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Gary Younge
Premature adulation

Now his statue stands on one end of Monument Avenue in the city - a tribute to the late humanitarian and only black man ever to have gained an All-England Club singles title.

Almost a mile away, at the other end of the street, stands Robert E Lee, the key military strategist who led the slave-owning states of America into battle and into defeat during the civil war over 140 years ago. Joining him on the charge into southern mythology, Lee is flanked by other southern generals including Jefferson Davis - the president of the Confederacy who approved the summary execution of black soldiers during the civil war as an "example" to discourage the arming of slaves.

"A people carves its own image in the monuments of its great men." So began the dedication of the mayor of Richmond, Archer Anderson, in his dedication to Lee's statue in 1890. True enough. The only trouble is deciding which "people", what "image" and who determines "greatness" - and the small matter of the half of humanity otherwise known as women.

That is the problem with statues. If they are to be truly effective they must be made to last. And if they are to be truly public they should be embraced by most, if not all. There is little point erecting a statue that people will one day want to remove. The first ever statue of Nelson stands atop the main street in Bridgetown, Barbados, in what was once Trafalgar Square, on an island the conservative mores of which have earned it the nickname "little England". Thanks to the growing assertion of Caribbean identity in the region, his home has been renamed National Heroes Square and Nelson is destined to be moved elsewhere on the island.

Nor is there much dignity in erecting a statue which will alienate large sections of those who see it. On the Scottish Highlands locals have long campaigned to remove the statue of the first Duke of Sutherland, a man who brutally removed up to 15,000 people to make room for his sheep. The statue is dedicated to "a judicious, kind and liberal landlord". So for these figures to remain relevant, the notions of "greatness" they embody must be not only fixed but agreed.

Statues are the most conservative form of commemoration. "Public monuments were meant to yield resolution and consensus," writes historian Kirk Savage in his book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves. "Even now, to commemorate is to seek historical closure, to draw together the various strands of meaning in an historical event or personage and condense its significance."

That being the case, it should not have come as too much of a surprise to us last week when Margaret Thatcher lost her head. Her statue was standing in the Guildhall Art Gallery when a man knocked her block off with a metal pole. He said he was making "a political point" against a woman who had done "irreparable damage" to the world his son was growing up in. Quite what political advantage his child will derive from a statue with no head and a father before the court is not quite clear. But you don't have to agree with his politics or his actions to understand that the dismemberment was entirely predictable.

Consensus is not a word that comes to mind when contemplating Thatcher's legacy. Nor does her record allow anything like a sense of closure. Many of the lives and communities destroyed by her policies have never recovered. When she heard of the beheading, Thatcher said: "I thought it was appalling. Politics is about persuading people through reason, not by acts of sabotage like that." Tell that to the former miners of Orgreave or the one-time steelworkers of the north-east.

But the problem here is not with Thatcher - for all her faults she was elected, unlike the military figures who are so often commemorated - but with the statue itself. The timing is bizarre. Tony Banks, chairman of the Commons works of art committee, sought to put up the statue with both indecent and inexplicable haste - seeking to waive the rule which traditionally bans statues of politicians in the first decade after their death. There will undoubtedly be a time when Britain is ready for a statue of Thatcher but it is not now. Before people are ready to remember her they will first have to forget much of what she did.

In Cuba it is illegal to erect statues to the living. Tellingly, in South Africa there are far fewer statues, roads and public spaces dedicated to Nelson Mandela - a consensual figure if ever there was one - than elsewhere in the world.

But here in Britain the impulse to see prominent people commemorated has gathered pace in recent years. Nowhere is this more evident than with the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The fact that all too few have a clue who is on the other three plinths should serve as an object lesson in how mistaken the desire for public statues of prominent people can be. Nonetheless, in the immediate aftermath of Diana's death came demands that she be placed there. At the height of the emotional outpouring this made sense to some. Almost four years on such a notion would seem absurd, not least because Kensington Palace Gardens has proved far more appropriate.

Similarly, the Daily Mail launched a campaign to put the Queen Mother there soon after she died. As I am chair of the committee that now advises London's mayor on what to put on the plinth, they called me. I took the fact that the Mail abandoned its campaign after two days without a single supportive royal representative, MP or even local councillor contacting me, as evidence that their efforts had garnered little popular backing. In any case, it was already public knowledge that a previous commission had advised that the plinth should be a rotating showcase for pieces by contemporary artists.

But for the Mail this was not a debate about a public monument but an attempt at political demolition of our committee. Like a North Korean propagandist their leader writer wilfully misunderstood caution for heresy from the "panjandrums of political correctness".

Within two months, at the height of the World Cup campaign, the Queen Mum was off the agenda and, courtesy of Madame Tussaud's, a waxwork David Beckham was on the plinth. This suggests that the desire to commemorate great people should be resisted wherever possible. Not because it causes controversy but because it is an inadequate salve to compensate for their loss, an unsatisfactory means of ensuring their memory and an inappropriate way of marking their success. Like a tattoo dedicated to a lover, it excludes all possibility of a change of heart. Removing it may leave a scar, and there are plenty of other ways of showing undying affection.

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