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Coffee House

An adult has finally intervened in the childish Cecil Rhodes debate

14 January 2016

5:26 PM

14 January 2016

5:26 PM

I’ve never had much time for Chris Patten, generally disliking the Tory Europhile and late Roy Jenkins impersonator.  But the whirligig of time brings in strange revenges and none is odder than Chris Patten emerging as the only adult in the room.  In the great Cecil Rhodes debate at Oxford – a debate which like all such ‘safe-space’ debates has been crying out for the intervention of an adult – Chancellor of the University of Oxford Chris Patten has intervened.

For anyone fortunate enough not to know about this embarrassing episode, it relates to a campaign by certain ‘Rhodes scholars’ at Oxford who will not rest until all memorials to the munificence of Cecil Rhodes are removed.  All, that is, except the students who are benefitting from that same man’s largesse by studying in Oxford.  They want to stay, and are sounding rather churlish, rude and entitled about doing so.  They also say that after taking down all the Rhodes signs they intend to force through a change of curriculum, among other things, at Oxford.

The other day a film crew from South Africa came to ask my opinion on this.  I told them that it was obvious that the campaign was led by people who were fundamentally insincere, looking to press some political advantage and who simply needed to be told ‘no’.  I also pointed out that the claim that modern-day Oxford University is ‘racist’ is so obviously untrue that it can only have been claimed by people pressing for some blackmail advantage or higher cash offer.  Anyhow, while checking to see which insults the editors left on the cutting-room floor I was pleased to notice that the film package also contained the young South African man Ntokozo Qwabe who is leading the anti-Rhodes campaign.

It is the first time I have watched this insincere little demagogue in action and I can highly recommend it.  For like all such opportunists he tries to push his tiny advantage as far as he possibly can.  For instance he says, while gesticulating wildly at an inanimate object, that this isn’t just about a statue on a building but about ‘structural violence’.  It would be, wouldn’t it?  He says:

‘The structural violence is like the curriculum, the lack of black professors.  Those things are not just exceptions. They go to the very heart of how Oxford is configured and how Oxford as a space is, to be quite frank, racist.  And this is what we are saying – that that blatant violence and assault and racism is unacceptable at a university that purports to be inclusive.’

Now it is some years ago since I was up at the university, but I would be surprised if Oxford had become a den of racism and oppression since then.  If it had done then it is surprising that Mr Qwabe or any other black students would want to stay around.

Of course it is true that there are more white professors than black, and I am certain that Oxford would dearly love to shift this balance.  But Mr Qwabe is clearly unaware of two factors that make this uphill work for the time being.  The first is that people tend to stay in academic posts for many years.  The second is that Britain is, historically, not a very black country.  In fact for quite a long time most people in this country have been white.  Not by design.  It just fell out like that.  Just as there are probably some places in the world where most people are black.

Anyhow, Chancellor of the University Chris Patten was admirably restrained in his intervention.  He has recommended that those students who don’t want to embrace freedom of thought and who want to censor both past and present can, ‘think about being educated elsewhere.’  Which is Oxonian for something often said more curtly.  Personally I would have pointed out that Mr Qwabe clearly has a particular animus and colonialist intent against the country he has been paid to be educated in.  Not the most sincere accusation in the world.  But no less sincere than Mr Qwabe’s own claims – and far less remunerative.


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