From the dreaming spires of Oxford this afternoon comes a potent combination of student censorship and fake news. A group of geographers had claimed victory on Twitter in a campaign to remove the portrait of Theresa May from the School of Geography and the Environment. May is an alumnus of that school, but the Not All Geographers campaign wanted to challenge this, and did so by sticking drawings and messages about the hostile environment around the picture until it was removed.
‘We are pleased to announce that the @theresa_may portrait has been removed from @oxfordgeography!’ the geographers announced. Unfortunately, this wasn’t for the reasons that they claimed: a spokesman for the university has been in touch to say that ‘the portrait was being increasingly obscured by posters bearing mainly humorous satirical messages. It has now been taken down and will be re-displayed so it can be seen as intended.
‘Mrs May was included in a series of portraits to celebrate outstanding female graduates of the School of Geography and the Environment. We remain proud of her success and that of all the graduates celebrated in the display.’
So the geographers haven’t got their way in the long-run, but they have made a point all the same: they don’t like Theresa May and therefore they shouldn’t have to look at her on their way into lectures.
There are naturally a number of problems with this. The first is that this is a small group of geographers, all of whom are presumably not likely to vote for a Conservative party led by Theresa May any time soon. Even if they haven’t noticed it, these students will be rubbing shoulders with young conservatives who are probably quite inspired to see a portrait of a Prime Minister hanging in the very building where they are now starting their adult life. And if not young conservatives, then thoughtful young types who may well despair of May’s immigration policies but fancy following her path in order to correct what she has done. This, after all, is the sentiment expressed by many female Labour MPs who grew up under the Thatcher government and found themselves inspired, not to imitate the Iron Lady in her politics, but to do as she did and enter Parliament in order to fight back.
Inspiration that arises from irritation feeds our political life, but it is being dulled in our universities by those who think that something that irritates you, or merely a picture or statue of someone that you disagree with, is not something you should tolerate while on your way to a tutorial which is supposed to expand your mind and develop your arguments. The campaigners stated, apparently without irony, that the installation of the portrait ‘does little to inspire confidence in critical thought’.
Even if pictures of Theresa May were banned from the entirety of the Oxford estate, the fact that she is prime minister would still remain. Similarly, while the slave trade might be erased from our cultural scene (though this would surely only be limited to statues, rather than the vast number of buildings constructed using its proceeds) the fact that it happened at all can never be changed.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with a slightly cheeky student protest, especially on matters that have stirred up great feeling, such as the hostile environment policy. It’s just a shame that this group of geographers thought that the greatest change they could effect would be to have a picture removed temporarily, presumably before being hung out of reach. It surely undermines their argument by suggesting that they can’t be bothered to argue in the first place, preferring merely to rearrange the interior design of a building. And given the arguments against the hostile environment policy are pretty well-rehearsed, it does seem like a bit of a waste of good brains.