The news that students at Magdalen College, Oxford have voted to remove a portrait of the Queen from their Middle Common Room because she “represents recent colonial history,” normally wouldn’t cause such a kerfuffle. Student politics have always been bombastically idealistic at best, drearily predictable at worst. But the furore that has been ignited by the woke warriors’ latest move to ‘cancel’ the Queen, brandishing her a symbol of colonialism, has come in the heat of a wider cultural war where an air-punching younger generation is hellbent on showing its elders the folly of their ways.
Last week, I saw up close the whites of the eyes of this feisty breed, powered by the invincibility of their woke beliefs, baying for the blood of institutional figureheads such as the Queen, when I was invited to oppose an Oxford Union debate with the motion: ‘This House would abolish the monarchy’.
The debate was scheduled immediately after Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview, when the blurb raged: ‘“As scandal after scandal shakes the family, the legitimacy of our monarchy seems to hang in the balance. Should we protect an iconic symbol of Britain or stand against a corrupt system of rule? Can we justify the monarchy’s existence or are its faults too great for Britain to bear?’
Controversial debates are nothing new, of course. Think of the 1933 debate in which undergraduates famously passed the motion: ‘This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country.’ The result, which polarised Britain, was significant domestically, and embarrassing internationally.
There was an echo of that past outrage when I entered the debating chamber to put forward my defence of the monarchy – a tangible feeling that the outcome was portentous, as in 1933, not just spirited student joshing. It seemed to connect to a wider woke mood, currently pervading life, which threatens our academic institutions, workplaces and most of all, our right to speak out, even if it challenges the current cultural zeitgeist.
The poster children for this movement are the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who incessantly bandy their “truth” about race, mental health neglect and poor parenting. And it felt very much like the Sussexes have whipped the young into an empathetic frenzy which the republicans seized to their advantage in the Oxford debating hall last Thursday. Graham Smith, CEO of Republic, a pressure group that campaigns for the abolition of the UK monarchy and Dr Ken Ritchie, the founder of Labour for a Republic, a Labour-affiliated pressure group, presented a jaw-dropping picture of the Queen as some malevolent Svengali figure to the loudest whoops and jeers of approval by the audience.
While the atmosphere crackled with the reassuring electricity of lively conjecture, the students cheered and clapped when the humourless Smith pronounced that the Royal family was “a racist institution by default,” as well as being “anti-Catholic, immoral, unethical, wrong in principle and corrupt.” He said that the Queen “wilfully used public office for private gain” and was “sinister.” What felt more sinister was the undisguised loathing that the republicans held for Her Majesty and I truly fear the moment when they further unleash their rabble-rousing venom.
I spoke last, weighing in against Smith and his wildly inaccurate and disturbing caricature of the Windsors. Instead of the status, subjugation and superiority that he hollered on about, I suggested he should consider the life of service of the senior Royals. It was absurd to insist, as he did, that the Royal family’s charity work was trifling and that they weren’t an obvious tourist draw. Would The Mall be lined with well-wishers if Boris Johnson moved into Buckingham Palace, I wondered?
When I proposed that the Queen was an inspiring feminist, I was booed, and later jeered for suggesting that instead of watering down the trappings of the monarchy, we should consider that nowhere in the world can replicate our crowd-swelling pomp and pageantry.
I can’t remember any roar of applause when I said that the Queen represents continuity and stability, brilliantly binding our nation. And that while Prince Philip was her strength and stay, to abolish the monarchy would be to rid the country of its own strength and stay. I did get some laughs when I explained that the Queen was Britain’s best trade ambassador given the advantages of a Royal warrant to business.
Weary of the earlier endless slurs that the Queen and the Royal family were racist, I then braved the view we had no actual evidence of this. I suggested that Meghan was positioning herself on the world stage exactly where she wanted to be, so she could reign as an anti-establishment heroine to her adoring woke subjects. This was met with gasps of horror. As we know from Piers Morgan’s fate at GMB, to challenge Meghan these days is to commit heresy.
Harry and Meghan’s Oprah interview seems to have sparked a wave of protest among the younger generation
It’s absolutely right that freedom of speech is encouraged and opposing views are gamely challenged. Students have long questioned the prevailing orthodoxy – and daft motions proposed by the Oxford Union used to add to the gaiety of the nation, but this new pervading mood of people thinking the “right” things has become troublingly divisive. There’s no longer any respect for a voice of reason, let alone the ability to listen to it. It feels like the young now have older generations banged to account. They are so sure of their moral high ground that the good vs evil binary debate seems to exist in a terrifying echo chamber. And it is because of this atmosphere that I find this swell of sentiment against the monarchy deeply unsettling.
Due to the insistence by the young that their views are sacrosanct, there is no longer room for nuance, to point out that institutions like the monarchy and the empire need to be allowed to further evolve, not to be abolished. Or if those voices do exist, they are a scared whisper. The painting of the Queen wasn’t hung in Magdalen until 2013, after the same committee campaigned to put it up, but less than 10 years later, a world where a student would campaign to do such a thing is barely imaginable.
Paradoxically, part of the reason that the British monarchy has survived is because it is the antithesis of woke. It hasn’t adopted fashionable causes but has remained solidly anachronistic. Its stability has come from its refusal to be swayed by the hysteria of the day. But this war against the monarchy and everything it represents to the younger generations, so quick to take offence and soak up distortions, is gaining worrying momentum.
At the end of the debate, Oxford undergraduates passed the motion to abolish the monarchy by 79 votes to 57. How ironic if Meghan and Harry’s truth bombs are what finally obliterates it when their own lives of privilege – including Harry’s trust fund and Meghan’s fame – are built on the very Crown that they readily repudiate.