First, it was all about pulling statues down. Then it was about chucking them in the water. Then it was about putting new things on the statues. Now it’s about taking the things off again. The row over statues in public spaces has got pretty intense so let me bring you up to date in case you’ve missed the latest twist.

It concerns the Melville Monument in Edinburgh, a memorial to the politician Henry Dundas which you’ll remember was one of the statues that became controversial after Black Lives Matter. The council decided it would erect a plaque at the site supposedly putting Dundas in context, the specific accusation being that he was instrumental in delaying the abolition of slavery and, in the words of the plaque: “as a result more than a half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic”.

The most recent twist in the story is that the plaque has now disappeared, with a descendent of Dundas, Viscount Melville, claiming responsibility for taking it down and insisting it was all above board. A councillor for the Scottish Greens however, with all the nuance and restraint for which the party is known, has urged the police to investigate the removal as a potential crime.

The problem, of course, is that a deeply unsubtle tactic – a plaque written by committee – has been chosen to tackle a deeply complicated subject which is the role individuals play in historical events. The plaque appears to link Dundas directly with the fate of half a million enslaved Africans but as several historians have pointed out, pinning the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people on one person alone is bad history.

You can see the problem even better by imagining the kind of plaques that might be attached to some of the most well-known statues in Glasgow. The statue of David Livingstone for example up by the cathedral. Appoint a committee to write a plaque for that one and they might come up with something like: “David Livingstone once worked at Blantyre Mill which used cotton from the West Indies slave trade and was a supporter of the British Empire.”

But of course the same problems that apply to a plaque on Dundas’s statue also apply to Livingstone’s. I spoke to the Livingstone biographer Stephen Tomkins about this and he pointed out that a boy working for a mill cannot be held responsible for the global economics linking cotton to slavery. He also made the point that Livingstone’s support for the empire was motivated by abolitionist beliefs: he thought the empire could put a stop to the slavers’ activities.

Take another example: the statue of Walter Scott in George Square and imagine the problems you might encounter if you tried to attach a plaque to that one. Perhaps some Scots would like the plaque to point out that Scott was a “unionist” and a “Tory”. But maybe they haven’t read Scott’s letters in which he talks about England trying to take on the management of affairs which are “entirely and exclusively proper to Scotland”. It’s nuanced you see, and plaques aren’t nuanced.

Obviously, it gets even more complicated when you think about statues such as that of William of Orange. Can you imagine trying to get a committee of Glaswegians to agree on the wording of a plaque for that one? Some hate the statute, some have even attacked it; others revere it and interpret attacks on it as personal attacks on their community. It’s dangerously complicated and could never be reduced to a few sentences of “context”.

The conclusion from all of this, surely, is that rather than try to come up with plaques apologising for whoever it is has been memorialised in copper and marble – “sorry plaques” essentially – it’s better to leave them as they are and allow people to do their own research. They have phones. There are book shops. Take a picture of the statute and go off and work out for yourself how you feel about the person. You may agree that Dundas for example is “problematic”; you may think he was merely a man operating in his time. The point is that it’s complicated and cannot be reduced to some unsubtle little words on a crude little plaque.