew the crash was coming when he saw a piece about Louis XVI reproduction furniture "for your Winnebago."

Follow David on Twitter.




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