After defending Her Majesty at the Oxford Union Debating Society, I worry there’s now a genuine vulnerability to this venerable institution
One of the most famous debates in the history of the Oxford Union Debating Society was the 1933 King and Country debate, in which Oxford undergraduates famously passed the motion: “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” The debate polarized Britain, shocking many, with the Daily Telegraph thundering: “Disloyalty at Oxford; gesture towards the Reds.” There was an unnerving echo of this last week, when the Oxford Union held a debate with the motion: “This House would abolish the monarchy.”
When I received my prestigious invitation to oppose the motion, shortly after Harry and Meghan lobbed their first volley of “truth bombs” against the Royal family in their Oprah interview, I felt a renewed blast of fury towards the Sussexes. Their antics and accusations of racism, mental health neglect and poor Windsor parenting have whipped up republican sentiment, especially amongst younger generations.
“As scandal after scandal shakes the family, the legitimacy of the monarchy seems to hang in the balance,” the blurb for the debate posited, insisting that we question the legitimacy of our hereditary head of state. “Should we protect an iconic symbol of Britain or stand against a corrupt system of rule?” they asked. “Can we justify the monarchy’s existence or are its faults too great for Britain to bear?”
It was a privilege to justify the monarchy’s existence in the hallowed debating chamber, founded in 1823 to protect against the university’s restrictive rules surrounding the discussion of religion and politics – sound familiar? – and to champion freedom of speech, currently much curtailed today. Following in the footsteps of former speakers Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher is an undisputed thrill, even if your stomach lurches in anxious anticipation of facing the largely left wing, “woke” student body.
Along with Lieutenant General David Leakey, former Director General of the European Military Staff and former Black Rod, and columnist Peter Hitchens, who considers himself “a monarchist who doesn’t much like the Royal family”, a wonderfully engaging student speaker, Charlie MacKintosh, resplendent in kilt and sporran, opposed the motion with me. Charlie, on a military scholarship to Oxford and joshed by fellow students for having a framed portrait of the Queen in his bedroom, was passionate about the relationship between the armed forces and the monarchy, inspiring young people to serve their country. He admirably set out our stall to the other side, citing the benefits of the Crown – its diplomatic soft power, valuable tourist draw and political advantage of having a neutral head of state – and concluded that, while it may well be seen today as absurd and anachronistic, constitutional monarchies are happier and more stable. Here, here.
The atmosphere in the Union was electric; alive with heckling, whooping, cheers, jeers and undiluted brio. Charlie gamely outed Jamie Bowden, his fellow student speaker who was proposing the motion and keen to condemn the Windsors’ life of privilege, when Jamie was, in fact, an old Etonian. It all felt lively, fun and spirited. Until the humourless republicans weighed in.
While I had anticipated their dreary pronouncements and egalitarian glee, nothing could have prepared me. Graham Smith, CEO of Republic, a pressure group which campaigns for the abolition of the UK monarchy presented the Queen as if she was the David Walliam’s character, Gangster Granny. She was portrayed as lolling in her lavish lair, unscrupulously ripping off her subjects. The Royal family was “a racist institution by default” bellowed besuited Mr Smith. As well as being “anti Catholic”, it was “immoral, unethical, wrong in principle and corrupt”. He cited historians as describing the monarchy as “more secretive than M15” because they kept the royal archives at Kew, vetting access to them. Dr Ken Ritchie, the founder of Labour for a Republic, a Labour-affiliated pressure group, agitated over the monarchy “reinforcing the social pecking order”, urging us to rid them of their “social status and power”.
They exist, he told us, in a bubble of privilege “against the background of huge numbers of people struggling to make ends meet”. The monarchy, he insisted, “doesn’t recognise this”. Surely, if anyone knows about economic disparity in Britain, it is the highest working members of the Royal family, who tour the country, visiting its every impoverished nook and cranny?
I spoke last, weighing in against Mr Smith and his inaccurate Marie-Antoinette caricature of the Windsors. Yes, they are a dysfunctional family but they are our dysfunctional family. Yes, the Sussexes are divisive but the Cambridges are a unifying force. Princess Anne and the Queen have a dizzying work schedule; Her Majesty is diplomatic, experienced, hardworking and, in times of crisis, brilliantly binds the nation. Instead of the status, subjugation and superiority that the republicans hammered home, they should consider the service of senior royals.
Last week I sat next to the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire at lunch, who told me that the greatest gift of the Royal family was that when they met the public, people felt that they genuinely cared about them. I was jeered for suggesting that the Queen was an inspiring feminist and that, instead of dialling things down, we should ramp it up with more emeralds, ermine and military epaulettes as nowhere in the world can replicate our crowd-swelling pomp and pageantry.
There was a hiatus of welcome light relief when the students took to the floor and speak for one minute for or against the motion, to win the coveted £40 voucher at Ned’s Noodlebox. These were entertaining and impassioned. A Russian student told us we didn’t know how good we had it, while an American Iraqi condemned the Empire. Both spoke brilliantly. Afterwards, you leave the debating chamber, voting with your feet by exiting through the famous doors. The right hand door is marked “ayes” and the left hand “noes.” Adam Roble, the president of the union, announced the result. 79 votes for the motion, 57 against. It was, he told me, much closer than he had anticipated. The students were a delight and their appetite for healthy debate was refreshing. However, I left feeling unsettled.
I had thought that Prince Philip’s death had done some work towards uniting the nation in grief and a sense of loss. I had argued that to abolish the monarchy would be to rid the country of its own strength and stay. Whilst I am passionate about defending the preference of the monarchy to an unthinkable alternative and hold the Queen in the highest esteem, I felt that in this debate there was a forewarning of the wave of venom and vitriol that is getting ready for its moment. There is now a genuine fragility and vulnerability to this venerable, ancient institution.
Let the 1933 King and Country debate be a salutary lesson and God Save the Queen.