Britain’s conservatives in government and the media got their knickers in a twist Tuesday after reports emerged that graduate students at Magdalen College at Oxford removed a 1952 photo portrait of Queen Elizabeth II from a common room as an unwelcome symbol of “recent colonial history.”
According to Guido Fawkes, the rightwing website published by political blogger Paul Staines, who broke the news, a committee of students, many of them international students, voted by a substantial majority to take the portrait down from the Middle Common Room wall, and to explore replacing it with “art by or of other influential and inspirational people.”
“Stalin would be proud,” the Fawkes post said.
The post decried what British conservatives consider another egregious example of “woke” posturing that includes tearing down statues, no-platforming demands and removing portraits of historical figures believed connected to slavery or colonial abuse.
It is unclear whether the queen felt bad about this, and Buckingham Palace would never say anyway. But she does not lack for portraits, as one of the most photographed and portrait-painted individuals in history. By custom, her picture hangs in every government building throughout Britain and the Commonwealth of more than 50 nations.
Still, royalists, that is to say most Brits but especially elected conservatives, were not having it.
“Queen becomes latest victim of cancel culture,” yelped the headline in The Telegraph, a favorite broadsheet of the Tories.
“How dare they! Oxford students cancel our queen!” shouted The Daily Express.
“Absurd,” sputtered Gavin Williamson, the member of Parliament who serves as education secretary in the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
On Twitter, the outrage was practically palpable. Samantha Smith, described in her Twitter bio as a contributor to The Spectator, the conservative political magazine, and to the New York Times, pointed out, correctly, that the widely admired 95-year-old queen pioneered anti-racism during the era of widespread segregation and apartheid.
One of her most important roles is head of the Commonwealth of nations, most of them former British colonies – and most with populations made up of people of color.
“Imagine trying to cancel the reigning monarch,” Smith wrote.
Dan Wootton, the tabloid trumpeter (formerly The Sun, now the Daily Mail) who’s been urging for months that Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan of Sussex be effectively canceled, tweeted his contempt with a picture of the queen and the college.
“Now these moronically woke students are trying to cancel the Queen. You really couldn’t make it up!” he jeered.
The picture in question is not a painted portrait. It’s a colorized print of an old photo of the queen taken in the year she became queen 69 years ago.
But according to Matthew Katzman, president of the student committee that voted against the portrait remaining on the wall, it was done to ensure the common room would be “neutral” and welcoming.
“The college will have plenty of depictions of various things, but the common room is meant to be a space for all to feel welcome,” Katzman told The Telegraph.
Meanwhile, Dinah Rose, the barrister who is president of Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”), took to Twitter to distance the college and by extension Oxford from the portrait storm. A collection of colleges, Oxford is one of the world’s leading universities.
In a series of tweets, Rose said the students’ decisions to buy the print (around 2013), hang it and then vote to take it down were theirs to make, not the college’s. She said the college strongly supports free speech and political debate and the students’ right to autonomy.
“Maybe they’ll vote to put it up again, maybe they won’t. Meanwhile, the photo will be safely stored,” she wrote in posts. “Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.”
As in the United States, Britain is grappling with its history – including hundreds of years as a colonial and slave-trading power and the connection of both to the monarchy over the centuries. The difference is the Brits have hundreds of years more history to reckon with than the Yanks.
Thus, the scenes in recent months of people defacing or toppling statues of known slave traders or the campaign to remove the memorial statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the façade of Oriel College at Oxford because he represented “white supremacy” in southern Africa. (The college eventually decided against it due to cost and complexity.)
Even the long-admired National Trust, the national heritage charity that preserves historic houses and castles, has been embroiled in controversy after it published a report last year revealing that 93 of its properties, including the Kent home of Winston Churchill, had links to colonialism and historic slavery. The backlash against the perceived “woke” agenda was so furious, Parliament held two debates over the future of the National Trust.
But connecting the queen and the monarchy with racism, even historic racism, is especially sensitive now, after Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey in March, when they said they fled to America because of alleged racism in the royal family and in the British media.
Still reeling from that blow, Buckingham Palace was confronted last week with explosive new allegations of decades of systemic discrimination against people of color in top palace jobs – and with documentation to back it up, as reported in The Guardian, the left-leaning national paper.
The Guardian, incidentally, took a different, more low-key tone in reporting about the portrait dust-up, compared to its more excitable tabloid cousins.
“President of Oxford college defends students’ right to remove photo of Queen,” its headline read.