Stepford students have been busy in recent years picking off targets from the past to vent their fury at. Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and Edward Colston in Bristol are the most high-profile victims of this attempt to wipe parts of posterity from the face of university campuses. Now, there is a new target: William Gladstone, the only man to have served as Britain’s Prime Minister on four separate occasions. Students at the University of Liverpool are demanding that Gladstone’s name is removed from a hall of residence. His crime? According to a petition, he is guilty of having benefited from the proceeds of slavery:
‘William Gladstone is known to have fought for reparations for slave traders like his father during the abolition of the trade, as well as not being in favour of the abolition.’
So although Gladstone didn’t own slaves himself – and indeed renounced his views on slavery later in life – the fact that his father did is enough to make him persona non grata in the eyes of some of today’s students. The petition goes on to say that:
‘We believe that someone with this controversial background should not have a university hall named after them especially in a city where we try hard not to forget the atrocities that took place on our docks.’
Of course, it’s true that Liverpool did indeed play a key role in the slave trade, but the petition’s author seems to miss a crucial point: there is little evidence that any atrocities actually took place on the docks.
What is worse about the petition than this apparent historical oversight, however, is the suggestion of who might replace Gladstone: Carol Ann-Duffy – or Jon Snow. Snow’s Channel 4 News appearances might make him a hit with today’s students, but do his achievements really compare with those of Gladstone?
Perhaps the greatest pity about these stories is that the views of the Stepford few are not widely shared on campus. Most students don’t jump on bandwagons such as this latest petition to remove Gladstone’s name. This petition, at time of writing, has drawn fewer than 70 ‘likes’ on the Guild’s website; people can’t even be bothered to sign their own names. But such is the outrage drummed up by the vocal few that all students are inevitably left to pick up the pieces.
There was a time when student outrage was directed at legitimate targets: the apartheid government in South Africa, for instance. Now, it’s old statues and the names of historical figures which are enough to stir up fury.
A politician whose father’s views were less progressive than those of his progeny is not a great cause for social justice. Taking offence at the name of a man, dead for over a century, adorning a building isn’t fighting injustice, it’s procrastination, and the students involved should question if this is a good use of their time.
Benedict Spence is a former student at the University of Liverpool and a freelance journalist