- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

LONDON — The latest battle of Trafalgar is getting ugly.

Mayor Ken Livingstone wants to erect a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square alongside monuments to British military heroes.

City officials oppose the idea and, in a showdown this week, one of Britain’s most respected sculptors dubbed the proposed Mandela statue “mediocre.”

Mr. Livingstone compared that sculptor’s work to a “dog mess.”

Beneath the aesthetic mudslinging lies a political divide over what kind of heroes should be honored in London’s most famous square.

“Suppose I had proposed, in a moment of euphoric bipartisanship, to erect a statue of [former Conservative Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in Trafalgar Square. Would I have had problems with Westminster City Council?” the left-leaning mayor asked the Labor Party’s annual conference this week.

He answered his own question: “No.”

The Conservative-controlled Westminster Council has rejected Mr. Livingstone’s plans for a 9-foot-high bronze statue on the square’s north terrace, outside the main entrance to the National Gallery.

The council says its opposition is practical, not political. It does not like the look of the proposed statue by sculptor Ian Walters, which depicts Mr. Mandela clad in a characteristic loose-fitting shirt, his hands raised as if in animated conversation. It also wants the monument placed in front of the South African Embassy on the eastern edge of the square.

Mr. Livingstone wants Mr. Mandela at the heart of the square, already dominated by another Nelson. A statue of 19th-century naval hero Adm. Horatio Nelson stands atop a 185-foot-high column, and the square itself is named for the admiral’s 1805 victory over the French and Spanish fleets.

Also in the square are statues of King George IV and Victorian generals Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier.

Paul Drury, a consultant for the conservation group English Heritage, which also opposes the mayor’s plan, has said that placing an “informal, small-scale statue” of Mr. Mandela alongside military heroes “would be a major and awkward change in the narrative of the square.”

Changing that narrative is exactly what the radical mayor — once nicknamed “Red Ken” by the press — wants to do. Shortly after his 2000 election, Mr. Livingstone suggested replacing the military statues with figures “that ordinary Londoners would know.”

“I have not a clue who two of the generals there are or what they did,” he said.

During South Africa’s apartheid rule, a constant vigil calling for Mr. Mandela’s release from prison was held at Trafalgar Square, a traditional site of celebrations and demonstrations. Mr. Mandela has addressed crowds there several times since he was freed in 1990.

Mr. Livingstone said critics of the statue’s proposed location were hiding their true motives.

“I actually think it’s what he represents they don’t want to see depicted, because in that square one Nelson signifies the birth of the British empire and 100 years of global dominance,” Mr. Livingstone told Labor delegates. “Nelson Mandela would signify the peaceful transition to a multiracial and multicultural world, and I would be proud to have that in London.”

Mr. Livingstone has some high-profile supporters, including filmmaker Richard Attenborough, who raised money for the statue, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who last year called on Westminster Council to honor “one of the greatest statesmen of our time and help bring this internationally important public space into the 21st century.”

At a planning meeting this week to debate the issue, Glynn Williams, professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art, appeared as a witness for the council, saying the proposed statue was “run-of-the-mill mediocre modeling.”

“A good sculptor of more originality and inventiveness should have been chosen,” he said.

Mr. Livingstone hit back Thursday, noting that Mr. Williams lost to Mr. Walters in a competition to create a statue of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Holding a picture of Mr. Williams’ work, the mayor said: “The only sense that it looks like Harold Wilson is if Harold Wilson has been dead for several days and has started to decompose and is emerging out of a large pile of dog mess.

“It is all very well for people with fine arts degrees, but for ordinary people like myself, we want a statue to look like the person.”

The deputy prime minister’s office is holding an inquiry into the controversy, with a decision expected by year’s end.


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