Some good news at last! The middle common room of Magdalen College, Oxford has voted to remove its portrait of the Queen because of her association with colonialism. Don’t you think that’s really great news? There certainly seemed to be a consensus across the political spectrum that it was.
To be clear, I’m not saying there was a consensus that it was right to remove the picture. Far from it. That wouldn’t have been good news – that would have been exceptionally boring news. Everyone agreeing isn’t entertaining. This was great news because of the hysterical divergence of opinion about it.
On the one hand, we have the self-consciously solemn language of the student body: “For some students, depictions of the monarch and the British monarchy represent recent colonial history”; “the room should be a welcoming, neutral place for all members, regardless of background, demographic or views”; the portrait will be replaced with “art by or of other influential and inspirational people”.
Am I wrong to infer, behind the measured tone, an impish glee at the consternation they know they’re going to cause? As the president of the college put it: “Being a student is… sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.”
It absolutely isn’t, as demonstrated by the other hand: the balancing glee of the frothing response, featuring on (and in some cases dominating) several front pages on a day rich with other newsworthy occurrences. In advancing order of delighted rage, there was the Times: “Oxford college to remove Queen’s portrait over colonial links”; the Daily Telegraph: “The Queen ‘cancelled’ by Oxford college”; the Daily Mail: “Outrage as Oxford students vote to axe Queen”; and the Daily Express: “How dare they! Oxford students cancel our Queen”. I find the use of a possessive adjective in that last one exquisitely loathsome.
It is probably already too late to implore you not to think about whether the students are doing the right thing. You’ll already have thought about it – I certainly have. Raising a question like that is like putting out a bowl of free crisps: it’s almost impossible not to get involved. But if you can avoid it, you’ll feel better about yourself later.
What turns a slightly unhealthy mind-snack into a national mind-dietary crisis and a ticking time bomb for the nation’s mind-health (this crisps simile deserves a medal) is the eagerness of the government to give a view. Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state responsible for higher education, was moved to say: “Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd.”
Simply absurd. That’s what he claims to think about the removal of a picture from a wall. Just daft. Insane. Like they’d put the pictures on the floor and the carpet on the windows. And then smeared faeces all over the place. A world gone absolutely crackers.
On Tuesday morning, nobody cared what the graduate students of Magdalen College, Oxford put on the wall of their common room. That seemed a perfectly reasonable state of affairs. Why, by Wednesday morning, had it been abandoned? What good does that do?
It certainly does harm - it’s incredibly divisive. That’s partly because it’s about the Queen. In Britain, the Queen is supposed to be a unifying symbol. Crucial to making that work is avoiding too much specific discussion of her. She needs to remain a benign figure on to whom everyone can project whatever they want her and Britain to stand for. As soon as people start comparing notes about that, the system starts to unravel.
The 'woke' and the patriotic hold a duopoly on self-righteousness
So these students say she is associated with colonialism, while Williamson says she’s “a symbol of what is best about the UK” who promotes “British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect”, someone on Twitter claims that the Queen is actually “a pioneer of anti-racism” and Toby Young completes the circle by saying of the Magdalen students: “It is baffling that they associate the Queen with colonialism.”
It’s really not baffling. It is eminently comprehensible. It might be unfair but it’s not like associating her with rising knife crime. When she became Queen, Britain still had loads of colonies and she seemed fine with that. Then that largely stopped and she also seemed fine with that. Analysis of all the mutually contradictory things she has seemed fine with over her exceptionally long reign isn’t going to help the country and is very unfair on an elderly woman who has handled the frankly surreal circumstances of her existence with stoicism and dignity.
And it all misses the key point: it is fine to take her picture down and it is fine to leave it up. That is what almost everyone thinks. Suggesting that either course of action isn’t fine is what’s not fine and yet those groups – the “woke” and the patriotic – hold a duopoly on self-righteousness.
News stories of students making this sort of lefty political statement have been breaking for decades and it all used to be pretty harmless. Currently, however, it is of tremendous help to the government. Boris Johnson and his team have been pushing patriotism hard post-Brexit because they have correctly analysed that it’s a good way of shoring up the 40-45% of the vote they need to stay in power.
So when something is reported that plays to the concerns many people have about cancel culture, it gives the government a wonderful opportunity to appeal to an extremely wide spectrum of opinion: everyone from those who just think wokeness has gone a bit far, right round to full-on fascists.
“We’re thinking what you’re thinking” is the implication to all of those voters. The Tories get to play the outsiders, the underdogs, knocking down the unaccountable ivory towers of academe. For all their wealth, privilege and the backing of vast financial vested interests, Johnson and co manage to present themselves as commonsense men of the people. They only alienate those who wouldn’t vote Conservative in a million years anyway.
It’s cynical divide and rule. They appropriate symbols of unity, such as the monarchy and the flag, and make them instruments of division. That pitiless strategy, rather than any precocious student resolution, is the true insult to the Queen.