Magdalen College alumnus Sir John Betjeman considered Slough a cultural wasteland, now Oxford is in danger of becoming one. No longer do the educated elite provide promise of the protection, preservation, and celebration of British culture as they once did. Indeed, it seems that many are attempting to lead the miserable vanguard of its destruction. The prevailing national culture finds itself in an increasingly deplorable state. We feel the death pangs when they come from places where the nation, at least as we like to imagine it, is sacrosanct.
This week a student committee decided to remove a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II from Magdalen College, Oxford. Ostensibly, Her Majesty now represents ‘colonial history,’ and ratifying her removal would entail the gratifying effect of making ‘all feel welcome.’ Queen Elizabeth II has not only directed the dissolution of the British Empire, but also headed the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary transnational partnership devoted to advancing former colonies both internally and internationally. Her Majesty is our leading, longest-serving, most experienced and effective diplomat. It should not to be forgotten that both she and her late husband Prince Philip, served this nation in WWII; Prince Philip with distinction and bravery. Perhaps, most importantly, the Queen serves as the Crown in Parliament, the golden thread that binds the Constitution and makes it sovereign. One could ask if any of those who feel unable to share a room with an image of our Queen, have ever served Britain in any useful way?
Does the above not raise the question (burning for years, but rarely answered): who are we welcoming into our country and our great institutions, and why? Surely it cannot be right to study and, indeed, live in a country that welcomes native and stranger alike, and who repudiate its very much living emblem, that who unites all in shared subjectship? Alas, this is just the latest feeble-minded accomplishment in the woke agenda’s war on Britain’s proud history. It is an ill-considered attempt to undermine, ‘sanitise,’ and even eliminate our culture, or what’s left of it. But perhaps this view strikes too much of common sense to be taken seriously.
The Oxford Union this week voted for the motion, ‘This House Would Abolish the Monarchy.’ The world’s greatest student debating chamber is clad with pictures of Her Majesty and members of the Royal Family photographed beside proud committees. Itself an institutional reflection of, and historic training ground for, Parliament, it came as a surprise when this putative bastion of Britishness on the world stage voted in favour of abolition. Given the ‘de-colonisation’ of the academy over the past 50 years, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that the naivety of students is leading the woke charge of universal victimhood. More than 150 Oxford dons boycotting Oriel College for refusing to bow down to woke pressure and remove its statue of patron Cecil Rhodes is a case in point. Perhaps those wishing to eradicate all traces of Rhodes should also dispense with the international scholarships funded by his legacy?
Fine speeches were made at the debate by students and public figures alike, including one made in opposition by Lt. Gen. David Leakey, former Black Rod. Graham Smith, hailing from the ‘Republic’ think tank, spoke in favour of the motion. His fallacious argument was based on the Australian Government instructing the Governor-General – the Queen’s representative there – to hire non-whites in the 1970s. Smith denounced the monarchy’s reply that they ‘did not have a policy’ to hire them as racialist. Unfortunately, he failed to grasp the point that a policy that differentiated between races would be racialist. Thus, was the monarchy derided for being a bastion of equality before the law, and not discriminating by race, but hiring as they saw fit based on merit, not skin pigmentation. Not only is such hypocrisy is all too common on the left, it also demonstrates a lack of understanding. Conversely, the Bow Group advocate that government or corporate policy that ‘positively’ discriminates by ‘class, creed, or colour’ is discrimination, and must be prohibited.
Founded in the eleventh century and granted royal charter by Henry III in 1248, the University of Oxford has long been the recipient of the patronage of the kings and queens of England. In financial but also cultural terms, the monarchy has over centuries, both sanctioned and facilitated the growth of what is now the greatest university in the world. Do the woke students of today imagine this bastion of academic excellence at a far lower cost to students than similar institutions elsewhere in the world, endowed with its glorious architecture and rich tapestry of traditions, could have emerged without such patronage and history? Have not the magnificent dining halls, sweeping staircases, oak-clad libraries and commemoration balls been for centuries the by-product and guarantor of such prestige…. But perhaps the new iconoclasm will extend beyond the hypocrisy of merely enjoying such luxuries yet condemning the civilisation from which they emerged. Perhaps now they will want to tear down the ancient colleges in favour of Brutalist high rises, the very ubiquitous grey dullness of which would match their colourless ideology, devoid of rank or majesty. So, will Oxford detach itself from the rich endowment of history, and become a metonym for the nation so busily fanning the flames of its own funeral pyre.
It is a great relief that the volume of the backlash against wokery is growing amongst the majority. Accordingly, MPs are emerging from the woodwork in defence of the national heritage. Not least Sir John Hayes MP, whose Common Sense Group – some 50 Parliamentarians – recently released the anti-woke manifesto, Common Sense (www.thecommonsensegroup.com), and has made a point of condemning the new Oxford work republicanism.
Current President of Magdalen College, Dinah Rose, defended the committee’s decision to remove the portrait as it did not ‘represent the college,’ nor the University. However, when paired with the vote to ‘abolish the monarchy’ at the Oxford Union and the hysteria of the 150 woke dons, it is evident that there is a rot in Oxford. Furthermore, the situation in Oxford is but one example of a wider problem throughout academia symptomatic of the rise of ‘cancel culture.’ Consequently, it is absolutely right that this has become a mainstream media issue and one that must be raised in Parliament and addressed by the Government without delay.
Oxford, and every other academic institution in England, as a recipient of taxpayers’ money must ensure that all views are being proportionately represented if they are to receive public funding and charter. We are all in favour of free speech, but we have to remember that these institutions are in receipt of public monies. And therefore, they have an obligation to reflect public opinion, in the same way that a publicly funded institution like the BBC, or government department would. The Bow Group therefore advocates that an ombudsman superintends this representation accordingly. The Government has acknowledged that there is a problem in academia, finally bringing forward legislation to protect free speech on campus in the May 2021 Queen’s Speech. However, they need to recognise the gravity and urgency of this problem. Policy needs to go beyond this legislation to ensure that people are not just not being banned from campus, but a proportional amount of views are being reflected in terms of speakers and faculty members, and that students are being accepted on the basis of diversity of thought, as well as background.
I fondly remember the Magdalen portrait from my own studies. After a formal dinner in the great hall, my friends and I decamped to the MCR. We found the picture out of its frame and cast onto the ground. Feeling that here we were enjoying the very best our national culture could offer, we proudly lifted it up once more. Not only as a picture of Her Majesty who has done so much for this country did we celebrate it, but as too, a representation of the nation we came from, where we were, and, ultimately, what brought us together. It is thus with great sadness that I learnt of its final, unremorseful removal. Royalist, Jacobite, High Tory, Oxford had long been a city steeped in royal crimson. Can its coat be turned red again? I await a portent.
Joshua Whiteman-Gardner, M.St.(Oxon.)
Director of Communications, Office Manager, and Research Fellow, the Bow Group