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Oxford Union Debating Chamber

Oxford Union Debating Chamber. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Oxford Union demonstrates that it remains at heart a racist, conservative institution, argues Josh Newman

The Oxford Union is at it again. Once more, the debating society in Oxford is in headlines for being a caricature of reactionary attitudes and behaviour. Even by their standards, though, this is an appalling story. 

On October 17th the Union held a debate entitled ‘This House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’. Ebenezer Azamati, a graduate student from Ghana, went to the chamber early to reserve an accessible seat because he is visually impaired and feared that it might not be possible to find an accessible seat at a popular event like this. 

After leaving to eat dinner Azamati was told he couldn’t re-enter the chamber because it was full, despite him being a member and having his member’s card to prove it. Even if this was true there is plenty of standing room which attendees are able to move to if the seats downstairs are all taken. He took up the seat he had marked out earlier nonetheless. Shortly afterwards security officers employed by the Union arrived and dragged him violently out of the hall, eventually by his ankles after he resisted by gripping onto the seat.

This is already gruesome but it is made all the worse by the subsequent response of the Union president, Brendan McGrath, who justified the incident by publicly claiming that Azamati was guilty of ‘violent behaviour’ in a ‘disciplinary’ hearing this weekend. Even given the history of Oxford Union Committee behaviour this is stunningly brazen. 

McGrath did later issue an apology of sorts to Azamati amid calls for his resignation as president. However, he apologised for any ‘distress and reputational damage’ caused to the graduate student and this of course amounts to no apology at all, let alone a move towards taking any kind of responsibility for the incident. It is the kind of non-apology widely practised by senior politicians in this country, many of whom have passed through the ranks of the Oxford Union Committee themselves, with Boris Johnson himself having been president in his day. This is in the context of an institution that created a flagrantly racist cocktail and poster for an event only a few years ago and which has consistently been inviting figures, such as Steve Bannon, Katie Hopkins, and Alice Weidel, who have made careers out of stoking racial hatred.

Despite consistent condemnation, McGrath and the rest of the committee will likely face no repercussions for this since the Union is an independent institution and not in fact under the jurisdiction of the University. This lack of accountability goes some way to explain how such brutality and racism can be treated with levity by those who represent a supposedly venerated institution that claims to be politically neutral, laughable though that might be. 

Through all of the bluster around this story, two things seem clear. Firstly, that this incident would almost certainly not have happened if the student in question had been white, and secondly, that the people behind the structure of the Oxford Union have no intention of seriously addressing why this was allowed to happen in the first place. Despite condemning itself as institutionally racist after the cocktail episode mentioned above, the Union has clearly made no efforts to reform itself and remains a hub of racism and conservatism.

Tagged under: Education Racism University
Josh Newman

Josh Newman

Josh Newman is a teacher, musician, and writer from East Kent who now runs Counterfire and Stop the War branches in Oxford

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