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On Thursday, the City of London approved the removal from its ceremonial Guildhall home of statues of two symbols of the financial sector’s historic role in slavery in the British Empire.
The move, voted by the City’s elected representatives, formed part of a larger debate over Britain's memory and representation of its history, sparked by the toppling of a slave trader’s statue in the city of Bristol during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
Following the protests, the company that runs the Square Mile financial district set up a group to tackle racism, which recommended removing statues of William Beckford and John Cass from the medieval Guildhall.
The City’s political leader Catherine McGuinness said, “The view of members was that removing and re-siting statues linked to slavery is an important milestone in our journey towards a more inclusive and diverse City."
Cass was a member of parliament and merchant in transatlantic slave trading during the early 1700s. Beckford similarly was two times Lord Mayor of London in the 18th century and had plantations in Jamaica with slaves.
Last summer’s turmoil caused the Church of England, the Bank of England, an Oxford University college, and similar institutions to deal with what they should do about historical legacies such as monuments to people involved in slavery or colonial exploits.
The movement has sparked a backlash from the ruling Conservative Party, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson accusing those wanting to topple statues of engaging in “a great lie, a distortion of our history” by seeking to “photoshop” the cultural landscape.
On Saturday, the minister for local government, Robert Jenrick, said in a newspaper column that he planned to change the law to require “proper process” to prevent monuments from being “removed on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob."
In London’s mostly white financial sector, the Black Lives Matter protests increased pressure to reflect the wider population’s ethnic diversity better.
That said, Tony Sewell, chair of a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that is will soon produce a report on its finding, said the focus should be on developing all talent and not on what he described as a “mini-industry” of diversity and inclusion services.
“I would challenge companies today not to get too worried about this whole idea of doing lots and lots of diversity stuff,” Sewell said.
Sewell said: “I would ask the harder question. How is their talent being developed? I am fairly cynical about charter sign-ups and tick boxes, which are easy to do."