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Keir Starmer: Colston statue should have been taken down ‘a long time ago’

The bronze figure was pulled down with ropes, dragged through the streets and thrown into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest.

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Protesters throw the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour (Ben Birchall/PA)

Protesters throw the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour (Ben Birchall/PA)

Protesters throw the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour (Ben Birchall/PA)

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol should have been taken down “a long, long time ago”.

The bronze statue of the 17th century figure was pulled down with ropes, dragged through the streets and thrown into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday.

Police have launched a criminal damage investigation into what happened to the statue, which has long been a source of controversy in the city where it has been situated since 1895.

Home Secretary Priti Patel described the incident as “utterly disgraceful”, while crime, policing and justice minister Kit Malthouse called for those responsible to be prosecuted.

Speaking on LBC, Sir Keir said it was “completely wrong” for the statue to be pulled down in that way.

But he added: “You can’t, in 21st century Britain, have a slaver on a statue – a statue is there to honour people.

“That statue should have been brought down properly with consent and put, I would say, in a museum.

“This was a man who was responsible for 100,000 people being moved from Africa to the Caribbean as slaves, including women and children, who were branded on their chests with the name of the company that he ran.

“Of the 100,000, 20,000 died en route and they were chucked in the sea. He should not be on a statue in Bristol or anywhere else.”

Avon and Somerset Police said they made a tactical decision not to intervene when the statue was toppled, dragged through the city and dumped in the water.

No arrests were made but officers are now collating footage of people filmed taking part in the action.

BBC Bristol reported that 17 people have already been identified by police in relation to the incident.

Superintendent Andy Bennett, of Avon and Somerset Police, told the programme: “If it was lawless, why have we not got damage, why have we not got people who have been hurt, why have we not got broken windows, why have we not got cars damaged?

“There was anger focused on one statue. We had to make a decision that is it best to allow that act to continue to its conclusion or do we intervene in a way that could cause subsequent disorder.”

Around 10,000 people took part in the protest on Sunday, which was praised by the force for being “peaceful and respectful”.

Marvin Rees, the elected Labour Mayor of Bristol, praised the police’s handling of the event as “intelligent and nuanced”.

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The empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol stood (Ben Birchall/PA)

The empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol stood (Ben Birchall/PA)

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The empty plinth where the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol stood (Ben Birchall/PA)

Mr Rees said he could not condone the damage and was also concerned about the implications of a mass gathering in terms of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m the mixed race child of a Welsh-English white woman and a black Jamaican father,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“One of my ancestors would have been taken on a ship from Africa to the Caribbean.

“That statue is an affront to me and there’s a plaque on it as well that describes him as a ‘wise and virtuous son’, so that’s a double insult.

“It’s not something that I as a Bristolian would have looked on with pride and it had been a point of debate in the city.”

Mr Rees said Bristol only started to really discuss its relationship with slavery in a “meaningful way” about 20 years ago and that conversation would now “go up a few gears”.

“We have a statue up to someone who made his money buying and selling people,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“That statue is now underwater, which is a piece of poetic and historical irony because, undoubtedly, people would have been thrown off the sides of the ships during the journey themselves and there will be many African bodies on the bottom of the water.”

Mr Rees said the statue would be pulled out of the harbour “at some point” and placed in a museum.

Placards from the Black Lives Matter march, which were laid around the plinth where the statue had stood, have also been collected and will be put on display.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Malthouse told BBC Breakfast: “A crime was committed, criminal damage was committed, there should be evidence gathered and a prosecution should follow.”

The minister said the issue of the statue should have been resolved democratically and not by people “showing up with ropes and tools” committing criminal damage.

Colston’s involvement in the slave trade through the British-based Royal African Company was the source of much of the money which he bestowed on Bristol.

The statue was one of a number of landmarks in the city to bear Colston’s name, although music venue Colston Hall will be renamed this year as part of a major refurbishment.

A spokesman for Historic England said the “unauthorised removal of a listed structure” could not be condoned, but recognised that the statue had been a symbol of injustice and a source of pain.

“We are here to offer guidance and support but believe the decision is best made at a local level – we do not believe it must be reinstated,” he added.

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for a statue of Dr Paul Stephenson – who led the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott – to replace the Colston memorial.

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