Two weeks ago, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies conducted a poll which found that a majority of the UK public agree that statues of historical figures connected with the slave trade should be removed through legal means. The debate around removing statues connected with the slave trade was sparked on Sunday the 7th of June, when a group of Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol tore down a statue of notable slave trader Edward Colston and proceeded to throw the statue in the harbour.
In our latest poll of 2000 on Thursday last week, 71% of respondents stated that prior to this event, they were not familiar with the historical figure Edward Colston. Across all demographic divisions a majority had been unaware of Colston.
Although the subsample size is perhaps too small to draw significant conclusions, the results appear somewhat closer than average in the South West of the country, where the statue was located. Among this subsample, 45% of respondents stated they were aware of Colston, in contrast to 55% who were not aware of his historical figure.
Of the respondents who were unfamiliar with Colston prior to the event, 48% are now familiar with who he was. Nevertheless, a majority (52%) of those who were unfamiliar with Colston prior to his toppling stated that they are still unfamiliar with who he was. Despite significant press coverage of the event, 37% of the entire sample therefore remains unaware of Edward Colston’s background.
Bristol City Council has announced that the statue of Edward Colston has been retrieved from the harbour and will eventually be put in a museum. A strong majority of the public (59%) approve of this decision, with only 13% of the public disapproving. Support for relocating the statue of Colston is strong regardless of 2019 vote, with 62% of 2019 Conservative voters and 65% of 2019 Labour voters expressing agreement with Bristol City Council’s decision.
As a heated debate continues in the UK around whether statues of figures associated with controversial historical actions should remain in situ, our poll asked 2000 members of the public about whether they believed the statues of Winston Churchill, Captain Cook, Robert Clive, Lord Kitchener, Christopher Columbus, William Gladstone, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Nelson, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi should be kept where they are, moved to a museum or destroyed altogether. Across all of these historical figures, a strong majority or plurality of the public believed the statues should be kept where they are.
A particularly prominent debate has focused on the statue of Cecil Rhodes which is currently located at Oriel College, Oxford. Rhodes played a key role in expanding the British Empire in Southern Africa, including modern day South Africa and Zimbabwe. On Wednesday 17th June, Oriel College’s governors voted to remove the statue. Whilst 30% of respondents to our poll believe that the statue of Rhodes should be moved to a museum and a further 8% argue it should be destroyed altogether, a substantial plurality of 42% believe it should be kept where it is. There is a significant difference in the views of respondent dependent on 2019 General Election vote: 59% of Conservative voters believe the statue should remain, in contrast to just 30% of Labour voters.
Likewise, the public is overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the statues of anti-imperial figures in positions of prominence. Overall, 70% of the public believes that the statue of Nelson Mandela should remain in Parliament Square, including 73% of Conservative voters and 69% of Labour voters. The strong support for Mandela’s statue remaining in situ across the British public highlights the extent to which the anti-apartheid revolutionary and the first President of the Republic of South Africa continues to be revered amongst the British public, regardless of political allegiance.
Moreover, 65% of the public believed the statue of Gandhi should continue to stand in Parliament Square, which highlights that Gandhi retains wide respect among the British public, despite the derogatory views he held towards native Africans while living in South Africa in the late 19th century.A larger majority of Conservative voters (73%) than Labour voters (58%) believe Gandhi’s statue should remain.
Although an overwhelmingly majority (65%) of respondents believe that Churchill’s statue should remain where it is, views on this are clearly more influenced by political persuasion. 80% of 2019 Conservative voters are convinced Churchill’s likeness should retain its prominent position in Parliament Square, in contrast to 58% of Labour voters. Interestingly, men are more inclined to be in favour of Churchill remaining in place (72%) than women (58%).
Overall, it is clear that whilst the public is in favour of removing statues of those associated significantly with the slave trade, it remains strongly against taking down the statues of historical figures with more complex legacies, comprised of both good and bad deeds. Nevertheless, protests can persuade authorities to take actions which are contrary to the majority or plurality of public opinion, as has been highlighted with the decision by governors of Oriel College to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes.