On Sunday 7th June, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of notable slave trader Edward Colston and proceeded to throw the statue in the harbour. While Edward Colston provided significant funds to endow the city of Bristol and many of its institutions, he made his fortune as a senior figure on the committees of the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly on the English trade in African slaves.
The unlawful removal of Colston’s statue initiated a heated debate across the United Kingdom over whether statues honouring figures in the slave trade should be removed. In the days that followed, the debate expanded into a wider discussion around whether Britain should continue to honour its notable historical figures who held racist views. On the same day that protesters in Bristol toppled Colston, Black Lives Matter protesters in London sprayed ‘was a racist’ on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square.
In our latest poll of 1,500 on Thursday last week, Redfield & Wilton Strategies found that a majority of the UK public agree that statues connected with the slave trade should be removed, but through legal means (52%). This figure includes a plurality of 2019 Conservative voters, 42% of whom support the lawful removal of the status (versus 33% who oppose).
When given options of what could be done with the statues of historical figures with connections to the slave trade, a strong plurality (49%) thinks statues of slave traders should be transferred to museums. This contrasts to 13% who want them destroyed altogether, and 29% who wish for them to remain in place. 2019 Conservative voters are equally split on the issue, with 42% in favour of placing them in museums and a further 42% preferring them to remain in situ.
The protestors who vandalised Winston Churchill’s statue have sparked a wider debate about the legacy of one of Britain’s most revered leaders. The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who is well known to idolise Churchill (and published a biography of the leader earlier in his career), tweeted that it was “absurd and shameful” that his statue has been boarded up by local authorities to prevent any further damage, and that Churchill saved the country from a “fascist and racist tyranny” through his leadership during World War Two. With scholars, historians and biographers drawing attention to particular comments by Churchill regarding other ethnic groups during his career and to his wartime policies in India, which arguably aggravated the consequences of the Bengal famine of 1943, the legacy of Churchill is nevertheless up for debate.
UK respondents were sharply divided between the two camps, with 31% agreeing and 33% disagreeing that Churchill was a racist by today’s standards. A notable portion of respondents selected ‘neither agree nor disagree’ or ‘don’t’ know.’
However, over two-thirds of the public believes it would be unfair to judge Churchill by today’s standards. Only 18% of respondents to our poll said it would be fair to judge Churchill by today’s standards. Among certain demographics, for example Labour voters and younger people, there is somewhat of a closer division in opinion on this question, but among all demographics (gender, age, region and 2019 General Election vote), at least a clear plurality of individuals would consider it unfair to judge Churchill by the standards of today.
Similarly, two-thirds of respondents think Churchill’s statue should remain in Parliament Square. It may be unsurprising that 2019 Conservative voters (82%) and those above the age of 65 (73%) are overwhelmingly in favour of the most famous Conservative politician in British history remaining in place. Perhaps more surprising to some, the majority of 2019 Labour voters are in favour of Churchill’s statue remaining in Parliament Square (53%), compared to just under a third of 2019 Labour voters, who want Churchill’s statue to be moved to a museum.
Clearly the UK public is able to appreciate the major differences between Winston Churchill and a seventeenth-century slave trader such as Colston, thus accounting for the overwhelming public support for Churchill’s statue to remain in place. Similarly, while a slight majority of the UK public supports the removal of statues of slave traders from public places, it is evident that the public wishes for this removal to be done, if it is to be done at all, through legal means, rather than by groups of protesters. It remains to be seen whether the behaviour of protesters in the coming weeks will sway public opinion in favour of their cause, or away from it.
To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.