LONDON – Has Queen Elizabeth II been canceled?
This was the rallying cry on Wednesday for many conservative commentators in Britain after a group of graduate students at one of Oxford University’s most prestigious colleges voted to remove a photo of the reigning monarch from their common room, citing the Britain’s colonial history – and igniting the latest flashpoint in the nation’s culture wars.
The decision sparked right-wing condemnations and threats against teaching staff, and sparked widespread controversy on social media. For some, it was yet another example of “erasing the crazed culture,” a topic that even the United States continues to grapple with. For others, it was an exaggerated brawl exploited by the tabloid papers, which got out of hand.
Britain has long seen a heated debate between left and right over its legacy of empire and colonialism. The intensity of the discussion, however, increased dramatically with the Black Lives Matter movement last year starting to target the blatant symbols of the country’s dark past, prompting a backlash from conservatives who claimed the nation’s history it was under attack and was not to be canceled.
According to notes from the meeting, some at Magdalen College had expressed concern that “representations of the British monarch and monarchy represent recent colonial history,” before choosing to remove the portrait and rotate to a more “neutral”.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson called the move “simply absurd”, while the front page of the conservative tabloid Daily Mail read: “Outrage as Oxford students vote for the ax queen.” In its report, the newspaper incorrectly stated that the portrait “had hung for decades”.
Dinah Rose, president of Magdalen College, said the students’ decision was “for them to make,” adding that the photo was first purchased and shown by students in 2013.
In shared tweets on Tuesday, Rose said it was the group’s right to decide how to decorate the shared space at the college and that it is students’ free choice to put – or remove – images as they see fit.
“These decisions are theirs, not the College’s,” he said, adding “maybe they’ll vote to bring it back, maybe not.” Until then, he said, the portrait now hotly debated in Britain would be kept safe in storage.
Rose also denounced threatening behavior, stating that staff had recently been targeted with “obscene messages” following the decision. He said the college is keeping alive the tradition of “free debate and democratic decision making” – something the monarch would likely support.
“Being a student is more than studying. It’s about exploring and discussing ideas, “wrote Rose.” Sometimes it’s about provoking the older generation. It seems like it’s not that hard to do these days. “
On television, radio stations and social media, many voiced their views on Wednesday morning local time.
“The queen has become the latest victim of the culture of annulment,” the conservative Daily Telegraph wrote Tuesday, while royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams called the move “ugly”.
When asked by radio station LBC whether it was okay for the students to remove the portrait, community secretary Robert Jenrick labeled the brawl “student union politics” but said their reasons seemed “rather ignorant.”
Magdalen College is not the institute’s first college to be at the center of controversy.
Oriel College, home to around 500 students, has long faced calls to remove a statue of former student Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century British imperialist known for his racist views.
Critics say Rhodes, who left a considerable sum of money at the university and has a building named after him, was a white supremacist figure who believed the Anglo-Saxon race was superior. Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation, hundreds of people flocked to Oxford to demand that the statue be removed by government and education officials.
Crowds outside Oriel College chanted “Rhodes Must Fall” and held “Black Lives Matter” signs. Their calls came when protesters in the city of Bristol pulled down a monument of Edward Colston, a British politician who enslaved tens of thousands of people, and dumped him in the nearby harbor.
Last month, the University of Oxford said the statue would not be removed, despite resounding appeals and a vote from the college’s governing body for its removal.
The college cited concerns over financial costs and planning consent and said it would not trigger the legal process to get rid of the monument, much to the anger of activists who viewed the decision as a betrayal.
“Every day, ethnic black and minority students and workers have to walk under Rhodes’ stone feet,” a student told the Guardian.
Magdalen College could not be reached immediately for comment