'Don't tear our statues down' says Sir Geoff Palmer amid controversy over Edinburgh's historic links to slavery

A leading anti-racist campaigner has hit back after several commentators accused him of wanting to ‘tear down’ statues and ‘defile’ Adam Smith’s grave.

Sunday, 7th March 2021, 2:14 pm
'Misrepresented': Sir Geoff Palmer does not want statues torn down
'Misrepresented': Sir Geoff Palmer does not want statues torn down

Sir Geoffrey Palmer OBE, a professor emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, has been appointed by Edinburgh City Council to lead the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group.

The group will investigate the street names, monuments and buildings of the capital, and according to Sir Geoff, will provide educational resources to 'provide people with information about their city', rather than removing statues and changing place names.

Despite this, some commentators have heavily criticised Sir Geoff and the review group after a leaked draft list of places and monuments that could be subject to review was leaked to The Telegraph newspaper.

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Controversial: Adam Smith

Contrary to some reports, the list, which is a draft compilation of possible review subjects submitted by individual members of the group, is not an agreed list of place names and monuments to investigate - that list is set to be agreed when the group meets on March 15.

The leaked document listed Adam Smith’s grave, in Canongate Kirkyard, as a possible contender for investigation, due to Smith’s apparent acceptance of slavery as ‘inevitable’ - although he was a fierce critic of the practice and frequently condemned it.

The inclusion of Adam Smith’s grave on the draft list has led to several conservative commentators heavily criticising Sir Geoff Palmer on social media.

The ‘Save Our Statues’ Twitter account, which regularly tweets about the Black Lives Matter movement, tweeted: “Adam Smith's grave listed in Edinburgh City Council's slavery review. Despite saying slavery was contemptuous.

Final resting place: Adam Smith's grave in Canongate Kirkyard

“With historically illiteracy and targeting of graves, Sir Geoff Palmer's kangaroo court is showing up the lunacy of these reviews better than I ever could.”

Matt Kilcoyne, the deputy director of neoliberal think tank the Adam Smith Institute, accused Sir Geoff of trying to ‘wipe Adam Smith out of history’, writing: “I condemn in unequivocal terms the moves by some on Edinburgh Council to try and wipe Adam Smith out of history.

“His record on slavery is one of condemnation, he wrote the moral case against it and the economic case against it. Adam Smith's record is readable and redoubtable.

“We're proud to champion his legacy and the Adam Smith Institute today speaks out against forced labour — most recently we've highlighted the slave camps of Xinjiang. We will continue to do both.”

Mr Kilcoyne has also started collecting names in support of the full retention of Adam Smith’s grave and statue, despite Sir Geoff’s previously stating he does not wish to remove monuments, and has written a comment piece for The Spectator on the same subject.

Commentator Paul Staines, who runs the right wing politics website Guido Fawkes, also tweeted in the belief Smith’s statue was under threat, writing: “Of all the statues not to tear down, Adam Smith, who argued against the consensus of the time, that slavery was immoral, is surely the one.

“That he did not win the argument in his lifetime is no reason to defile his grave.”

In response, Sir Geoff has reiterated his belief that some commentators are misrepresenting what he’s trying to accomplish, saying: “I was one of the only people saying don’t tear our statues down, which is the irony of Twitter accounts like Save Our Statues attacking me.

“The council has appointed me knowing what my views are. My view is clear - and I’ve said it quite clearly - the next statue down in our country should be racism.

“If you remove the statue you remove the deed, and our statues are in the context of our history.

“So where Dundas is, it is in the context of St Andrew Square, it is in the history of St Andrew Square, it is linked to Dundas Road across the street.

“It is linked to Henry Brougham, the abolitionist, who lived in St Andrew Square.

“So if you start removing things from their context, then in 100 years time we will have forgotten this historical context.

“It’s also important because the reasons why Dundas’ statue was put there are important, and therefore we cannot remove history from its context.”

Sir Geoff also says his work on BAME history will help fight racism in the present: “What I would like to see is the Scottish people, with this remit, will understand their history better.

“They will come to understand the truth of the link between Edinburgh and it’s relationship with slavery. We’re going to do this by giving them the evidence.

“Street names for example - we know that Balcarres Street, named after Earl Balcarres, was Henry Dundas’ governor of Jamaica, and he owned slaves and enslaved them.

“We’re also going to look at the New Town, we’re going to look at the streets and roads in the New Town, and many of these streets are on the compensation list - the people who lived there got compensation for their slaves.

“We’re going to look at statues and monuments of people who are linked to slavery and colonialism. We’re going to provide people with information about their city.

“That information will not be prejudicial, it is not going to be there to denigrate, it is there to give the public information about their city and its links with slavery and colinialism.

“We will then have a document, which is evidence-based, that can be used for educational purposes in order to say to the public that when you look at a BAME person in our society, they have a right to be here.

“They were part of the British Empire, they worked and they died for it and therefore we are all now one Scotland.”

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