The Queen's portrait

The Queen's portrait: A story of free speech, structural racism, and a broken education system
5 min read
15 Jun, 2021
Opinion: The debate over the removal of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II from a common room at Oxford University has revealed deeper schisms in UK society, writes Malia Bouattia.
Queen Elizabeth II views a portrait of herself at Windsor Castle on 14 October, 2016. [Getty]

Oxford University students have found themselves in the eye of a national storm over a recent vote which resolved to remove a portrait of the Queen from the common room of Magdalen College.

It is incredible that this decorating choice, with - all things considered - very few consequences, has sparked so much outrage. The charge against removing the portrait has been led by Tory leaders, including Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who expressed his strong opposition to the vote. He called the affair "simply absurd", adding that the Queen "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, inclusivity, and respect around the world."

It is worth bearing in mind that this decision was made by only 17 students. Ten voted in favour of removing the portrait, five abstained, and two opposed the motion. The decision, which affects only one of 39 colleges at Oxford, will only impact the postgraduate students who use the common room. But the story has garnered so much national attention that even Prime Minister Boris Johnson has publicly backed Williamson's disapproval.

"Officials decry the dangerous and destructive influence of the younger 'woke' generation"

The Education Secretary's project to "champion" free speech on campuses likely contributes to the notoriety of this story. Ironically, Williamson's statements have done the opposite of championing open discourse. He has effectively intimidated students and staff from having a healthy debate, and has impeded democratic decision-making by criminalising views that do not align with his own. 

The case at Oxford is another example of the so-called "defence of freedom of speech" by this government. Officials decry the dangerous and destructive influence of the younger "woke" generation, obsessed with political correctness, who - they claim - are hindering people's ability to say whatever they want. Williamson aims to defend that "freedom" from "wokeness" through his agenda on campuses.

This "anti-woke" narrative conveniently ignores the fact that the decision over the Queen's portrait was made through democratic channels and that the 10 students who voted to remove should also have a right to their views on the monarchy and its imperial past.

But unlike the Tory government, these students are not enforcing any particular perspective or policing those who oppose them. Instead, they opened a public debate, took a vote, and implemented the majority decision.

UK education policy

This hysteria has widely been seen as a convenient attempt to divert attention from a disastrous term for Williamson and his colleagues, across the education sector.  

An unwillingness to fund and resource the education of pupils throughout the pandemic has left many students months behind. If that was not bad enough, the advisor appointed by the government to draft a recovery plan has now resigned because of the low budget that has been allocated to this much-needed work. "I do not believe it is credible that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size," Sir Kevan Collins wrote to Johnson. His proposed £15bn for the strategy was cut to £1.4bn by the Treasury.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that each student impacted by the instability of schooling during the pandemic will be set back by £40,000 throughout their lifetime. The Institute stated that the fund allocated to the recovery plan, "is highly unlikely to be sufficient to help pupils catch up or prevent inequalities from widening." Universities have been similarly hit and a growing number face course closures and redundancies.

With such a bleak reality for millions across the country, it makes Williamson taking the time to comment on a portrait at Oxford seem even more outrageous. The Education Secretary is apparently up for making vindictive public statements but is completely unwilling to meaningfully engage with the issues on the ground, let alone provide solutions.

These issues, of course, are not only economic. Real and ongoing questions persist about the institutional nature of racial discrimination across higher education.

At Oxford University, for example, around 150 lecturers released a statement refusing to teach undergraduate students at Oriel college due to ongoing institutional racism. This came following a decision by the college to leave the now infamous statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes in place. "Faced with Oriel's stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it produced for the college, we feel we have no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations," the academics explained.

The decision to leave the statue in place was made despite years of considerable opposition to its presence, led by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, as well as advice from an independent commission set up in the wake of the governing body's vote to remove it.

"The defence of freedom of speech is ensured by students and staff who continue to challenge, protest, and shape our institutions for the better, often in the face of bitter opposition from managers and structural underfunding by the government"

Williamson's support for freedom of speech of anti-imperial activists, however, was nowhere to be found.

In reality, the defence of freedom of speech is ensured by students and staff who continue to challenge, protest, and shape our institutions for the better, often in the face of bitter opposition from managers and structural underfunding by the government. The repressive policies of the Education Secretary and the government will do little to stifle anti-racism activism and political dissent. Last summer's Black Lives Matter protests, and the hundreds of thousands who recently marched in solidarity with Palestine made this point with inspiring force.

The truth is that the monarchy, much like the Tory party and the British state, has always been on the wrong side of history. They are the institutions of the oppressors, the slave owners, the colonial administrators, the wealthy, and the powerful. They can try to repress those demanding justice and reparations, but they cannot rewrite history. They cannot silence us all.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.