The government has signalled that it will not remove any statues or monuments from its property, as tensions mount over the UK’s memorials to controversial figures.
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said he had written to MPs, peers and councillors, outlining the government’s position, after a week in which tens of thousands of people protested against statues of historical figures linked to slavery and racism.
In the three-page letter, Dowden said heritage should be used to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s morally complex past, “rather than airbrushing history”.
The debate over the future hundreds of statues and monuments in the UK has raged since last weekend, and a growing number of petitions have been set up both for and against their removal.
In Bristol last weekend, a statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was toppled . In Poole, the council announced plans to remove a statue of Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout movement founder, amid concerns it would be targeted by anti-racism activists; but these were thwarted when it was surrounded by dozens of local people, some in Scout uniform.
Dowden tweeted: “As Culture Sec I would like us to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, good and bad, rather than airbrushing history.”
Dowden said in the letter that many of the monuments were listed and could not be removed without planning permission via a quasi-judicial process. Street names could also not be changed without the formal consent of two-thirds of residents who live on the street.
He wrote: “In our democracy, if one wishes to change the urban landscape, this should be done through the democratic process.”
Meanwhile, Historic England gave the government its full backing, stating it was against the removal of “contested heritage” and saying that it had temporarily boarded up some monuments to protect them.
Sir Nicholas Soames – a former Conservative minister and Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson – said he was “deeply upset” after the former prime minister’s statue was defaced. It was later among the statues that were boarded up before planned anti-racism protests in London.
Soames told the Daily Telegraph the incident, in which the word “racist” was scrawled on the monument, suggested British society had “lost its compass”.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, called for the statue in Parliament Square to be uncovered “immediately” and criticised the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, for covering it up.
However, Soames said Khan was right to heed police advice and board up the statue and the nearby Cenotaph.
“I find it extraordinary that millions and millions of people all over the world who look up to Britain will be astonished that a statue of Churchill and the Cenotaph, our national war memorial, could have been defaced in this disgusting way,” he said.
“These people who are marching did not set out to do this, but a very, very small, extremely explosive group of people who have made a practice of hijacking entirely responsible demonstrations are behaving in an unspeakable and cowardly manner.
“It feels like a society that has lost its compass.”
His sister Emma Soames said she had been shocked to see the statue boarded up, although she understood why it had been necessary.
While she acknowledged some of her grandfather’s views would be considered unacceptable today, she said he was rightly seen as a hero by millions of British people.
“He was a powerful, complex man with infinitely more good than bad in the ledger of his life,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Until now he was regarded as the saviour of this country and one of this country’s greatest democrats and parliamentarians. That is why the statue is there. People weren’t looking at the entire record of people when they put up statues to them. If they did, we would be living in a country of empty plinths, I think.”