Marx And Thatcher: How Memorials Have Become The Lightning Rods Of 21St-Centuryprotest
In January 2018, Westminster Council turned down plans for a 4-metre high statue of Thatcher in Parliament Square. The council explained that a new statue in the square, which is already home to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, would lead to “monument saturation”.
But there were also concerns that a memorial in London to Britain’s first female prime minister – still a divisive figure – would be likely to provoke protest and potential vandalism. A year later, when Grantham – where Thatcher grew up – announced it would host the memorial, it said the 10-foot statue would be placed on a plinth of equal height to deter vandals.
So why are memorials and monuments provoking such interest and even anger? In part, the answer is that this is by no means new. After all, despite their apparent “concrete” qualities, memorials invariably provoke intense debate – and those arguments do not simply disappear once the memorial is built. This is particularly the case following regime change: see, for example, the attacks made on royalist sculptures and statues during the American Revolution or the removal of Soviet era statues in places like Hungary and Poland.
And who can forget the iconic images of the toppling of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad during the invasion by US-led forces in 2003? To destroy or remove a memorial is a recognised mechanism through which a newly arrived power asserts its presence and delegitimises its predecessor.
Of course, such moments of “regime change” are relatively rare – and the recent acts of vandalism noted above are clearly of a different order and scale. But they are indicative of the same essential truth: that public sculpture is always inherently political. Seen in this light, a society’s commemorative architecture is a very visible record of its politics of power.
In recent years, various interest groups have emerged to contest the existing commemorative landscape, challenges that are expressive of a thriving politics of social protest – as well as of changing ideas of exactly what and who is worthy of veneration. Those involved, many of whom are simultaneously protesting against inequalities in the present, rightly perceive that public sculpture is never value-free. This is why they question the continued legitimacy of signs and symbols that are decidedly out of step with the values of 21st-century democracy