Daniel Hannan: Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus?

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Do we need safe spaces for conservatives on campus? It’s a serious question. Consider, to pluck an example more or less at random, the decision this month by the Middle Common Room at Magdalen College, Oxford to remove a portrait of the Queen for the sake of “making people feel welcome”.

The monarchy is meant to be a unifying symbol, not only for British people of all ethnic backgrounds, but for 2.5 billion Commonwealth citizens. If we must allow the possibility that someone somewhere might none the less feel uncomfortable as they pass a portrait of Elizabeth II, should we not also consider the rather greater possibility that Right-of-Centre students might feel uncomfortable in a college that routinely makes decisions of this kind?

Conservatives tend not to crave victim status. When we walk past, say, a poster of Che Guevara, we might grumble at the moral emptiness of the numbskull who put it up; but we don’t, as a rule, go to the authorities and claim to have been wounded by the experience.

Still, the fact that we don’t whinge doesn’t mean that there is no issue. There is real concern among some Centre-Right students that their opinions will result in their being penalised academically.

Left-wing lecturers are not a new phenomenon; but their increasing intolerance is. A growing number of undergraduates feel obliged to spout woke pieties in their coursework for fear of being marked down. A brilliant young Cambridge historian told me recently that his first application had been rejected because he failed to mention slavery at his interview. “It was my fault, really, for not researching the politics of the don before I met her,” he added, apologetically. “The trouble is, I’m mainly a mediaevalist.”

That sort of thing didn’t really happen in my day. I had some spectacularly Left-wing dons, but they were, in the fullest sense of the word, liberals – broad-minded, interested in other points of view, comfortable with debate. That, though, was before the Great Awokening – the defining characteristic of which is not that it made universities more Left-wing, but that it made them readier to punish dissidents and heretics. Academics, in this sense at least, are behaving more like student radicals.

Consider, to pluck another recent example, the boycott of Oriel College, Oxford by 150 dons in protest at its refusal to bow to the mob and pull down the statuette of Cecil Rhodes which stands in a niche in the building his bequest paid for.

L’affaire Rhodes merits a column on its own. The diamond magnate who stalks the imaginations of BLM protesters is a cartoon baddy, a one-dimensional colonialist. The real human being was more complicated. For example, the flesh-and-blood Rhodes opposed the disfranchisement of black men in Cape Colony, funded the newspaper of what became the ANC and, when establishing his famous scholarships, laid down that “no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a scholarship on account of his race” (a fifth of Rhodes scholars currently come from Africa).

He is not the most obvious candidate for cancellation – perhaps not even the most obvious candidate on his building, which also features a statue of a mediaeval clergyman who enthusiastically burned Lollards and of another who was on Spain’s side during the Armada.

Oriel listened politely to its critics, then established a commission to consider the future of the Rhodes statue. Although most of the members were committed decolonisers, their recommendations were surprisingly muted.

Essentially, they concluded that, yes, it might be nice to remove the statue but that, given the planning difficulties, there were other ways for Oriel to demonstrate its commitment to racial justice. The college duly announced that it would not waste a great deal of money on a lengthy application that would almost certainly be turned down; and so, appropriately enough, an imported American row was ended by British planning regulations.

It was this decision that sparked the “statement of a boycott of Oriel College” by various academics, determined to broadcast their purity by telling the world that they would not teach Oriel undergraduates. Most commentators fulminated against their lack of professionalism. One MP talked of “blackmail”. Almost everyone agreed that they were wrong to take out their politics on students.

But, thinking about it, I come to a different conclusion. School leavers who are not on the hard Left can now apply confidently to at least one college where they are unlikely to be harassed by the kind of don who sees conservatism as a mental illness.

Look at it from the point of view of a bright and unwoke sixth-former. Not necessarily a Scrutonian Rightist, just someone who feels that we have taken identity politics too far, and who worries that that view might provoke a negative reaction from tutors. The 150 silliest dons, those likeliest to resent divergent opinions, have conveniently given notice that at least one college will be spared their grievance-mongering.

Why not lean into the row? Why not advertise Oriel as an unwoke oasis? Why not appeal, on niche marketing grounds if nothing else, to students who don’t take the BLM line – not least the many conservative-leaning non-white students who are invisible to the broadcast media, but whom we all know in real life?

Full disclosure: Oriel was my old college as well as Rhodes’s. It used to have a certain reputation for social conservatism, heartiness and (not to put too fine a point on it) philistinism. Back then, different colleges had different personalities. Wadham, for example, was always a far-Left outlier.

But whereas Wadham remains as cheerfully extreme as ever, it has become almost unthinkable for any college to distinguish itself in the other direction. Why? Isn’t this a straightforward case of consumer choice? Or, to put it in terms that critics might prefer, of diversity and inclusion? Is one non-Leftist college out of 39 really too much to ask?

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Author: Lord Hannan


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