DDU supporter, Montmorency Sharp, reports back from attending the first of a series of inquiries held by the Oriel College Commission of Inquiry whose stated aim is to investigate the question of what should happen to the statue of Cecil Rhodes and the memorial plaque with an open mind. Alas it turned out to be an event marked by a lack of serious alternative views, and a lack of questions from the public:
On Wednesday 25 November the commission appointed by Oriel College to make recommendations about the legacy of Cecil Rhodes held a public session. Members of the commission put their questions to a planning officer from the Oxford City Council and to Emily Gee, Regional Director for London and the South East at Historic England. No questions were taken from members of the public, even though questions had been invited and submitted.
The questions all concerned the practicalities of removing the statue and plaque, even though Carole Souter said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph which appeared on 24 July 2020:
it “was not a foregone conclusion” that “Rhodes would fall”.
Although the college’s governing body has expressed its “wish” to remove the memorial to the 19th century mining magnate, Ms Souter, chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the statue, said: “We acknowledge politely that the governing body has expressed a view but there wouldn’t be any point at all setting up this sort of Commission if it was already a foregone conclusion.
“If the question had been, ‘How should we take down the statue?’ that wouldn’t have been a question for a Commission, that’s a practical discussion to have within the college or with the relevant planning bodies.
“But I can’t say absolutely this is what’s going to happen because there would be no point in us gathering and talking about it.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion in either direction.”
The issue of whether it is right to remove them was only addressed by the planning officer and by Emily Gee. Both stated that their preferred outcome was contextualisation in context, and Emily Gee stated repeatedly that this is Historic England’s policy. Historian and Oxford professor of race relations, William Beinart, asked whether the decision by the local planning authority could go to appeal, and who would have the final decision. He also made the point that, when the listing of the Rhodes Building was upgraded to Grade II* (midway between Grade I and II) in 2010, it was not controversial, but that it has since become controversial. He asked how Historic England would deal with that change in public opinion.
Emily Gee responded that it was quite clear at the time that the listing was upgraded in 2010 that Cecil Rhodes was a controversial figure, and that this was reflected in the list entry. Historic England believes that the best way to approach objects which become contested is to keep and explain them. This policy was formulated in 2017. Removing parts of the architectural environment, Emily Gee said, risks harming our understanding of our collective past and that is one reason that Historic England thinks such artefacts should remain in situ and be responded to.
William Beinart put it to the planning officer that there are two kinds of “harm” involved, namely to the architecture of the listed building, but also “social harm”. He said “It has been considered by a significant number of people as a social harm.” (He does not specify who has been “harmed” by the statue.) The planning officer responded that they consider the significance of the heritage, namely what it is that is important about the heritage asset, and what would be lost in changes and/or removal. It is ultimately important to preserve the significance of the heritage asset.
Undeterred, William Beinart asked, “If there were new research about the social harm, could that be taken into consideration?” The planning officer replied that it could, but that it would have to be balanced against the harm to the building. Beinart’s response does beg the question whether public architecture should be removed on the basis of yet to be produced research.
The last question came from Counsellor Shaista Aziz and was directed at both witnesses. Aziz asked how diverse the bodies were where each of the witnesses worked. Emily Gee gave a summary of Historic England’s policies on diversity. The planning officer, on the other hand, took the meaning of “diversity” literally and explained that planning officers dealing with heritage came from all sorts of professional backgrounds, and were therefore able to contribute a diversity of views to issues under discussion.
The members of the commission seemed to have made up their minds that they wanted to take down the statue and plaque, and that the session only served the purpose of exploring how it could be done within the confines of planning law. The overall impression is that the members of the commission, with the exception of Margaret Caseley-Heyford and Peter Ainsworth, showed no knowledge at all of the planning process. No-one on the commission showed awareness of the historic importance or artistic quality of the artefacts. Whatever one’s views on Rhodes, it is a pity that an event that was presented as an opportunity for public engagement on an issue about which no final judgment had been made, turned out to be the opposite. A public inquiry on controversial cultural issues should offer an opportunity for the public to hear scholars of different views (Nigel Biggar as well as William Beinart, for example) to argue their case, and give them a chance to put their questions and points of view as much as possible.
Note that a second session will take place on Tuesday 8 December at 10.30am. See https://www.oriel-rhodes-commission.co.uk for more information.