/ 15 June 2020

Oxford’s position on Rhodes Must Fall is bad politics — and even worse history

Britain Politics Rascism Unrest
Protestors hold placards during a demonstration called by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign calling for the removal of the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes outside Oriel College, at the University of Oxford on June 9, 2020. (Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP)


The statue of Cecil John Rhodes that stands outside Oriel College in Oxford is in the news again. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the globe, Rhodes Must Fall campaigners have picked up their banners to demand its removal once again. Numerous eloquent students and lecturers have spoken out about the need for Oxford University to demonstrate its commitment to equality by addressing their concerns. The university’s response has been to not only reject these calls, but to also suggest that they are based on a mistaken view of history.

As a former Oxford student and lecturer I was disappointed by the lack of empathy demonstrated by senior university leaders, but I was also surprised at the intellectual flaws in their statements. There may be some good arguments in favour of keeping statues like this in place, but if so they were nowhere to be found when vice-chancellor Louise Richardson spoke to the media. As a result, the university’s poorly communicated explanation for keeping the statue not only puts it on the wrong side of history, but also calls into question its intellectual leadership in 2020.

To be fair, Richardson prefaced her comments by saying that she did not want to give a “binary” view and understood that there were arguments on both sides. As far as I can tell, however, she then proceeded to set out only reasons for keeping the statue. The vice-chancellor’s two main points have both become increasingly familiar over the last few years. The first is that we should apply a form of moral relativism and evaluate people on the basis of how they were seen in their own time. The second was that we cannot learn from our history if we remove examples of it from our cities.

Let us start with the argument for moral relativism. Speaking of the statue, Richardson suggested that we need to understand “the context in which it was made”. She then used an example from her own life, saying that when she had grown up in Ireland she had thought that Oliver Cromwell had been a “barbaric” figure, but had then found out that he was “perceived very differently in Britain”.

This argument will intuitively appeal to many people. But there are a number of problems with the way that Richardson made it, and with its application to the case of Rhodes. The most significant is that Rhodes was “regarded as unscrupulous” and seen to represent an extreme version of imperialism even in his own lifetime. So it is not only on the basis of contemporary standards that a statue of Rhodes can be questioned — even when he was alive, he was a controversial figure.

Indeed, every decade since Rhodes’s death has seen a different critique of his vanity and pursuit of self-interest. Well before the Rhodes Must Fall movement started in South Africa in 2015, his many limitations had been thoroughly documented by a number of academics — some of whom worked at Oxbridge. In the 1960s, for example, JH Plumb compared Rhodes’ strategies to “Fascist and Nazi intervention techniques”. Meanwhile, in a composite book review, in The International Journal of African Historical Studies , Jeffrey Butler argues that, “From the perspective of the 1970s, Rhodes’s life, with the possible exception of his entrepreneurial activities, is essentially a record of failure”.

That brings us to the argument that even if an individual’s behaviour were deeply problematic we should leave their statue up so that we can learn about our past. There are two major problems with this stance. The first is that if the university is really committed to equality, and values statues because they spark important conversations, it would surely have spent the last few years erecting statues of people from what is referred to in the UK as Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Otherwise, on the basis of Richardson’s logic, the absence of such statues silences a crucial part of our history. Yet, while there have been some efforts to diversify the portraits that hang inside college and university buildings, nothing has been done when it comes to the statues that are on public display.

The second problem is that, despite all the talk about teaching history, initial proposals to erect a plaque to explain why Rhodes is controversial came to nothing. Neither has the university led a major national conversation about race that engages with the statue and its history. I know from having tutored countless undergraduates over many years that Oxford would never teach a political debate to students by assigning them only one book. It is, therefore, easy to see why many analysts believe that the university’s real motive is not principle but profit — or, more specifically, the fear that it will lose £100-million in funding from wealthy donors.

For his part, the university’s Chancellor, Chris Patten, justified retaining the statue on the basis that Nelson Mandela supported the Rhodes Trust. What Patten declined to say, however, was that Mandela never explicitly endorsed the statue itself. Instead, his own contribution was to set up the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation — a collaboration in which, quite pointedly, his name came first. In many ways, this was the ultimate victory, proving that Rhodes’s racist beliefs had been defeated. Given this, and the fact that a portrait of Mandela now stands alongside that of Rhodes inside Rhodes House, the most that Patten can say is that Mandela would have retained the statue if it were accompanied by others telling different stories. But, of course, Oxford has no statue of Mandela, and on High Street Rhodes stands on his own.

As well as being bad history, the statements by Patten and Richardson are also bad politics. Their lack of empathy for the deep and genuine hurt of the protesters demonstrates that they do not understand the extent to which recent weeks have represented a turning point in terms of what is now acceptable in the United States and the United Kingdom. By making such tone-deaf comments and failing to recognise the university’s many problems, they have only further emboldened the Rhodes Must Fall movement — creating more difficulties for themselves. 

I do not say this because I enjoy criticising the university — I spent the happiest years of my life there — but because I know it can do so much better. Before I left, I was the director of the African Studies Centre, which has worked tirelessly to generate scholarships to open access to the ivory tower. The university has also set up the Africa Oxford Initiative to ensure that “students and academics who attend from the continent feel supported and at home while they are here”. Many of my former colleagues are working hard to create an inclusive environment to attract more BAME students from the UK, complete with a more diverse curriculum

These efforts can help to transform the uUniversity if they go hand-in-hand with visionary and effective leadership at the very top — which is why it is so frustrating that this is sorely lacking. Mandela set up the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation to “support leaders who can bridge historic divides”. How sad that those invoking Mandela’s memory to justify retaining a statue of an unscrupulous racist have failed so dismally to do justice to his hope for our future.