LONDON — Has Queen Elizabeth II been canceled?
That was Wednesday’s rallying cry 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 Britain’s colonial history — and igniting the latest flash point in the nation’s culture wars.
The decision triggered condemnation from the right and threats against teaching staff, and stirred widespread controversy on social media. To some, it was yet another example of “cancel culture gone mad,” a topic with which the United States also continues to grapple. To others, it was an overblown fracas exploited by the tabloid news media, snowballing out of hand.
Britain has long seen vigorous debate between the right and the left over its legacy of empire and colonialism. The intensity of the discussion, however, accelerated dramatically with the Black Lives Matter movement last year that began targeting overt symbols of the country’s dark past, prompting a backlash from conservatives claiming the nation’s history was under attack and shouldn’t be erased.
According to notes from the meeting, some at Magdalen College had expressed concerns that “depictions of the monarch and the British monarchy represent recent colonial history,” before opting to take down the portrait and pivot to a more “neutral” looking space.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson slammed the move as “simply absurd,” while the front page of the conservative Daily Mail tabloid read: “Outrage as Oxford students vote to axe queen.” In its report, the paper erroneously claimed that the portrait “had hung for decades.”
Magdalen College President Dinah Rose said the students’ decision was “theirs to make,” adding that the photo was purchased and first displayed by students in 2013.
In tweets shared Tuesday, Rose said that it was the group’s right to decide how to decorate the shared space at the college and that it is the students’ free choice to put up — or take down — images as they see fit.
“These decisions are their own to take, not the College’s,” she said, adding “maybe they’ll vote to put it up again, maybe they won’t.” Until then, she said, the portrait now at the center of fierce debate in Britain would be kept safely in storage.
Rose also called out threatening behavior, saying that staff had recently been targeted with “obscene messages” as a result of the decision. She said the college was keeping alive the tradition of “free debate and democratic decision-making” — something the monarch would likely support.
“Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas,” Rose wrote. “It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.”
On television, radio stations and social media, many chimed in with their views Wednesday morning local time.
“The Queen has become the latest victim of cancel culture,” the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper wrote Tuesday, while royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams, called the move “nasty.”
When asked by radio station LBC if it was right for the students to remove the portrait, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick labeled the fracas “student union politics,” but said their reasons appeared “pretty ignorant.”
Magdalen College is not the institution’s first college to find itself at the center of controversy.
Oriel College, which is home to around 500 students, has long faced calls to remove a statue of ex-student Cecil Rhodes — a 19th-century British imperialist known for his racist views.
Critics say Rhodes, who left a considerable sum of money to the university and has a building named after him, was a figure of white supremacy who believed the Anglo Saxon race to be superior. Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation, hundreds flocked to Oxford to demand the statue be removed by government and education officials.
Crowds outside Oriel College chanted “Rhodes must fall” and held placards that read “Black Lives Matter.” Their calls came as demonstrators in the city of Bristol tugged down a monument of Edward Colston, a British politician who enslaved tens of thousands of people, and dumped it in the nearby harbor.
Last month, Oxford University said the statue would not be removed, despite resounding calls and a vote from the college’s governing body to have it taken down.
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 campaigners who regarded the decision as a betrayal.
“Every day, black and minority ethnic students and workers have to walk beneath Rhodes’ stone feet,” one student told the Guardian.
Magdalen College could not immediately be reached for comment