A statue we don’t need

As a monument to Nelson Mandela falls by the wayside, why is a memorial to the Queen Mother going through on the nod?

Published in the Evening Standard 12 January 2006

Here’s a quick quiz question. Which is the greater, more historic achievement: ending apartheid in South Africa or eight decades spent waving a hand and giving a twinkly smile? Put it another way. Who is the better role model for our children: a man who endured 27 years behind bars, fighting for his people’s freedom – or a woman who lived for a century in cosseted comfort, quartered in her dotage in four palatial homes and served by a retinue of 50? Who, in other words, deserves a statue in London: Nelson Mandela or the Queen Mother?

But don’t reach for your phones just yet. This is not Celebrity Big Brother: you can’t vote on this one. No, this decision has already been taken ? and you and I had next to no say in the matter.

The proposal, championed by the Mayor, for a sculpture of Nelson Mandela to stand on the north terrace of Trafalgar Square was finally rejected last month by John Prescott, who has the last word on all planning matters. Even though he had publicly backed the Mandela idea ? heartily applauding Ken Livingstone as he argued for it in a speech at last autumn’s Labour party conference ? three months later the Deputy Prime Minister rejected it on that spot.

He sided instead with Westminster Council, accepting the view that a statue of the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle would be ?harmful to the character and appearance? of the Square if sited there. It was more important to maintain the symmetry of the Square, apparently ? which is a bit of a puzzle when you reflect that Trafalgar Square has been famously asymmetrical for more than 150 years, with two statues on one side, and only one on the other (thanks to a fourth plinth which sat empty for a century and a half.)

So no permanent tribute to the most revered human being alive, a champion of justice whose moral authority is respected in every corner of the globe. But the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who is said to have run up eight-figure overdrafts of taxpayers’ money on racehorses, who lived in a Gosford Park fantasy world of country houses, shooting parties and footmen ? she is about to be memorialised in London statuary and you will hear barely a word against it.

While the Mandela project dragged its way through endless committees, hearings and appeals, the monument to the Queen Mother will proceed at warp speed. ?Expressions of interest? from those hoping to design a fitting memorial were sought on Monday; and they were given a deadline of just three weeks. The top designers will be shortlisted by the end of February; they have to submit their plans by June, with a winner chosen in August, ready to be unveiled by next year. By the usual marathon standards of such projects, this is a steroid-fuelled sprint.

You might envisage multiple obstacles in the way. After all, royal memorials have proved a tricky business recently ? as anyone who has visited the Diana Memorial Mudslide in Hyde Park can testify. The new Queen Mother project seeks to head off a repeat of that trouble with this discreet warning to any would-be artists: ?Ease of ongoing maintenance by The Royal Parks is a key issue, so the use of water and moving parts is to be discouraged.?

The royal family will get no nasty surprises because, handily, it is keeping this decision all to itself. Take a look at the selection committee charged with picking a winning design. Its chaired by Prince Charles, with the following members: the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Alan Reid; the Director of the Royal Collection, Sir Hugh Roberts; the Private Secretary to The Prince of Wales, Sir Michael Peat; and the Director of the Property Section of the Royal Household, Graham Sharpe.

Now, such a cosy arrangement ? four white male servants of the Windsors ? would be entirely acceptable if this group were merely picking out a new rug for one of Buckingham Palace’s private apartments. But they are, in fact, making a decision that will affect the public space we all share: the memorial is likely to be on The Mall, near the statue of the Queen Mother’s husband, George VI.

All Londoners will have to live with the choice the Prince and his courtiers make. Yet the nearest this closed circle will get to democracy is when they submit their favoured scheme to Westminster Council in June. Now, I’m not much of a betting man, but I’d stake a fair sum that Westminster will accept the royal decision without too much protest. While they gave Ken daily grief over the Mandela plan, expect them to bend the knee, tug the forelock and bow graciously to the will of the Windsors when it comes to Her Majesty, the last Empress of India.

None of this makes for a heartening start to 2006. The obvious point is that London, already stuffed to the gills with dead royals etched in marble, stone and bronze hardly needs another one. What are lacking are monuments to people of colour: there is a statue of Gandhi in Bloomsbury, Martin Luther King can be found somewhere in Westminster Abbey and Mandela is already on the South Bank. Otherwise, the most visible black face in this city is the anonymous black person in the frieze at the bottom of Nelson’s Column. Our statuary and sculpture doesn’t begin to reflect the diverse city we have become.

But that is only half of the problem. The very way this process works is lamentable. How can it be that, in the London of 2006, it is still possible for an unelected Prince to wave his regal hand and alter our shared landscape, with barely a nod to the rest of us? When we raise that statue to the Queen Mother, as the Mandela one remains unbuilt, we will be saying something profound and depressing about ourselves: that we still elevate heredity and aristocracy over democracy, that we revere monarchy more than freedom.