Queen portrait removal divides Oxford University students
Queen portrait removal divides Oxford University students
For some students at Oxford, the decision to remove a portrait of the Queen from a common room is an “unspeakable thing”, and for others it’s a welcome acknowledgement of the UK’s colonial history – albeit a move now being hijacked by those seeking to exacerbate the “culture wars.”
On a sunny afternoon in this university city, students who should otherwise be preoccupied by finals and summer balls are otherwise distracted, and divided.
This week, members of the Middle Common Room (MCR) at Magdalen College voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking down the image of the monarch, arguing it is an emblem of “recent colonial history” that could make some feel unwelcome.
And in so doing, they plunged the university into yet another chapter in the ongoing debate around freedom of speech versus so-called “wokeness” at higher education institutions.
The prime minister has himself weighed into the debate, with his spokesperson on Wednesday backing education secretary criticism of the decision to remove the portrait. Gavin Williamson had tweeted that the Queen has “worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect around the world”.
For some students, the proverbial dethroning represents a breath of fresh air.
One student said she “fully supported the decision” and argued it was just an extension of the debate around whether or not to remove a statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the university’s Oriel College last year.
“There’s definitely a lot of change that needs to happen at Oxford, so I think it’s good that they are recognising that actually all these famous figures do not necessarily have a positive history, especially for minorities and people of colour,” Safaa Baig, a first year student of philosophy and French at Saint Peters College, told The Independent.
“I think it’s helpful to know that actually there are people who think that it is wrong and that a lot of things we did were wrong and should not be put in this glamourised light.
The Queen, she added, “may have done a lot of good but she did a lot of bad and I think the fact that people can now recognise that is important.”
For people who “know a lot less about colonisation, for example, the Queen’s negative impact on places like India or Africa, it is very easy for them to overlook the negative things she has done,” Ms Baig added.
Another student, Rico Kofi, said displaying the picture in the college’s common room has “colonial undertones”. The 19-year-old student of history at Pembroke College said: “If they voted for it, it’s their choice, their college. We’re a democracy.”
For Joe Drakeley, a 22-year-old physics student at Oriel College, a small decision about a common room has been manipulated by the Conservatives, who he said are “in the middle of a culture war”.
“It fits a narrative that they are trying to push. I think it fits their general idea that we are all too left-wing, which is not the case.”
“I would not go into someone’s house and tell them what to put up. It is their choice whether they have it up. Whatever you think of their reasons for taking it down is entirely irrelevant, because it is just a picture that they have chosen not to put up.”
But other students remain adamantly opposed, with one at Magdalen College, who did not want to give his name, revealing that undergraduate students plan to launch a counter motion to have the picture put back.
“The issue comes down to the dysfunctional nature of how internal college politics works,” the politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) student said. “We’re going to try to pass a counter motion to have it put back up, because we feel it should be done. We did not get a say in this at all. We were not even aware this was happening until it came out.”
He said the backlash had been “massively overblown” and added: “Obviously, this is a diverse group of people, we all come from different backgrounds and have different opinions, so it is quite harsh for it to be published that we all think this when it definitely is not a universally agreed upon thing.
“I do think it is trying to present this picture that universities are at war with free speech, and it definitely plays into that rhetoric.”
Another student of PPE at Magdalen agreed the issue had been blown out of proportion, but added: “It is just a social place, it is probably not the place for a portrait of the Queen anyway.”
For Quentin Skinner, a student of mathematics at Lincoln College, the removal of the portrait was an “unspeakable thing”, while another shouted that the decision was “terrible” and branded it “a disgrace to our nation”.
Another, who did not want to be named, said it was unclear what the move had achieved. “I think it detracts from the real issues some people face. I don’t think it is true that the Queen represents what she was said to represent in the meeting,” he said. The backlash among MPs and in the press was “giving the students exactly what they want, which is attention,” he said, adding: “They should just ignore it.”
The president of the MCR, Matthew Katzman, did not respond to a request for comment by The Independent, but said in a statement to Mail Online: “The action was taken after a discussion of the purpose of such a space, and it was decided that the room should be a welcoming, neutral place for all members regardless of background, demographic, or views.
“The royal family is on display in many areas of the college, and it was ultimately agreed that it was an unnecessary addition to the common room. The views of the MCR do not reflect the views of Magdalen College, and the aesthetic decisions made by the voting members of its committee do not equate to a statement on the Queen. Indeed, no stance was taken on the Queen or the royal family – the conclusion was simply that there were better places for this print to be hung.”