• Toby Irwin

Iconoclastic Vandalism, and the Assault on Liberty

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

2020 has proved itself remarkably versatile. From the possibility of a new war in the Middle East, to natural disasters and a pandemic. However, these events fall short of the greatest tragedy of them all that is playing out in the United Kingdom, and indeed the West writ large, as we speak. Little more need be written about what happened in Minneapolis, which has been said far more eloquently than I ever could elsewhere. However, what begun as a global movement to counter racism, enjoying mass support of all liberally minded people, has morphed into an ugly caricature of anti-Western grievances.

The protests that occurred (pandemic discounted, which is another topic), I hope I am right in saying, drew on the broad support of all. Racism rightly has no place in society, just as it did not during the initial civil rights campaigns last century. The evolution of the protests, though, has quite astoundingly changed into a character that stands to lose more support than it gains despite it championing perhaps the most universally desirable goal of all. Iconoclasm is a term often attributed to religious disputes, and the sects within them. Images and icons are destroyed because it is the belief they represent a faith (or society, religious or otherwise) incorrectly. This occurred heavily during the protestant reformation, and also occurs between the various sects of Islam such as Sunni and Shia.

The reader will surely not be surprised to be informed of ongoing iconoclasm in the United Kingdom today. The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has been desecrated and vandalised multiple times. This despite the fact the statue exists as a reminder of anti-racism and anti-fascism. The statue of Robert Peel has been vandalised. This has happened under the pretence of countering racism and police brutality, despite the fact that Robert Peel was the very man who ensured that British Police are unarmed and trained in non-lethal ways. Police brutality is being protested at the man who ensured, over two hundred years ago, that in 2019 deaths caused by the police were three, with one of them being a terrorist. Perhaps most repulsive of all is the desecration of the cenotaph, and the footage of a man attempting to set alight the flags that hang from it. 'The Glorious Dead', written upon the memorial, has been vandalised multiple times and now demands both police protection and, as of today, physical barriers. Street names are also being renamed, such as calls in Edinburgh to change Dundas Street. This, of course, is not being pursued by legal measures but by defacing the New Town: a World Heritage Site.

Liberalism exists to remind citizens that absolute power cannot be abused rightfully by a government, for true authority lies with the people. And yet, ironically, a conservative government with an 80 seat majority lies ineffectual at the calls of a minority of anarchists. Winston Churchill is not a despised racist to the majority of British people, he is a hero of freedom, liberty and a bulwark against fascism. The police are not seen as power-hungry psychopaths with the inherent desire to oppress, they are seen by the majority as hard-working individuals who keep us safe. The Cenotaph is not a symbol of war, bigotry and oppression, rather it is the very opposite of these things. Streets and statues of dubious name and heritage are not perpetuators of racism, they are gateways to the past: they do not facilitate any opinion or justify any action, they merely are. This all said, while it being a truism that the UK is one of the most tolerant and non-racist societies that exists on the planet*.

The terrible tragedy of all of this violence and hate is that it undoes the just work of so many individuals and movements over the years. Every country has a way to go yet in improving its situation. and this should be admirably encouraged. However, to brashly seize the means to destroy it into one's own hands at the expense of the majority will only alienate the cause. Destruction of monuments and memorials is utterly reprehensible and cloaks the movement of ending racism - the goal of all liberals - in a guise of complete illiberalism and anarchy. Racism cannot be ended under such circumstances, it has the opposite effect. One can only hope, going forward, that the protests return to peaceful demonstration and iconoclasm ceases. Though with a country crippled by a pandemic, recession, and writhing social disorder one's hopes are not high.


The reader should note that this post was written after the BLM protests in London and before the far-right counter protests, the writer therefore condemns both instances of violence and vandalism regardless of political orientation.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.