Main Entrance to Oriel College, Oxford University, England
Artillery Row

Wise counsel

View from Oxford: Robert Beddard speaks from retirement

The Robert Beddard Room now occupies part of the ground floor of the Rhodes Building at Oriel College. Named by a generous benefactor in honour of his former tutor, to the present generation of undergraduates it is little more than the name of a teaching space; to Orielenses of an earlier vintage it speaks of history, in more than one sense.

Robert Beddard and Jeremy Catto did not just teach History at Oriel for 40 years, they were History at Oriel for those four decades. Their students are now scattered all over the world, and some are in very high places indeed. Dr Catto died, much mourned, in 2018; Dr Beddard is very much alive, limber in his ninth decade, and sharp of mind and quill.

Dr Beddard had been teaching History at Oriel for a full decade before the present Provost, Lord Mendoza, matriculated in 1978. He has in the past made no secret that he is of the opinion that the statue of Cecil Rhodes on Oriel’s High Street frontage and the associated plaque in King Edward Street should remain firmly in place; he has now allowed his comments to the Rhodes Commission to be circulated:

Cecil Rhodes’ legacy has helped to finance and enhance the life of Oriel College for over a hundred years, and as such has contributed to making the University of Oxford what it has hitherto been: a living and civilised entity that is the envy of the world. His foundation of scholarships to Oxford was from its inception open to all applicants, irrespective of race or creed, and has for many generations brought more scholars to the University from Africa than any other body—and continues to do so today.

In that context I urge the Commission to consider the substantial intellectual, cultural, and potentially financial harm that will be done to the College and University if Oriel’s monuments to Rhodes are removed. I wish particularly to emphasise the intellectual damage that will be done by applying present-day moral standards to the past; that is what the Victorian historians frequently did, which inevitably compromised the integrity of their judgement.

To return to such an exercise would be a retrograde intellectual step. To remove the statue and plaque under such circumstances would not only amount to the blatant denial of the generosity of a major benefactor; it would also damage the international standing of both the College and the University as places of learning where intelligent and reasoned debate of the pros and cons of any subject is actively and scrupulously encouraged.

Apart from disfiguring a listed building, thus establishing a dangerous and unacceptable precedent both in Oxford and nationally, the removal of the statue and plaque would surely discourage future benefactors—many of whom are, frankly, sought and found on a pledge to associate  their names with the endowment of buildings, rooms, fellowships, scholarships, and prizes—by signalling institutional ingratitude for gifts.

To concede to the demands of an ill-informed and vociferous minority would place the present Provost of Oriel, Lord Mendoza—as the government’s recently-appointed Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal—in an invidious and embarrassing position, especially as he is on record as stating that “our culture holds us together” as a community, regardless of our diverse individual heritages, and forms “a vital part of people’s lives”.

It must be remembered that those institutions and states that have in the past sought to control the content of their history—whether imposed by fascist or communist régimes—have without exception been judged by posterity not to have acted in the best interests of their members or citizens. Cultural dictatorship, from any quarter it comes, is to be shunned.

Of course Rhodes was of his own time—everyone is. Not everyone is a farsighted and generous benefactor to posterity, however—as Rhodes was. For that alone his memory should not be erased from the history of the College that helped to produce him, and to whom it is lastingly indebted. The present generation does not have the right to deny to their successors the fullness of their heritage.

The bullying and intimidating behaviour of a vocal minority of students, backed up by helpful pressure from Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall, is now a matter of open conversation in Oxford. That such a well-respected and senior member of Oriel—a fellow of fifty years’ standing—should comment publicly on the woeful situation in which the college finds itself can hardly be underestimated.

As Sir Humphrey Appleby might have said, it would be brave of the Rhodes Commission not to engage seriously with Dr Beddard’s contribution to their deliberations—unless, of course, it undermines a decision that has already been reached. If that is indeed the case, as has been suggested elsewhere, then the responsibility for the consequences that Dr Beddard predicts will rest firmly with the present fellowship, and no one else.

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