IT pays to be wary of big public sector projects in Scotland but with a bit of luck, in a couple of years’ time, George Square in Glasgow will look much better than it does now. There’ll be a new lawn, sheltered seating, and more greenery – in other words, a big improvement on the time the council decided that what our finest civic square really needed was lots of tarmac, and cut down those awful trees while you’re at it.

What we’re told is that the work on the square will start in January and be completed by July 2027, although the question that’s still unanswered is the statues. The one of Walter Scott on top of the central column is staying (even though he was big dirty unionist!) but the fate of the others is less certain. The plan is apparently to remove them, restore them, then put them back in a new position at the eastern end of the square.

Or at least that was the plan. What’s emerged in the last few days is that some of the statues may not make it back at all if that’s what recommended by the council’s anti-slavery working group (who they?) A council official said that if the anti-slavery working group (no, really – who they?) made such a decision, the plans for the square would be adapted accordingly. Another option would be for the statues to go back with new information plaques to place the statues “into a historical context for members of the public” should they not know what a book is, or be unable to look things up on their phone.

I must admit this is sensitive territory for me. As a Churchill fanboy, there’s nothing more certain to wind me up than seeing people spray-painting statues of the great man when they should be attending their afternoon lectures in gender studies. Part of me would also like every statue of every colonel and brigadier to go back to George Square just to annoy the kind of people who are outraged by the fact the past is different to the present. Basically, my first instinct in all of this is that fury at bronze men on granite plinths is historically illiterate and we shouldn’t pander to it.

But I also understand that there are nuances at work here, which is part of the problem with an art form – statues – that resists nuance. Recently, I wrote about the statue at Princeton University of John Witherspoon, the Scottish minister who became a founding father of the US. There are some who say it should come down because Witherspoon owned slaves and chaired a committee that voted against abolition. But while still a minister in Ayrshire, he also baptised a slave and offered him the same instruction that was available to the white members of his congregation and later tutored African and African American students. As I say: nuance, and the statue of Witherspoon can show none of it.

We should also be conscious of how the narratives we hear about men (usually men) on plinths can change, and then change again. For example 100 years ago this month, thousands of people gathered in George Square to witness the arrival of a special visitor. There were so many crowding into the square that some people climbed onto the roofs so they could get a good view. The visitor had come to unveil the new cenotaph and his name was Field Marshal Earl Haig

The scale and warmth of the welcome Glasgow gave Haig – he was one of the city’s heroes no question – may come as a surprise to you if you’re familiar with his reputation from the likes of Oh! What a Lovely War, and Blackadder, which famously showed Haig sweeping up model soldiers with a brush and chucking them over his shoulder. The aim of every military effort on the Western Front, said Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder, was to move Haig’s drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.

This is amusing certainly, but it also proves why you shouldn’t rely on TV comedies for your historical facts. Some people still buy into the Haig-as-buffoon idea, but it’s only possible if you ignore the more recent scholarly writing on the subject. There’s no arguing with the criticism that a different approach at the Somme could have lowered the casualty rate but read Haig’s diaries and you’ll also see him arguing with French commanders who wanted to push harder and further. It’s also clear Haig led the transformation of technology and tactics that helped win the war and later fought to promote the interests of ex-servicemen, helping to set up the Poppy Appeal. It’s one of the reasons so many were cheering him that day in Glasgow.

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The point is that there is no one simple way of looking at a person, historical, famous or non-famous. If it was up to me, the statue of Earl Haig on horseback that’s hidden away in a corner of Edinburgh Castle would be in a much more prominent position out on the street where everyone can see it but I accept that others would find that unacceptable and controversial. I’d argue they only think like that because they don’t know their history, but that’s the way it is: statues stand up on their plinths and we stand around arguing about the facts and what they mean.

So how should we apply all of this to the statues in George Square? The two most controversial are Lord Clyde, who oversaw the brutal end of the Indian rebellion of 1857, and John Moore, who was heavily involved in slavery, so undoubtedly anyone with a modern perspective will judge them harshly, more harshly even than Haig perhaps. And I suspect this is how it will be seen by the council’s anti-slavery working group (do we know who they are yet?) and that the statutes of Lord Clyde and John Moore will go into storage never to be seen again.

(Image: Free)

Part of me says fair enough, and anyway I’m not particularly interested in trying to defend Lord Clyde and John Moore. But if we’re going to have statues in public spaces at all, then that surely means accepting their inherently unsubtle nature. Putting one up says “hero” and taking one down says “villain” even though almost no one is entirely one or the other. The men on the plinths in Glasgow were heroes in their time despite committing acts or holding views that look horrifying now. And some of the men on plinths are seen as villains now even though a detailed look at their lives usually reveals it’s much more complicated than that. So it’s hard to say who should fall and who should stay.

We should also give the public some credit and assume they’re perfectly able to put statues in their modern context without the rather patronising help of the people who write plaques or sit on anti-slavery working groups. The truth is most of us may not even notice the statues in George Square. But if we do, and we read the names on the plinths, and we google the names, there it is: the often ugly, nasty, shocking history, clear as day. And that can only happen if the statues are actually there can’t it? And that’s good isn’t it? Better to know than to know nothing at all.