Academic blasts Liverpool University's renaming of Gladstone halls

Politics lecturer blasts ‘bonkers’ bid to re-write history by removing ex-PM William Gladstone’s name from halls at Liverpool University over his family’s ‘ownership of slaves’… even though he eventually supported ABOLITION

  • University bosses on Tuesday confirmed plans to rename Gladstone Hall
  • Students had concerns over Gladstone family’s ‘historic ownership of slaves’
  • Gladstone’s father John owned more than 2,500 slaves in the West Indies
  • He was compensated by the British Government when slavery was abolished 

A politics lecturer has hit out at Liverpool University’s plans to drop the name of former Prime Minister William Gladstone from a building because of his family’s links to the slave trade.

The university emailed staff on Tuesday confirming that the plans to rename the Gladstone Hall student accommodation building, which were initially announced in June, are set to go ahead.

They said the decision was being made because of ‘the strength of feeling evoked in our student community by the Gladstone family’s historic ownership of enslaved people, and their profiting from the transatlantic trade in enslaved people’.

But the move was slammed by university employee Dr David Jeffery, an expert on the history of Liverpool, who said on Twitter that Gladstone was one of Britain’s greatest’ Prime Ministers.

He added: ‘We’re post-truth. It doesn’t matter what the facts are, if you can kick up a storm on social media you can bully your way to getting what you want.’

William Gladstone’s father, the merchant John Gladstone, owned more than 2,500 slaves and was compensated by the British Government when it abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

Even though William spoke out in favour of the rights of plantation owners early in his career, he later said the abolition of slavery was one of the great political issues on which the ‘masses had been right’.  

Speaking to Mailonline, Dr Jeffery said it was ‘bonkers’ that Gladstone was being judged for ‘what his father did’.

The plans come as other prominent historical figures with alleged slavery links have been re-examined since the Black Lives Matter protests last year.

A politics professor has hit out at Liverpool University’s plans to drop the name of former Prime Minister William Gladstone from a building because of his family’s links to the slave trade

The university emailed staff on Tuesday confirming that the plans to rename the Gladstone Hall student accommodation building, which were initially announced in June, are set to go ahead

Early in his political career, Gladstone himself defended the rights of plantation owners in the West Indies and spoke out against the abolition of slavery in a speech in Parliament.

But Gladstone later became more critical of slavery and advanced proposals to help secure the ‘effectual exclusion of slave-grown sugar’ from domestic markets.

And towards the end of his life, Gladstone, who was from Liverpool, also named the abolition of slavery as one of the ten great achievements of the previous sixty years on which ‘the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong’.

Gladstone, who served as Prime Minister for four separate terms totalling 12 years in the late 19th Century, was also responsible for major progressive reforms including extending voting rights to millions of Britons and introducing the secret ballot.

He also championed home rule for Ireland and working-class rights.

Proposals put forward in 2017 to rename Gladstone Hall were voted down by students.

However, an open letter was then sent to university bosses last summer from a group of students calling themselves ‘Students in solidarity with Black Lives Matter’.

The university then announced in June that it planned to rename Gladstone Hall, before an email on Tuesday confirmed the measure.

Dr Jeffery said of Tuesday’s email: ‘The university is running scared. They had a vote in 2017 and the student body rejected it.

‘There’s no strength of feeling, if anything there is complete indifference. If they’re going by strength of feeling the 2017 vote should be used.

‘I think a lot of this is shaped by what the university sees on social media. That is the main way people are getting in contact with the university.

The university said they were renaming the building because of ‘the strength of feeling evoked in our student community by the Gladstone family’s historic ownership of enslaved people, and their profiting from the transatlantic trade in enslaved people’

‘They need to realise that what they see on Twitter is not representative of the university as a whole.’

Speaking of Gladstone, Dr Jeffery said: ‘No figure in history is perfect, but if we are going to have buildings named after prominent politicians, Gladstone is one of the finest.

‘As a young politician he clearly was shaped by his family, he did give speeches that were related to the defence of business owners in the West Indies but first of all at the same time he was pushing for progressive reforms in other areas.

