David Skelton is author of ‘Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map’. Sam Bowman is Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.
The latest piece of modern art hosted on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth left many people bewildered when it was unveiled last week.
Called ‘The End’, it is a large plastic sculpture of whipped cream with a cherry, a fly and a drone on it. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it is vapid and ugly. Given this is one of Britain’s most important public spaces, we can do better.
One way might be to install a permanent statue of one of the many black, Asian, and minority ethnic people who have made contributions to Britain throughout her history. In particular, the contribution of Empire and Commonwealth soldiers to the British war effort in the First and Second World Wars was immense, and has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves, such as with the Commonwealth Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner, put up in 2002.
At a time when existing statues have led to debate and division about the representation of ethnic minorities in public monuments, a statue of a Commonwealth war hero on the fourth plinth could be a fitting tribute to the millions of people who helped Britain to triumph in those struggles and a sign to all that they will never be forgotten.
One such hero is Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Khan, born in the late 19th Century, in what is now Pakistan, served as a machine-gunner during the First World War in the 129th Baluchis.
He was at the front-line as allied forces were desperately trying to protect the ports of Boulogne and Nieuwpoort from the advancing German forces. Both ports were crucial to the Allied war effort. At various points, the German advance looked relentless, with many of the defensive forces being pushed back and the Baluchis being outnumbered five to one. Khan’s machine gun team, though, along with one other, was able to continue the fight until eventually even they were overrun, with all the members of Khan’s team being killed.
Khan was able to play dead until the Germans had gone, when he made his way, badly wounded, back to the regiment. The heroism of Khan and his fellow Baluchis meant that the Germans were held off long enough for Allied reinforcements to arrive, and the ports were kept out of German hands.
His story is a remarkable one, but not as isolated one. In the First World War, some three million soldiers from across the Empire and Commonwealth became involved in the war effort, including 1.5 million from India, 600,000 Canadians, 400,000 Australians, 180,000 from East and West Africa, 100,000 Kiwis and 15,000 from the West Indies. Over five million Commonwealth troops were involved in the struggle against Nazism during World War Two. These were invaluable contributions in these conflicts.
A permanent commemoration of the valour and bravery of Commonwealth troops over the centuries would be a fitting use for the fourth plinth. This could be unifying, reminding people that those who want Nelson’s column to fall are a tiny minority, and that most Britons are proud of the contributions their ancestors have made to the country’s history. It would recognise the contributions of people who have hitherto been given less credit than they deserved.
All of this would be far more meaningful and inspiring than the art that has occupied the fourth plinth since the late 1990s (it had been empty until then). Recent occupants have included a large blue cockerel (“a feminist sculpture”, according to its creator) and ‘Really Good’, a giant bronze thumbs up, which the Guardian described as “a sly parody of the emptiness of public art”. The problem with art like this is that the rest of us have to look at it.
Trafalgar Square should be about commemorating the valour and bravery of British and Commonwealth troops and their contribution to great military victories, not ugly, shallow gimmicks. You might call this campaign “Whipped Cream Must Fall”, although the current occupant should still see out its normal term on the plinth…
But once that’s over, we could take that moment to recognise the sacrifices made by Commonwealth soldiers throughout Britain’s history, saying to them that they deserve pride of place in Britain’s most important celebration of its military past.
A statue of Khudadad Khan, or another hero like him, on the fourth plinth would be the perfect reminder of the sacrifices that so many troops from around the Commonwealth made for our freedom, and a chance to put up a new statue instead of tearing one down.