Oriel College, Oxford. Carl Court/Getty Images

University challenged

View from Oxford: this is about much more than a statue

Artillery Row

Your starter, for ten: what do Edward VII, George V, William Allen, Walter Lyhert, John Hales, and Henry Sampson have in common? Answer: Cecil Rhodes. Statues of those seven men have stood in their niches on the High Street frontage of Oriel College since 1911. Protesters once again gathered on Tuesday to demand that one—and only one—be removed.

The present alliance of Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matters in Oxford wants the statue of Rhodes taken down because he was a colonialist and an imperialist, and in his lifetime expressed views on certain issues that no self-respecting person would hold today. Fair enough, some have said, but if a man is known by his bedfellows then Rhodes’ carved companions also merit scrutiny.

Edward VII and George V were both Visitors of Oriel, Kings of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Emperors of India; when it comes to historical figures in favour of colonialism and imperialism, they are surely quite near the top of the list. In his youth, Edward took full advantage of his status, power, and wealth to bed as many women as he liked; 900,000 men fell dead for George and his grandmother’s doomed Empire.

Lyhert, Hales, and Sampson were fifteenth-century Provosts of Oriel; a century later Allen was Principal of St Mary Hall, on part of whose medieval site the Rhodes Building stands. Allen’s encouragement of Philip II’s Armada in 1588, an attempt to depose Elizabeth I, speaks of the dim view that he took of religious diversity, and perhaps of women in leadership roles.

As all four were priests in good standing with the Catholic Church of their day—Lyhert and Hales became bishops, and Allen a cardinal—we may safely also assume that they weren’t standard-bearers for homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or transgenderism. If any of them ever met a black man, I do not suppose for a moment that he took him home to introduce him to an unmarried niece.

Would those kings and prelates miss Rhodes, if he were suddenly taken away? They did not choose him as a companion any more than he chose them; accidents of history come in all shapes and sizes. They would at least still have each other, for despite their own ample offences against the sensibilities of the present age, it is Rhodes who must atone, and he alone.

The ideological extraction of Rhodes from his architectural setting on the High Street is amply echoed by the intellectual abstraction that has pervaded almost the entire debate in Oxford recently. While the protest on 9 June may have been brief and peaceful, the same can hardly be said for the discussions that have followed. To channel Harold Wilson, an Oxford man to his fingertips, a week is a long time in politics; in student politics it seems interminable.

Various social-media pages have exploded into spluttering apoplexy, and the lockdown has not helped. From the safety of their desks some of our young people have said things to their peers online that they would never have dared to say to their faces, or in the presence of anyone older or wiser who might have urged them to defend their position and temper their tone. Very few statements have engaged with anything other than engagement itself.

a week is a long time in politics; in student politics it seems interminable.

The argument probably has now far less to do with Rhodes than it has to do with freedom of thought. A disposition has emerged which seeks to denounce and humiliate anyone wanting to present reasonable and well-argued evidence, and on the basis of that evidence to present an academic argument against a majority view. Such a tendency is anathema to the essential work of a university and the basic principles of public debate in a liberal society, and it needs to be challenged whenever it arises.

Other fault-lines have also been exposed. Last week one student wrote that “you either agree that Rhodes was a racist and that we should remove [the statue] or you don’t, in which case you are a racist too.” If that is the sort of quality of mind that gets candidates into Oxford these days, then the University’s problems surrounding access and admissions are more serious than anyone has yet realised.

The concerns about anti-Semitic sentiment at last week’s protest, raised by the Jewish Chronicle on Friday, have been largely ignored. Nevertheless, the Junior Common Room of Oriel—or at least a majority of those members who bothered to vote—has enthusiastically and uncritically endorsed the demands of Rhodes Must Fall, and mandated its President, Kate Whittington, to condemn the Fellows for not having immediately done the same.

On Sunday, Whittington instructed her members to “reach out to your tutors with an email explaining why the removal of the statue is so important to you”. The instruction was issued to the 40% of the membership who voted for the statue to come down, to the 8% who voted for it to stay, and to the 52% who managed to find something else to worry about in the penultimate week of the academic year.

The Fellows of Oriel have maintained a dignified silence since their statement on 9 June, and the battle has raged around them. The members of the Junior Common Room at Oriel would do well to take seriously the problems presented by some aspects of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, lest in due course they find themselves—like the statues on the High Street—confined to niches of others’ making, wondering who it was that chose for them the company that they have come to keep.

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