Debate: Should colleges wipe the history of controversial alumni?

Comment University/Local Issues

Reuben Cooper – DON’T BAN BORIS FROM BALLIOL IF YOU BELIEVE IN FREE SPEECH

Whatever your opinion of the man, to bar Boris Johnson from Balliol would be censorship in all but name. It would feed into the unfortunate stereotype of ‘wokeness’ or ‘snowflake-ism’, often touted by the political right to decry the increasing levels of intolerance and hyper-sensitivity towards oppositional viewpoints among the predominantly liberal student body.

Yes, Boris, in the assessment of the UK Supreme Court, gave ‘unlawful’ advice to Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament. Yes, he likened a Muslim woman wearing a burkha to a “bank robber”’ or a “letter-box”. Yes, he has had extra-marital affairs. But it is scurrilous to claim that Boris is a serial ‘law-breaker’, a full-throttled Islamaphobe and a repugnant misogynist.

Our PM is no saint, but he is guilty of none of those offences: the prorogation of Parliament did not treacle over the Brexit deadline of 31 October and he was advised, in confidence, that suspension was lawful. Boris’ article in The Daily Telegraph, last summer, was a liberal defence against what he interpreted as the ‘oppressive’ force of the burkha. And if Boris was such a toxic brand for women, why would Nicky Morgan and Esther McVey consent to sitting at his Cabinet?

True, the viewpoints of the current undergraduates at Balliol will no doubt be different from him. Does it justify the decision to bar him and scrape away every remnant of his having been there? No. We live in a liberal and tolerant society where free debate of ideas and concepts should be actively encouraged, and censorship should just be a by-product of antediluvian totalitarianism. It is not conducive to the intellectual good to adopt censorious policies.

No. We live in a liberal and tolerant society where free debate of ideas and concepts should be actively encouraged, and censorship should just be a by-product of antediluvian totalitarianism

Oxford was in 2018 rated the worst culprit for actively censored speech and expression. The Free Speech University Rankings from spiked.com, identified over 3 distinct cases of actions or bans in force. However, it is not only Oxford where ‘censorship’ has creeped into the mainstream. Last year 35% of UK universities were labelled RED. That is active censorship to restrict oppositional viewpoints. How can anyone justify that in a liberal democracy?

The infamous ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ (RMF) campaign to pull down the statue of the former Oxford Don, Lord Cecil Rhodes, because of his links with colonialism and the slave-trade, provoked a battle of words between the black student community and the chancellor. Lord Patten denied that there was a pervading “institutional racism” at the prestigious university, alluding to the world-leading proportion of BAME students and teachers – 13% compared to the national average at academic institutions of 8%. The historical dearth of black undergraduates at Oxbridge is a separate discussion– this year, a historic 91 black undergraduates were enrolled into Cambridge University. This is a universally applauded improvement, but it points to a more complex issue of sparser minority background representation than simply “institutional racism”.

What the ‘RMF’ campaign did highlight was the insatiable student appetite to re-write the past that avoids the harsh truths. To tear down Rhodes’ statue would represent an inability to confront the past. It would also fall into the harsh category of ‘victim’, or ‘identity politics’. Pursuit of social justice is paramount to social wellbeing but when it is the result of a serial disingenuity or a confected intolerance to historical fact or contrary views, it is deeply dangerous.

To tear down Rhodes’ statue would represent an inability to confront the past. It would also fall into the harsh category of ‘victim’, or ‘identity politics’.

Which brings me back to Boris. What to do about the most divisive and intriguing of public personalities? There is a choice: to bar him completely from the grounds of Balliol, give free reign to censorship and bin freedom of speech once and for all. Or, respect his degree of office, accept that his very name might give you ferocious heat spots and his politics stir you to perpetual rage, but at that very time, be tolerant, respectful and dismiss that ‘snowflake-ism’ stereotype altogether.

Image credit: British Embassy Belgrade