‘What we miss by trying to completely Gladstone by what he did when he was in his early 20s is that you completely miss the full journey that he went on.

‘What you do is you are basically saying, if you get something wrong abut also a widely shared view at that time… it was a debate, it wasn’t an uncommon view.

‘But what was uncommon was his direction of travel. And what was uncommon was the wide range of progressive reforms that his party pushed through.

The move was slammed by university employee Dr David Jeffery, an expert on the history of Liverpool, who said on Twitter that Gladstone was one of Britain’s greatest’ Prime Ministers

‘It seems like we are setting the bar unnecessarily high for what we can honour people for. We are saying if you get something wrong but later change your mind, well tough.’

The academic added that, when he stood to be an MP in 1832, Gladstone ‘told voters that slavery should be abolished’.

He said that the passage of the bill which ended slavery in 1833 was ‘eased’ by the provision for compensating slave owners, which Gladstone supported.

Dr Jeffery pointed out in his tweets that Liverpool University has a ‘memorial scholarship’ named after legendary Beatles member John Lennon, even though he used to ‘hit his partners’.

He added: ‘Does this reflect the uni’s values – or are we picking and choosing based on currents fads?’

The email sent to staff by university bosses read: ‘The decision to rename the hall has been made in recognition of the strength of feeling evoked in our student community by the Gladstone family’s historic ownership of enslaved people, and their profiting from the transatlantic trade in enslaved people.

‘It is important that the names used within the University, including our Halls of Residence, reflect the values of openness, transparency and respect that underpin our work.’

They called on students and staff to propose new names for the hall so they could send a ‘clear message about the commitments we have made to our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students.’

Bosses said the hall would be renamed by students and staff using a ‘democratic nomination’ and ‘voting process’.

‘Nominated names should have a connection with Liverpool or the surrounding region and speak to the theme of racial equality,’ they said.

Voting will take place in April and the hall will then be renamed as the ‘democratically chosen winner’.

The email also said hinted that other buildings which are named after historical figures could be changed.

They said the renaming of Gladstone Hall was the ‘starting point’ in a ‘lengthy road’ which will see them introduce a ‘Naming Framework’.

Dr Jeffery said: ‘Liverpool University is shamefully going ahead with renaming Gladstone Hall – named after one of our greatest prime ministers and one of Liverpool’s most consequential political exports. He worked for the abolition of slavery and never owned slaves himself’

The programme will ‘help us to create a truly inclusive campus that provides belonging for each and every member,’ they said.

A Liverpool University spokesman said: ‘It is important that the names used within the University, including our Halls of Residence, reflect the values of openness, transparency and respect that underpin our work.

‘The renaming of Gladstone Hall of Residence is an opportunity to send a clear message about the commitments we have made to our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students and staff. 

‘This is outlined in the University’s Anti-Racism Action Plan resulting from its Equality and Human Rights Commission working group. 

‘We are determined to address the consequences of contemporary racism and racial inequality, and to drive the programme of institutional change that is needed.’

Many institutions around the UK have been looking at how to deal with their links to slavery following the Black Lives Matters protests earlier this year.

Protestors toppled the statue of renowned slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.

Since the toppling of Colston’s statue many institutions have removed statues and renamed buildings due to historic figures’ involvement with the slave trade.

Last month, the British Empire was branded ‘far worse than the Nazis’ during a controversial debate about wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill’s legacy at another Cambridge college.

During the online debate, at Churchill College, participants discussed ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ and looked at his ‘backward’ views on empire and race.

Contributor Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, said: ‘The British Empire was far worse than the Nazis. They lasted longer and killed many more people.’

On Churchill, he added: ‘There is no debate. His white supremacy is pretty much on record and the question here is why does Churchill still hold the level of popularity that he does?

‘It’s almost like he’s been beatified – a saintly figure beyond reproach.’ Professor Andrews has previously accused Britain of being ‘built on racism’ and called RAF airmen who bombed Nazi Germany war criminals.

He also belittled Sir Winston’s contribution to Britain, saying: ‘Was it Churchill out there fighting the war? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. I’m pretty sure he was at home.

‘I’m pretty sure that if Churchill wasn’t in the war it would have ended the same way.’ 

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