The reaction to the removal of the Queen’s portrait was over the top. We are not North Korea.

Andy Mayer

June 10, 2021

The histrionic reaction of social media to the removal of a common room portrait of the Queen by Magdalen College students in Oxford is a very unwise response to a piece of juvenile political theatre.

There is on principle nothing wrong with students choosing to decorate their social spaces how they please, let alone a requirement to venerate the monarch as a special case in a liberal democracy.

We are not North Korea. We do not require our citizens to hang pictures of the ‘dear leader’ in their offices and homes. We are not Thailand, there is no crime of Lèse-majesté or offences against the dignity of the crown. We are not the United States that occasionally debates amending the constitution to prohibit desecration of the flag. The symbol of choice of republican nationalists when creating their own sacred symbols of the state.

In a liberal democracy, you can burn flags, campaign for a republic, say rude things about the Prime Minister’s wallpaper, and otherwise assert your freedom of expression as you see fit, bar very limited constraints such as laws against libel or shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

The modern-day Dave Sparts and Millie Tants of the college of course sought to provoke exactly the reaction they are getting. Removing a picture of the Queen shortly after the death of her spouse, under the pretext of some postmodernist critical theory toss about space and being triggered by symbols of colonialism makes these future Labour Cabinet Ministers look very silly.

The college President Dinah Rose QC, however, is perfectly correct to defend their right to do that, and not intervene on behalf of snowflake outrage mobs marching up and down their timelines proclaiming offence on behalf of Buckingham Palace.

In this, there is little difference between the ultra-conservatives and ultra-woke. The crux of the criticism against the latter is that they are demanding legislation, regulation and societal norms to prohibit perceived offences against their most treasured causes. They are quite prepared to trample on fundamental liberties or create a chilling effect environment of fear to get them.

This over-reaction to the cancelling of a picture is the same thing. The conservative defence of institutions rests on the ability of those institutions to demonstrate their validity and worth through their quality and general support, not legal protections or bullying of critics, however unwise or loathsome.

Monarchists should sleep peacefully at night, if the worst their opposition can throw up is a group of adolescents offended by a young woman with a knock-out wardrobe. On that basis, I suspect the crown might even survive the transition to a successor with rather more in common with the students.

It will, though, be interesting when that happens to see whether the same people decrying the woke today will be removing their own pictures from walls tomorrow. What matters though is that they have the right to do that, untroubled by intervention from either the state, their place of learning, or the perpetually offended denizens of cyberspace.

Author

Written by Andy Mayer

Andy Mayer is Chief Operating Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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