Post-graduate students with the Magdalen College Middle Common Room at Oxford University have voted to remove a 1952 Dorothy Wilding portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Those present for the vote cite Britain’s colonial past, and its removal has stirred up controversy across the U.K.
“Patriotism and colonialism are not really separable”
According to barrister Dinah Rose, president of Magdalen College, the print was purchased in 2013 to decorate the common room. However, a recent motion was launched regarding its possible removal, in order to make students “feel welcome.”
The image had been deemed by some as a symbol of “recent colonial history,” with one unnamed student stating that “patriotism and colonialism are not really separable.”
In a statement to the Mail Online, MCR President Matthew Katzman said the decision to bring the issue to a vote came after discussions regarding the common area and the potential for certain students to feel uncomfortable with the print’s presence: “It was decided that the room should be a welcoming, neutral place for all members regardless of background, demographic or views.”
The vote saw 10 members vote in favor of its removal, while two were against and five absent. In the minutes from the meeting, one student was quoted as saying the move “effectively” canceled the queen. Another said: “We are not capable of canceling the queen. This is about our communal space and making people feel comfortable.”
The college is facing public backlash
News of the vote quickly spread online. Education secretary Gavin Williamson took to Twitter to express his disapproval, calling the move “simply absurd.” He went on to say the queen is a symbol of “what is best about the UK” and that she’s worked “tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity [and] respect around the world.”
Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd. She 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 & respect around the world
— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) June 8, 2021
Williamson’s sentiments were echoed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A 10 Downing Street representative told reporters that Johnson supported the education secretary’s comments regarding the matter.
Barrister Rose also took to Twitter to share her thoughts. She wrote that the college “strongly supports free speech and political debate, and the MCR’s right to autonomy.” She also noted that “being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation.”
Here are some facts about Magdalen College and HM the Queen.
The Middle Common Room is an organisation of graduate students. They don't represent the College.
A few years ago, in about 2013, they bought a print of a photo of the Queen to decorate their common room.
— Dinah Rose (@DinahRoseQC) June 8, 2021
According to Rose, the print is currently in storage. She shared that college staff have been on the receiving end of “obscene and threatening messages” as a result of the vote, to which she responded: “You might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen. Or whether she’d be more likely to support the traditions of free debate and democratic decision-making that we are keeping alive at Magdalen.”
The Magdalen College Common Room responds
In his statement to the Mail Online, Katzman fought back against those who were denouncing the decision, writing: “The views of the MCR do not reflect the views of Magdalen College, and the aesthetic decisions made by the voting members of the committee do not equate to a statement on the Queen.
“Indeed, no stance was taken on the Queen or the Royal Family — the conclusion was simply that there were better places for this print to be hung,” he explained.
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Katzman continued, saying there are representations of the queen around the college and that it was ultimately agreed that one wasn’t needed in the common area. In its place, they are hoping to put up “art by or of other influential and inspirational people.”
Buckingham Palace has yet to comment on the decision. Katzman says any future depictions of the royal family in the MCR will be subjected to a committee vote.