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Tear down Nelson’s column - No thanks!

PUBLISHED: 14:57 24 August 2017

The Lord Nelson statue by Thomas Milnes in Upper Close at Norwich Cathedral. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

The Lord Nelson statue by Thomas Milnes in Upper Close at Norwich Cathedral. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

archant 2017

Some of you might have seen the recent national coverage suggesting Nelson’s Column should be torn down, claiming he was a slave-supporting white supremacist! As a Norfolkman, fan of Nelson, and with a business which is custodian of his leadership spirit, you might also have expected a response from me – so here it is.

My first reaction was, this is ridiculous.

But then as my grandfather, who was himself a Norfolkman, would say “a ridiculous suggestion, demands a ridiculous response”. So my second thought was, rather than tearing it down, we should erect a second column to Nelson in Trafalgar Square to remind those weak on their history of this unique Great Briton and his positive contribution to our national story.

MORE: Should ‘white supremacist’ Lord Nelson’s Trafalgar Square column be pulled down?

And then I thought, hang on, I have heard this idea once before. The last person who suggested tearing down Nelson’s Column, was a Mr A Hitler, of Berlin – who wanted it moved to Germany after the Nazis had conquered London. Now he was a supremacist. So I thought, maybe they are getting Hitler and Nelson confused?!

I am very much against tearing Nelson down (and other statues of the past), for a whole variety of reasons. In fact, I would be in favour of it only in one specific circumstance – where the column would be moved to Anglia Square: if Norfolk declared independence from the UK, and the Nimmo twins became joint Prime Minister of Norfolk – which is very unlikely.

And then I thought it might be helpful take this seriously, and to read the article by Ms Afua Hirsch and listen to her numerous broadcasts on the subject, rather than blast away on a social “fedia frenzy”. After all, this is not a good way to deal with an ambush.

I must say, holding Nelson personally responsible for slavery was a new one on me. In all the books I have read and numerous presentations that I have been to over the years, this is the first time this has ever come up. She might argue that this is her point – so I am prepared to keep an open mind and take advice from independent historians much more informed than I, to put together the Nelson defence or otherwise.

I was also surprised because much evidence points the other way - that Nelson was a humanitarian, kind, respectful, generous, a charismatic leader, thoughtful in matters relating to his own sailors, civilians and even the enemy – in fact this marked him out, and gained him much respect. History and interpreting it is a messy, complex and a paradoxical business, and teasing out heroes and villains often depends of the political stand point of the interpreter as much as it does the actions of the historical figure.

My next surprise was that I found myself agreeing with some (most) of what she was saying! We should be careful in selectively choosing the aspects of history that we find most appealing to our own political position today. This applies to a focus on slavery as much as it does hero worshipping a figure and blind-siding their negative actions. Many romanticise and celebrate in a way that is not appropriate, but then so is character assassination with hindsight. Understanding the past and all the people in it “warts and all” is healthier for us.

She also highlights the dangers of seeing actions through the filter of our moral code, mores and attitudes, of today and failing to appreciate that these were very different in the past. You could go through the whole of history and attack any figure in this way. If I live long enough my great grandchildren might accuse me of destroying the planet (or what left of it for them) through my use of the motor car!

Nelson in fact, set new benchmarks though his professional conduct and moral code. (Although his personal and social life were another matter!). I do agree with Ms Hirsch that central to all this is how uncomfortable we are with identity. Who are we? Norfolkman? Norwichman? English? British? Asian British? European? Western? Muslin British? International? etc.

And you can’t seem to have a conversation about any of this without someone getting angry, bringing in skin colour (or gender), and calling you a racist or misogynist or ageist. The sensible majority are frightened to go there – and the landscape appears dominated by extremists with their extremist language. Interestingly Nelson would have identified with English more so than British! The dangerous reality about history is that we can allow ourselves to be seduced to believe what we want, or what we choose to believe from it.

The next thing I liked about Ms Hirsch was the way she articulated her position in a considered and thoughtful way (albeit provocatively). She also generated massive publicity and responses to her views (mainly hostile). Interesting to see that she has a book coming out shortly, so brilliant profiling for this! One person who would have respected this would have been Nelson himself – who was publicity obsessed. I like to think he is looking down in admiration!

At Nelsonspirit we recognise that Nelson was not perfect – no one is – and that his legacy to us is nothing to do with empire – but with LEADERSHIP. Nelson was a very modern type of leader, who engaged closely with people and those round him – his band of brothers. He helped others, and young people where he could, role modelling mentoring, was a skilled professional and was kind and compassionate to those that followed him.

Some would say ‘loved’ him. Love given by all regardless of rank, gender, or nationality, is not a concept usually used in relation to a warrior. A few imperialists in the House of Lords could not fake the love and affection the nation felt for him, and this was only stronger with those who had served with him. As well as his contribution to strategic thinking, mission command etc he reminds us all that leaders should have a higher purpose (England Expects...). Having a duty is good for us and good for our communities as it means we are putting others and a greater purpose before ourselves. This is what I think, when I walk across Trafalgar Square.

In Norfolk we are keeping his spirit alive thought the Nelsonspirit band of brothers. We have 50 Norfolk based modern leaders, (MDs and CEOs of all backgrounds), who are engaged closely to learn from their peers. This group believes that helping others is one of the best ways to grow yourself, and that it is the duty of the leaders of today to help grow the leaders of tomorrow. With this in mind we have supported over 35 young people with grant funding through our trust fund which helps young people grow while helping others in communities all over the world.

So far we have supported young people on community projects in 14 countries. This is Nelson’s real legacy – real leadership comes from engaging with those in your community and helping others. This is our duty. This is what we choose. Anyone who wants to hear more about Leadership and Nelson – I am speaking on 19th September at Norwich Castle on “Leadership and Nelson”. The “talk and tour” will enable you to also visit the Norwich Castle Museum’s fabulous Nelson and Norfolk exhibition. Tickets limited and available through me.

Finally I invite Ms Hirsch to Norfolk, Nelsons County. I would be happy to buy her lunch, at the Nelson’s Head Pub in Horsey, and stand her a pint of Woodfordes Nelson’s Revenge (or a cup of ‘Nelson and Norfolk’ tea). We could firstly toast all of those who have given their lives in the cause of freedom, so that we are able to have these debates in peace and friendship. And then we might explore how our understanding of history might bring our communities together in love and respect to make the world a better place – as this is what I think Nelson would confide in us now, and this is now what England expects.

• You can read more from Nigel Cushion via his blog.

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