On February 9th, 1933, students at the Oxford Union voted by 275 by 153 that they would under no circumstances fight for King and Country. Evoking memories of the First World War and fears of further conflict in Europe, speakers Kenelm H. Digby, C.E.M. Joad, and David Maurice Graham called for an end to patriotic violence and a new era of pacifism. In opposition, K.R.F. Steel-Maitland and Quentin Hogg pointed out the practical impossibility of refusing to fight. 80 years later, the motion is no less relevant, but the meaning of the phrase ‘Queen and Country’ has profoundly changed.
On the proposition side, Christ Church undergraduate Ben Sullivan regaled the audience with several of the Duke of Edinburgh’s more unsavory remarks, and contrasted romanticised notions of Britain’s “rolling hills” with the mundane reality of “sub-let houses”. He argued that patriotism breeds “hate and intolerance and dehumanises our enemies” and urged the audience to fight wars solely on the basis of the transcendent ideals of “justice, liberty and democracy”. Opposition speaker Rory Stewart, author, Conservative MP and former Foreign Office diplomat, conceded the horror of war, but referred to the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia as an example of a war that actually does good. In defence of patriotism, he claimed that loyalty to “one’s own unit, one’s own community” motivates soldiers to “get up in the morning and put on their uniforms” far more effectively than the proposition’s “bigger abstractions of humanity”.
In response, Ben Griffin, former SAS trooper and founder of Veterans for Peace, recounted his own bitter experiences in the Iraq War. He refused to return to Iraq on the grounds of the illegality of the war and the inhumane practices of the Coalition forces, and was discharged from the army. He condemned ‘Queen and Country’ as a “jingoistic phrase used by those who will never actually fight and have most to gain from war — politicians, generals and the media”. He listed the myriad racist and abusive terms used by countries to demonise their opponents and affirm their superiority. Rory Stewart stood up to repeat that he did not support the war in Iraq. Undeterred, Ben Griffin declared his allegiance “not to the Queen and Country but to the whole of humanity”.
Proposition speaker Count Nikolai Tolstoy, former Conservative, Chancellor of the International Monarchist League, historian and author, adamantly refused to accept that all wars are wrong. He claimed to have studied the origins of the Great War, and asked Ben Griffin if he had done the same; he argued both World Wars were fought because Germany was an aggressive power. His experience of life on the frontline differed widely from Ben Griffin’s. Tolstoy reminisced about the camaraderie and humor present between him and fellow soldiers during the Second World War. He voiced his opposition to “iniquitous wars” like the Iraq War, criticising the British for just “going in aggressively”, but insisted that “peace must be achieved by practical means”. He concluded that the symbol of a monarch “represents the entire nation and its shared history”.
Although described in the Union termcard as “one of the best known pacifists in the United States”, military historian, journalist and foreign policy expert Gareth Porter declared from the outset that he was “not a pacifist, but a realist”. He recalled facing the possibility of conscription into the Vietnam War and described at length the negative social and political repercussions of the war in Iraq. He warned that the American invasion of Iraq had made people in the Middle East “more sympathetic to Jihadism” and that the many civilian deaths caused by American drone strikes on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia would have a “cumulative effect”. He predicted a “new, more virulent age of American militarism”, and argued that a war system would never allow individuals to choose the causes that they serve.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, conservative MP and former Defense and Foreign secretary, pointed out that Gareth Porter could never possibly be expected to fight for Queen and Country, since his ancestors had “made that decision for him in 1776”. He pointed out that six years after the infamous debate, 2,600 Oxford students answered the call to defeat fascism and preserve freedom. Like all previous speakers, he condemned the war in Iraq and affirmed the justice of the Second World War.
Given the amount of overlap between the two sides, the debate boiled down to a question of semantics. The concept of Queen and Country may have represented a powerful call to action in 1933, but in 2013 it can be loosely identified with monarchy, patriotism, or simply war itself, depending on the perspective of the individual speaker. Even the most idealistic of their arguments came nowhere close to the moral absolutism of the 1933 debate; seen in the retrospective light of history, the future appears all the more unknowable.