Why We Need New Statues Reflecting Britain’s Diverse History
MP Preet Kaur Gill explains why she is backing a new campaign for public artwork commemorating people who are under-represented and forgotten in the country’s narratives about its past
Representation plays a crucial role in the way we see the world and ourselves in it. Growing up, it shapes our sense of what to expect of ourselves and what is possible.
As a second generation Sikh woman growing up in Birmingham in the 1970s and 80s, people like me weren’t on TV, or really represented in British culture. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined what Britain would look like today – more proudly diverse and representative than it has ever been.
I was lucky that I had positive role models and a supportive family around me, like my father Daljit Singh Shergill who was a prominent community activist in the West Midlands. He never let me feel held back from doing what I wanted to do, and taught me what I could one day achieve if I worked hard enough.
However, not everyone is so fortunate. It is why today we are rightly becoming conscious of culture and the messages it sends to those with more hurdles in their way.
There is good evidence to show why this matters. A report by King’s College London explains how female political leaders encourage other women to get more involved in the democratic process – not just by inspiring others, but by breaking down the barriers to participation that hold others like them back. Representation creates a virtuous cycle which is not just good for the women who break through, but good for democracy too.
For me, this is one of the many reasons why there needs to be a wider conversation about the art that is commissioned in the public realm, how we celebrate the achievements of all of our Great British heroes, and fundamentally whose stories are remembered and how.
Until now, it has just been the elite few who have been commemorated across our towns and cities. Fewer than 3% of the statues in the UK are of non-royal women, with other categories such as ethnic minorities receiving worse representation still. As a result, we tend to deprive ourselves of some of the most interesting and important stories in modern British history.
It is why myself and Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat are backing the ‘Hidden Heroes’ campaign, founded by Zehra Zaidi of ‘We Too Built Britain’, which is asking local people to nominate figures who deserve to be remembered with a statue. The campaign is calling for more statues to be erected, of figures that history has neglected or local heroes whose stories inspire their community.
The Suffragette Princess
My choice for commemoration is my personal hero Sophia Duleep Singh, the Sikh princess. To me, she represents an important part of Anglo-Sikh history that many people are unaware of.
Sophia Duleep Singh was the granddaughter of the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who ruled the north-west of the Indian subcontinent for nearly 40 years. His son, her father, Maharaja Duleep Singh, was overthrown by the British while only a child and forced into exile. As a result, Sophia was born in the UK.
As goddaughter to Queen Victoria, Sophia went on a remarkable political journey in the public eye, eventually using her influence to become a prominent member of the women’s rights movement, fund suffragette groups, and champion the cause for women’s suffrage.
She stood side-by-side with other women’s rights activists in 1910 through Black Friday, and was well known for her role in the Women’s Tax Resistance League and the Suffragette Fellowship.
Then, during the First World War, she paused this activity and became a British Red Cross voluntary aid detachment nurse, serving at an auxiliary military hospital. Between 1915 and 1917, she tended wounded Indian soldiers who had been evacuated from the Western Front.
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While Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett have both been prominently commemorated in the public realm – and rightly so – Sophia Duleep Singh has been a relatively forgotten figure until recently. Indeed, of all the statues of suffragettes, not one woman of colour has been commemorated.
It’s time that changed. Public art is the way in which, for generations, stories have been shared and passed on. Visual art often withstands the passage of time more so than written text or oral storytelling, which is why it is so important and why I want to see more monuments built, not less.
Without this recognition in public spaces, stories are lost, and histories forgotten. I am determined that we shouldn’t forget the contribution of women, ethnic minorities, and other under-represented people.
Figures such as Sophia Duleep Singh represent not just their own achievements but the struggle for progress over the decades. They provide a message of inspiration and show how far we’ve come – and how much further we have to go.
Britain has a fascinating history. My hope is that this campaign can give communities something to unite around, and help ensure that those great under-recognised figures and local heroes are given their rightful place in the stories we tell about our shared past.
Preet Kaur Gill is the Labour MP for Birmingham, Edgbaston. To nominate a figure that has inspired you, email her on firstname.lastname@example.org