Oxford University's Oriel College with a statue of Cecil Rhodes on the second floor above the door. (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Will Cecil Rhodes survive the baying mob?

View from Oxford: whether Rhodes falls or stands there will come from competing corners criticism, ridicule, and contempt

On 17 January the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, announced in The Sunday Telegraph that the government intends to “save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past”. The minister did not pull his punches.

[T]here has been an attempt to impose a single, often negative narrative which not so much recalls our national story, as seeks to erase part of it. This has been done at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies. We live in a country that believes in the rule of law, but when it comes to protecting our heritage, due process has been overridden […] What has stood for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not removed on a whim or at the behest of a baying mob.

As wise dons know, student politics is a fickle business

“We cannot—and should not—try to edit or censor our past,” Mr Jenrick continued. “At the heart of liberal democracies is a belief that history should be studied, not censored. We should apply the same scorn to the mindless destruction of statues as to the burning of books.” While it has been rumoured for a while that the government was planning on taking such a step, the timing of the Secretary of State’s announcement did not go unremarked in Oxford.

17 January was also the deadline of the latest extension for submissions that Oriel College’s Rhodes Commission had granted itself. The Commission was hastily voted into existence by Oriel’s Governing Body in June 2020, amidst the heat and noise of just the kind of “baying mob” deprecated by the Secretary of State.

Its members had intended to consider and agree its report by now, with an original cut-off date for submissions at the end of September 2020; it might well be asked why such extensions have been necessary. The answer, perhaps, lies in the substance of a letter from its Chair, Carole Souter, which was circulated to the junior members of Oriel at the end of 2020.

As you will know, in June this year the College announced the establishment of an independent Commission of Inquiry to consider issues associated with the statue of Rhodes which sits [sic] on the College’s High Street building.

The Commission initially asked for general submissions to be received by 30 September 2020. A very large number of submissions were received at that stage. They varied considerably in terms of the level of detail they contained and the extent to which they addressed the breadth of issues being considered by the Commission. This had an impact on the Commission’s initial plan of work. Further tranches of submissions from the general public, along with alumni, staff and Fellows of the College have continued to be received and assessed.

We aim to ensure that we have heard from any Oriel students who wish to contribute to our work. Given the time of year we want to make sure that there is sufficient time for individuals who have not yet done so to respond and would therefore be grateful for views by 5.00 on Sunday, 17 January […]

We are particularly interested in views on:

  • how the College might deal with the legacy of Cecil Rhodes in general;
  • the importance of the statue of Rhodes; and
  • how to make further progress in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion within the College.

[…] Submissions that have already been made do not need to be re-submitted. We look forward to hearing from you.

“We aim to hear from any Oriel students who wish to contribute to our work.” It is worth reflecting on whether the Commission’s members may have found themselves working in the context of a different set of circumstances from those that were promised.

Setting aside the obvious question about the reasonableness of inviting teenagers to contribute to the policy direction of a multi-million-pound charity, is it really likely that the members of the Junior Common Room of Oriel have been unaware of the work of the body that their then-President and her standard-bearers effectively forced into being in June?

If the Commission continues to lack the sort of contributions that it might have expected to receive six months ago, it is because writing a proper and persuasive grown-up letter takes time, effort, and a genuine belief in the righteousness of a cause. Typing a signature at the bottom of an emotive email template sent by a JCR President, and sending it on to the individual Fellows whom one has been instructed particularly to bombard, takes a matter of thoughtless seconds.

As wise dons know, student politics is a fickle business: 40 per cent of an electorate does not represent an overwhelming majority in favour of change, whatever the way in which it may have been spun at the time. Furthermore, since the summer Black Lives Matter has been replaced by the new opportunities for virtue signalling presented on social media by renewed lockdown, Covid-compliance, Brexit, and Donald Trump.

The Fellows of Oriel are now stuck with the Commission and its eventual report, which they presumably hope will please everyone. Nothing ever does, of course, and whether Rhodes falls or stands there will come from competing corners criticism, ridicule, and contempt. All this they will have brought upon themselves in a vain attempt to placate a shrill and politicised group of students, who have already moved on to more à la mode causes.

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