The tearing down of Theresa May’s portrait at Oxford University prompts the reflection that there have long been bolshie and bigoted students who don’t play by democratic rules.
But two things have changed in recent years. One is there appear to be more of these intolerant and bullying young people than there used to be. Banning things, and people they don’t like, is becoming depressingly widespread.
The second development may be even more disturbing. University authorities and dons are increasingly turning a blind eye to the extreme activities of students, and in some cases colluding with them.
Mrs May was one of 12 alumnae whose pictures were put up last week in the school of geography, where she studied more than 40 years ago. As only the second women prime minister produced both by this country and Oxford, it was right she should be celebrated.
‘Oxford is the casualty of this shameful story. For if the people who run one of our leading universities can’t teach students to respect the views of those with whom they disagree, what hope is there for any of us?’
The first, of course, was Margaret Thatcher, who Oxford dons chose to insult in 1985 when they voted by 738 to 319 against giving her the honorary degree to which, as an alumna of the university, she was virtually entitled. Plus ça change.
When, soon after it was displayed, Mrs May’s portrait was targeted by students and academics opposed to her policies — it was surrounded by angry messages while activists lobbied on social media for its removal — the university authorities should have dug in their heels.
They should have stated that Mrs May is the democratically elected Prime Minister of Great Britain, and it is fitting that her old university should honour her. It would be an act of rudeness and a piece of unwarranted censorship to take her picture down, and it won’t be going anywhere.
But unfortunately they said none of these things. They have instead cravenly acceded to the clamour of the mob, attempting to cover up their own pusillanimity with the vague undertaking that the picture will be reinstated at some time in the future in an unspecified place.
A tweet about the portrait that was taken down at Oxford University. Mrs May was one of 12 alumnae whose pictures were put up last week in the school of geography, where she studied more than 40 years ago
This capitulation is on one level a slight to Mrs May, though I am sure, given the brickbats that are daily flung at her in Parliament and the media, she is robust enough to survive this latest fusillade.
No, more than the Prime Minister, Oxford is the casualty of this shameful story. For if the people who run one of our leading universities can’t teach students to respect the views of those with whom they disagree, what hope is there for any of us?
The essence of a liberal education is that issues should be debated in a civilised way through the exercise of intelligence — and not shouted down or, as is now the custom in many universities, ‘no-platformed’, which means that people whose views the Left dislikes aren’t allowed to open their mouths.
When I was at Oxford four decades ago, hard-Left students periodically attempted to boycott visiting Tory ministers, while some of them led a lengthy sit-in at the Examination Schools. But the university disapproved of the miscreants’ illiberal behaviour, and sometimes disciplined them.
Now an undisclosed number of Leftish dons have lent their support to the campaign to banish Theresa May’s portrait, while the authorities sneak it away as though they can perfectly well see how offensive it must be.
Ban what you don’t like, or disagree with: that is the terrifying new mantra of a growing number of students. And instead of opposing such harmful idiocy, the university appears to side with the little tyrants who espouse it.
Where will it end? Not so long ago, some overbearing Oxford students tried to force the removal of a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College, whose generous benefactor he was. On that occasion the college authorities stuck to their guns, though a few dons sided with the students.
But in today’s academia, swathes of history must be obliterated, and the world re-ordered, to suit the prejudices of daft extremists. Not long ago, the Leftish columnist (and overgrown student) Afua Hirsch proposed that Nelson be pulled down from his column in Trafalgar Square because he once spoke up for his slave-owning friends in Parliament.
It won’t be long before some of these blinkered fanatics refuse to study the philosophers John Locke or David Hume because they held views now deemed racist, or cold-shoulder historians and novelists considered to be Right-wing. For all I know it has already happened.
There’s no doubt that Oxford, like most universities, provides increasingly fertile territory for such illiberal views because the overwhelming majority of dons are Left-wing. It is now virtually impossible for someone who is right-of-centre to become the head of an Oxford college.
‘No doubt they prefer another alumna of St Hugh’s College, Oxford — namely the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, the current darling of the world’s luvvies and liberals’
What is true in Oxford applies across the board. Weeks before the 2015 election, a poll in the Times Higher Education supplement found that only 11 per cent of university lecturers intended to vote Tory. The rest piled up behind Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems.
As for Brexit, the figures are even starker. A YouGov poll published in January 2017 suggested that 81 per cent of professors and lecturers voted Remain, while a meagre eight per cent backed Leave.
In other words, the ‘Academy’ — that somewhat portentous word now used to describe universities — does not, politically speaking, reflect wider society or many, if not most, of the taxpayers who bankroll these institutions.
So we should hardly be surprised the authorities in Oxford have lined up behind the extremists who called for the removal of the portrait of Theresa May. They may not approve of their bully-boy tactics, but they probably sympathise with their political beliefs.
In fact — though I fear debate with such people is useless — Theresa May is about as far as is possible from being the racist that some of her Oxford detractors allege.
She has launched the Race Disparity Audit, which examines how people of different backgrounds are treated in health, education and the criminal justice system. As Home Secretary she urged greater sensitivity on ‘stop and search’ by the police, which some in the black community had believed was being used disproportionately against them.
And as far as Brexit is concerned, she is doggedly trying to honour the democratically expressed views of a majority of Britons. But I don’t expect such considerations will weigh with student numbskulls.
No doubt they prefer another alumna of St Hugh’s College, Oxford — namely the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, the current darling of the world’s luvvies and liberals. A few days ago she was at the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, parading herself like a film star in an elaborate red mosaic gown.
Earlier in the evening, she had been arrayed in another fabulous and doubtless equally exorbitant creation, with a train so voluminous that it could have been worked up into a dozen army tents.
Between these two former students of St Hugh’s, I know where my sympathies lie. I prefer the one whose portrait is not considered worthy of the school of geography, though she was burning the midnight oil on her country’s behalf while Amal Clooney — with more than a little self-regard — was disporting herself in New York.
And I suggest that, in striving to achieve the best possible Brexit deal for Britain, Theresa May is much closer to the majority of her fellow countrymen than the illiberal student militants of Oxford and their misguided university protectors.