Topple the mighty
Topple The Mighty is a new book about knocking down statues of unpopular leaders. So it is not on the official reading list for Tony Blair's Labour Party conference this week.
If there were a statue of Tony Blair on the Brighton sea front today, it would need to be boxed up in plywood to protect it from the mob. And as for the most famous falling statue of the past few year, that once reassuring image of Saddam Hussein toppling into a Baghdad Square: it is not so reassuring now, certainly not to that large majority of the Labour party who never wanted to knock the Iraqi dictator down in the first place. Topple the Mighty has a foreword by George Galloway, the anti-war MP and new American counter-cultural hero. So that is yet another reason it may be hard to find in the Brighton Conference book shops. Its principal author, Leon Kuhn, helped Galloway in his successful campaign to topple a pro-war Labour MP in this year's election. And his theme is that 'toppling' is a former national past-time that deserves a comeback.
Kuhn and his co-author, Colin Gill, recall how Margaret Thatcher once lost her head - the marble version - to a left wing protester with a cricket bat. But, as they concede, this was easily dismissed as the work of one embittered individual. Their book puts more faith in the attacks on the Parliament Square statues, including the notorious 'Fat Tory Scum' message for Sir Winston Churchill, which took place during the mass anti-war protests of 2003. They set these acts in a distinguished 'alternative tradition' of telling history, one which was often encouraged by the state in the 16th and 17th centuries but derided by Tony Blair as 'mindless thuggery' now.
The official response to acts of public iconoclasm in 2003 was to wrap up every threatened statue in wooden boxes. One of the most enduring images of London at that time was of a warehouse city in which the main squares of Westminster had a packing case in every corner. Kuhn and Gill tell various stories of image-breaking, from Edward VI to the Jacobites, but especially enjoy the comparison between official British glee that Saddam's statue had come down in April 2003 and the abhorrence of the attacks on our own 'bronze armies'.
The attraction of toppling statues is that it suggests some kind of end - often in circumstances when there is no end. Kuhn is not a man to be fair to Tony Blair but I will try to be. The British Prime Minister knew very well that the rope around Saddam's neck in Firdowz Square on April 9, 2003 was the end of nothing. I was with him in Downing Street at the time and what he said to me was 'It's just one statue: I don't know what all the fuss is about'. An official with him at the time went further, suggesting that Firdowz Square was 'not exactly Trafalgar Square, more like Camberwell'. The authors cite Blair as being 'delighted' at the toppling - which is not quite inconsistent with what he said to me but not wholly accurate either. He soon had no choice but to see the fall of a statue as significant. The TV image had made it so. But this was the phase of the war when Blair was still supremely confident in the outcome, in his control and anticipation of events, and saw no need to hasten the end with artificial pictures. He would give much of his Brighton empire for such certainty today.