“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” – Gavin Williamson, English education secretary, June 8, 2021.


Oxford students have a right to free speech. Conservative ministers like Gavin Williamson are only trying to recruit the monarchy into saving the Union. Even those not supporting independence should be wary of Mr Williamson’s antics.


Williamson is the current Secretary of State for Education for England, though he is often introduced on the BBC as if he had responsibility for the whole UK.

Previously he was Defence Secretary under Theresa May, after Michael Fallon had to resign for touching up a female journalist. While defence boss, Williamson had dinner with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a Putin crony, in exchange for a £30,000 donation to the Conservative party. May sacked Williamson following a press leak from the National Security Council.

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In revenge, Williamson ran the campaign for Boris Johnson’s successful bid to become Tory leader. In return, he was awarded the English education brief.

However, his many gaffs during the Covid pandemic have led to intense speculation in the Conservative press that he is to be dumped and replaced by Sajid Javid. In turn, this has led to many unattributed stories saying Williamson has threatened to reveal things about Johnson he saw during the 2019 leadership contest. It's possible that Mr Williamson’s latest royal tweet is part of his campaign to keep his job.


Oxford University students at Magdalen College recently voted to remove the Queen’s picture from their common room, because they view her as a symbol of British colonialism. It was this incident that led Gavin Williamson to tweet: “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 and respect around the world.”

Williamson’s tweet got lots of media coverage. His stance was backed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to a No 10 spokesperson.

Oxford vice-chancellor Lord Patten (a former Tory minister) also weighed in, calling the students’ decision “offensive and obnoxiously ignorant”. All of this may seem something of an over-reaction politically.

However, Williamson’s tweet should be seen in the context of Conservatives at Westminster moving to limit anti-racist, anti-colonial and BAME protests in universities.

In February 2021, Williamson himself announced that he would introduce new legislation to fine English universities that are deemed to have allowed attacks on “free speech” and to give leave to anyone denied a platform to take legal action, i.e. anyone protesting a racist speaker could be sued.

Williamson also wants to impose directions on English universities to “promote free speech” as he defines it.

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Magdalen College is hardly a bed of republican activism. Hundreds of staff and students turned out in 2008 to greet the Queen and Prince Philip when they visited as part of the College’s 550th anniversary. Prince William also went to visit in 2016.

On the 2008 visit, students and staff entered a ballot to have lunch with the Queen. There were 900 entries for 120 winning tickets. One student was quoted as saying: “I love the Queen, this is a very exciting visit.”

Magdalen College Middle Common Room (MCR) is a mini student union for post-graduates. It describes itself as “one of the biggest graduate communities of the traditional Oxford Colleges”.

Its website says: “Our graduates come from many different countries throughout the world, and have diverse interests, academic and otherwise.”

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The offending motion to remove the Queen’s portrait was proposed by the MCR President Matthew Katzman. He is a 25-year-old lecturer in computer science from Maryland, USA. Previously he studied at Stanford University.

Katzman, the son of top US lawyer Scott Katzman, claimed the move did not “equate to a statement on the Queen”. Rather, he said the painting was being taken down to create “a welcoming, neutral place for all members regardless of background, demographic, or views”.

So this affair hardly represents a prime example of the “cancellation culture”. It might just be that the mature, international students of the MCR preferred something more cosmopolitan on their café wall.

The Queen’s portrait has hung in the Magdalen common room only since 2013. The MCR committee will now consider replacing it with “art by or of other influential and inspirational people”.


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The Magdalen College portrait affair has exploded just as Oxford was grappling with another issue – what to do with the statue of Cecil Rhodes at nearby Oriel College. No one can deny that Rhodes was a colonialist and a racist, as well as being a college benefactor.

Recently there has been a campaign supported by both students and staff to have the statue removed. After some dithering, Oriel College has rejected removing the statue.

For those tempted to see this as just another example of “cancellation culture” it is worth remembering that back in June 1899, 94 Oxford academics wrote to the university vice-chancellor to protest against bestowing an honorary doctorate on the still-living Cecil Rhodes. Mr Rhodes was controversial even in 1899.

The Magdalen vote to remove the Queen’s portrait has obviously emerged at a moment when Oxford is reassessing its past and when the Tory Government has decided to impose stricter state control on student politics. This perhaps explains the media and political over-reaction to the Magdalene Common Room decision.


This over-reaction appears to have included threatening messages sent to students and staff following a Gavin Williamson’s not so subtle public intervention.

Barrister Dinah Rose, the president of Magdalen College, responded by defending the students’ right to “free speech and political debate”.

As part of a longer Twitter thread on the issue, she wrote: “If you are one of the people currently sending obscene and threatening messages to the College staff, you might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen."


The National: National Fact Check False

The English education minister should go back to the classroom.

Gavin Williamson may not register much on the Scottish political radar, but both his attacks on university autonomy and his desire to recruit the monarchy as a tool to thwart Scottish independence need watching.