Freedom of action, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom under the law and the freedom to both stick a picture on the wall of your common room of the Queen, and the freedom to remove it seven years later.”
For the uninitiated, here’s what’s going on in the hot higher education / culture wars story of the day. Magdalen College (pronounced “Maudlin” for some reason) is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. As well as central students’ unions, both Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges tend to have two of their own each – one for undergraduates (usually called the “Junior Common Room” or “JCR”) and one for postgraduates (the “Middle Common Room” or “MCR”).
Confusingly, most of those JCRs and MCRs also have premises, or at least (common) rooms. Back in 2013, Magdalen College’s MCR purchased a print of a photo of the Queen to decorate their common room, but at a recent meeting agreed a motion moved by its current President Matthew Katzman to take the portrait down and to explore replacing it with “art by or of other influential and inspirational people”.
In the minutes of the meeting, one student claimed that “patriotism and colonialism are not really separable”. Another claimed the move was not about “cancelling” the Queen, saying the committee was not capable of doing so: “This is about our communal space and making people feel welcome”. Katzman has since said:
It has been taken down. It was decided to leave the common room neutral. That was what this was about. The college will have plenty of depictions of various things, but the common room is meant to be a space for all to feel welcome.”
Somehow the otherwise unavailable minutes of the MCR (check this rabbit hole out) find their way into the hands of Guido Fawkes, who runs the story in the slipstream of general wokery and culture wars material and specific coverage of a story about Prince Phillip and King’s College London. Mail Online copies it out. And then the actual Secretary of State for Education tweets:
Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd. She is the Head of State and a symbol of what is best about the UK. During her long reign she has worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity & respect around the world
— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) June 8, 2021
Within a few hours, it’s a global news story. And Dinah Rose, the president of Magdalen College, takes to Twitter to explain:
Here are some facts about Magdalen College and HM the Queen. The Middle Common Room is an organisation of graduate students. They don’t represent the College. A few years ago, in about 2013, they bought a print of a photo of the Queen to decorate their common room. They recently voted to take it down. Both of these decisions are their own to take, not the College’s. Magdalen strongly supports free speech and political debate, and the MCR’S right to autonomy. Maybe they’ll vote to put it up again, maybe they won’t. Meanwhile, the photo will be safely stored.
Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days. So if you are one of the people currently sending obscene and threatening messages to the College staff, you might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen. Or whether she’d be more likely to support the traditions of free debate and democratic decision-making that we are keeping alive at Magdalen.”
It’s not even August.
The usual flavours of hot takes are available, which will be transmuted through callers to phone-in shows throughout the day and op-eds in tomorrow’s press. This is evidence of a rampant woke culture in education and something must be done. Students have always protested the monarchy. Don’t these youngsters know what the Queen has done for us. Why is the Secretary of State for Education tweeting about something so inconsequential. You should have seen what was on our wall when we were at school/college/university. Why are people obsessed with what students are doing in a room. Student politics is stupid and to be ignored. And so on.
In some ways the helpful thing about the story is that as this era of the campus culture wars continues to shapeshift, we’re edging closer to the realities. Although the press imply it by overusing the word “amid”, Williamson notably doesn’t suggest that his Free Speech Bill could have fixed this one – partly because the Bill has been accidentally drafted in a way that excludes Oxbridge MCRs and JCRs from regulation, but mainly because you can’t actually legislate your way to postgrads liking royal paintings. So much free speech stuff really appears to be about trying to make things or people cool or popular that aren’t.
When it comes to Gavin, the problem is that regardless of “who started it”, when you pour Kerosene on the culture wars people get hurt. Look back again at that Dinah Rose quote:
So if you are one of the people currently sending obscene and threatening messages to the College staff, you might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen.
It’s also a pity that Dinah Rose plays the old “they don’t represent the College, and they’re young and silly” cards. Artificially differentiating between what your anodyne Press Office says and what your students say never works, and denouncing student politics of this sort as kid’s stuff for me misses the point.
Of course at face value and in isolation the idea that a representative body of postgraduates at a Cambridge College during an actual pandemic can find the time to debate a picture of the Queen at length is preposterous, as is the Secretary of State for Education during a pandemic tweeting about it. And at face value and in isolation it is fairly innocuous and meaningless.
But from what we know about the minutes, this is representative of something deeper going on and it is a “tip of the iceberg” glimpse of a wider culture. Profound and significant differences in values are emerging and hardening, almost all of which seem to be axed around age. That can’t be good for society – but despite the apparent electoral advantages of doing so, picking sides is what we keep seeing done.
An ounce of sincerity on this or any other of the “culture war” issues would involve the “grown ups” wagging fingers at the “young” attempting to get into dialogue – to listen, understand, hear and if necessary persuade. But there are no ounces. Only condemnation and legislation.
Yesterday to little fanfare, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award launched a “manifesto for change” developed by young people. Its polling says that three-quarters of 14-24 year olds feel politicians rarely listen to the views of young people, if at all, and more than two thirds believe politicians make decisions with little or no consideration on the impact they might have on future generations.
They call for stronger laws, rules and practices to prevent discrimination on the basis of identity or characteristics, stronger laws, rules and practices to address prejudice, discrimination and inequalities in public life, investment in programmes to address youth loneliness and isolation, more specialist mental health support in schools/colleges/ universities and compensation to university students whose studies have been impacted by the Covid–19 pandemic.
I’ve not seen a comment on that from the Secretary of State, have you?