Misc 09/06/2021

Oxford college students achieve the removal of Elizabeth II painting

The painting, from 1952, is associated with the UK's uncomfortable "recent colonial history"

3 min
Quadre of Queen Elizabeth II made in 1952, when she ascended the throne

LondonQueen Elizabeth II has become an unwitting source of controversy at the University of Oxford. Some members of the Oxford intelligentsia including the Education minister, Gavin Williamson, have called this an "absurd" episode. Postgraduate students at Magdalen College have voted to remove a portrait of the monarch based on a photograph by Dorothy Wilding, taken in 1952, at the time she was crowned.

The portrait, purchased in 2013 by students to decorate the Middle Common Room (MCR), the room that houses them, has been removed because it was an unwelcoming symbol of the UK's "recent colonial history". The president of the Middle Common Room, Matthew Katzman, has assured the British press: "It has been removed because it was decided that the common room should have a neutral spirit. That's what it was all about. The college has a lot of representations of various things, but the room is meant to be a space where everyone can feel welcome".

Elizabeth II in her first public reappearance in late April at the British Parliament after the death of her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. In the picture she is accompanied by the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

According to Katzman, the vote was called in the interest of national and international students who might object to the image. Academic officials at Magdalen College have not intervened with the withdrawal. Minister Williamson late Tuesday expressed disbelief over the event. "It is an absurd act. She is the head of state and a symbol of what is best about the UK. During her long reign, she has worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusion and respect around the world".

The minister's statement contrasts with the discovery last week of the royal family's ban, until the late 1960s on "coloured or foreign immigrants" being allowed to hold clerical roles in the royal household. The information was obtained by the newspaper The Guardian after research in the national archives. The same documents also shed light on how Buckingham Palace negotiated clauses - still in force today - that exempt the Queen and her family from laws preventing race and sex discrimination.

Magdalen College has indicated that it will not attempt to reverse the decision, despite the long association between the royals and the college. Elizabeth II visited the institution in 1948 to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University. She visited the college again in 2008, on the occasion of its 550th anniversary.

The betrayal of the Oxford Union Debating Society

Another of the reactions against the withdrawal has been made by Sir John Hayes, Conservative MP at Westminster, for whom "the saddest thing is that the people of Magdalen College, Oxford are thought to be reasonably bright". "This decision would suggest they are not. The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth, respected around the world as such, and to try to suggest anything otherwise is a dishonest distortion. The people involved should be ashamed of themselves".

The Queen's portrait is not the only question mark, albeit a symbolic one, that Oxford students have recently raised about the monarchy. Last week, the Oxford Union held a debate regarding the motion, "Would this house abolish the monarchy", a debate fueled by the accusations of racism made by Meghan Markle about the monarchy in the famous interview with Oprah Winfrey at the beginning of last March.

All of this, however, is anecdotal and remains part of a tradition of student protest that when they stop being students and become part of the Oxbridge elites - those coming out of Oxford and Cambridge universities - is going nowhere. One of the most celebrated controversies in the history of the Oxford Union Debating Society took place in 1933, when a motion was passed stating that "this house would in no case fight for its king or country", a decision that cost the Oxford Union criticism of "disloyalty" from the press at the time.

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