The Oriel Donors' Revolt Highlights the Worst of Both Rhodes Must Fall, and the College's Response to it

03/02/2016 10:06 GMT | Updated 01/02/2017 10:12 GMT

On Friday, the Rhodes Must Fall saga seemingly came to an end, with Oriel announcing that neither the plaque, nor the statue, would fall - and the six-month consultation planned for later this month would instead focus on how to best contextualise the statue and plaque. While this is a welcome result for those who didn't wish for the Rhodes statue to fall, the end of the campaign - and the revolt of donors that it took to get us here - only highlights the flaws in both RMF's own attitude to opposition, and Oriel's response to the campaign.

In Oriel's case, it surely represents a moral cowardice on the part of the most senior leadership of the College that, in spite of successive polls which showed that RMF was at best divisive and at worst a clear minority - even in Oxford - it took the withdrawal of donations from major donors (and presumably many others) to persuade Oriel's leadership to announce that Rhodes would not fall (something that seemed a near certainty from a legal perspective, given the building's Grade II* listed status - the purpose of which is precisely to preserve history). This is in spite of the fact that, according to a Cherwell poll on the issue (the best, data we have), the vast majority of Oriel's own students are also against the statue being removed. Indeed, to many, it appeared that the only group of people who Oriel's senior leadership was prepared to take seriously - at least until the planned consultation, and later the withdrawal of donations and threats thereof by alumni - was RMF.

Surely we would expect that it would not be up to politicians like Daniel Hannan, or publications like the Spectator to not only defend the College against RMF, but to have to be the vanguard of defending keeping the statue. We would expect the College itself to be able to tell us the significance of Rhodes's bequest, for instance (which is worth c. £44 million in today's money), and why the statue was erected - namely, to commemorate what is still the largest donation that the College has ever received, not to glorify Rhodes's views, person, or other actions. If the College had wanted to glorify Rhodes as an individual, rather than simply his donation, they could have done much better than a small statue built into a façade; indeed, the removed UCT Rhodes statue seems to provide a perfect example of doing just that.

In such a context, it should be of little surprise that a planned bequest of £100 million to the College is now in jeopardy - an amount worth more than twice Rhodes's bequest today. If the College were to choose to commemorate said donation in the future - a course of action that would certainly be merited - said donor would surely be entitled to expect that the College is able to defend the donor's own name when society's standards inevitably move on to find our own values just as unacceptable as we find those of Rhodes today. The actions of Oriel's leadership in proposing to unilaterally take down the Rhodes plaque, and its lack of a defence of even the bare act of commemorating Rhodes's donation at all, are unlikely to inspire confidence in donors. If the College's leadership will not defend the specific commemoration of transformative donations if donors come under attack in the future, then why would you want to donate to such an institution at all?

Oriel's own arguable cowardice, however, seems to pale in comparison to the role played by RMF themselves in getting us to this point. Granted, from the outset, the whole purpose of RMF was to draw attention to Rhodes, who many of us had simply forgotten prior to the campaign, the contention by some RMF supporters that the campaign was about having a debate about our colonial past (something which is long overdue in the first instance) is one about which we can be justly sceptical. Rather, the campaign seemed to be hell-bent on browbeating a specific - wholly negative - view of Rhodes (and seemingly few others, with the exception of the odd barb thrown at Churchill, and the slander of France by comparing its flag to a Swastika in the case of one prominent member of the group).

The group's unduly-adverse reaction to criticism (for a group which is supposed to be partaking in a debate, rather than dictating the outcome) was consistent throughout the campaign. Critics were routinely dismissed as being "white supremacist" (and it was even suggested on Facebook by a supporter that rival Pages to RMF were set up because we thought it was funny, rather than that we seriously disagreed with the campaign), with one floor speaker at the Union last summer being barracked to the point where he could barely talk at all. The most reliable data we've got - the Cherwell poll - was subject to a unique campaign to discredit the data visited upon few, if any, other such polls. Granted, all random sampling has its reliability issues (such as self-selection), but a swing of 17% against RMF (37% support; 54% oppose; 9% unsure) is hardly insignificant. More telling still is that even those who RMF claim to speak for - namely all (it would appear) BME students - were hotly divided (48% support; 44% oppose; 8% unsure) and even then a simple majority stated that the removal of the statue would not affect their daily life. We can legitimately wonder, in these circumstances, if the unique vitriol directed at the poll would have been so directed were the statistics reversed.

What is perhaps most disingenuous in the aftermath of the Donors' Revolt is the contention by some RMF supporters that the donors should simply have stayed silent, or Oriel should have ignored them. Alumni of a College are under no obligation to make a donation in the first instance, and when they do, they surely have some stake in the College's future - far beyond that of a passing generation of students from other Colleges demanding the removal of a statue. Moreover, poll after poll - from YouGov to the Telegraph (where 93% of respondents disagreed with RMF) - would suggest that the donors in question actually represent the will of the majority; in such a context, protests about the "anti-democratic" nature of the donors' actions seem to ring hollow. Indeed, when RMF claim donors are holding the College to ransom by withdrawing donations, the donors can surely respond that RMF's own tactics - often predicated on causing as much disruption as possible - seem to be doing just that, especially when their opinion is clearly a minority one.

The second charge against the College by RMF, namely that it "sold out", seems most pernicious of all. The Telegraph reports that £1.25 million is likely to be lost at a minimum in the short term, and fundraising curtailed in the near future owing to the fraught relationship between many potential donors and the College - money that could have been used to actually improve the lives of Oriel students. Surely that is far more important than the demand by a group unrepresentative of wider student, let alone national, opinion that a statue be removed, especially when we consider how many said that its removal would not affect their lives at all. A fitting question to those suggesting that the statue be torn down regardless must be: which low-wage employees of the College (a College whose own members vehemently disagreed with RMF in the Cherwell poll) should be made redundant to accommodate this?

Yet there is a potential silver lining for RMF, and the debate about colonialism as a whole. If the campaign's aim really is about drawing attention to the lesser-heard narrative of British colonial atrocities, now represents a golden opportunity to continue this conversation on a broader level. However, given that this was the declared goal of the campaign when all it seemed to do was vehemently demand the removal of a statue, scepticism of whether this will actually materialise (as opposed to, say, a campaign against another statue or building considered an easier target) seems more than justified.

I am grateful to Anna Lukina for reading this piece in draft