In the same week that Ireland announced the date by which it will strip all branding from cigarettes, and with just weeks to go before the same happens in Britain, a student group has taken it upon themselves to plain package a building, ironically named for the great trader and founder of the Imperial Tobacco Group, Henry Overton Wills III.
You can’t move for Brexit stories these days, but you can usually rely on students to break the monotony of the news. Like clockwork, every week or so comes a tale of some lunatic SU policy or other: pull down statues, jazz hands instead of clapping, gender neutral pronouns, lower tuition fees. Rebranding buildings, however, has become a bit of a theme, of late; so much so that it’s becoming increasingly stale.
Wills, claim student protestors, made much of his wealth on the back of the slave trade, and as such, does not deserve to have his name associated with the university, nor attached to buildings. This despite the fact that Wills was also Bristol’s first chancellor, and the university’s major benefactor during its formative years.
The protestors even acknowledge that Wills’ involvement in the slave trade wasn’t unusual; Bristol was built on the foul business. Yet ironically they still want the history to be whitewashed.
What can be gained from this, other than to simply ignore and erase the sins of the past? How does that redeem the memories of the victims of slavery? And what, if anything, can be gained today, for modern race relations and the modern slave trade? The truth is, plain packaging a building, much like plain packaging fags and booze, has no effect. It is posturing; the smashing of idols for no reason other than scorn.