Union candidate dropped from slate for “colonialism is underrated” JCR motion

The controversial comment was part of a motion for a "declaration of war on St. Edmund's Hall".

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The Queen's College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A student standing to be elected to the Oxford Union Secretary’s Committee has been sharply criticised by members of his JCR for submitting a motion tabled in the agenda that claimed “colonialism is underrated”.

The motion, which calls for a “Declaration of War on St. Edmund’s Hall”, was posted in protest in the Queen’s JCR Facebook group by a member who asked “how and why a motion including the phrase ‘colonialism is underrated’ is being heard”.

The member went on to point out that “historical and present-day imperialism resulting in cultural and actual genocide isn’t particularly funny” and that “not all of us see the impact of global colonialism as something that can be joked about, and when your immediate family are still regularly endangered by the lasting ramifications of colonialism in your country, perhaps you can speak on it”.

The post called for the withdrawal of the motion from the meeting’s agenda and for a “public apology from the proposer and seconder”. The member who brought the motion to the JCR’s attention declined to give further comment on the incident.

The controversial comments appear to be particularly troubling as the fresher that tabled the motion has filed an application to stand as a secretary’s committee candidate. Cherwell understands that he was selected to do so as part of Amy Gregg’s “Unlock the Union” slate.

In response to the controversy, Gregg confirmed that the student “will not be a member of the Unlock the Union team. I hope the Queen’s College deals with him appropriately”.

In a statement, the fresher told Cherwell: “On 9th June, I submitted a motion to the Queen’s College JCR for a constitutional meeting, with the motion being for the purposes of ‘declaring war on Teddy Hall’ – a joke inspired by another JCR’s declaration of war on their own MCR. Having missed the deadline for submissions on Friday, I hurriedly drafted my motion, found someone to second it and sent it to the Chair via email, asking that it still be included despite its tardiness.

“My seconder had absolutely no clue to any of the contents – only that it had to do with war with Teddy Hall, and simply seconded as a favour to me. This was entirely my motion; I alone saw it before sending it off.

“It later came to my attention that the section with ‘colonialism is underrated’ could be construed as in very bad taste, and was something that should not belong anywhere near a JCR motion, not least when a post was made to our JCR Facebook page laying bare my transgressions. The comment was meant as a joking justification for taking over another college ‘for their own sake’, but I see now that it was seen as an inappropriate and even offensive inclusion to many.

“Indeed, I barely gave that point much thought at all. I profusely apologize for this – my only intention was to entertain, but I see now I crossed a line I should not have, something I was blind to see when writing and sending in the motion. Most of all I apologize to my college and especially my seconder, who did not deserve to get wrapped up in this as a result of my action.

“As a result of this I have since asked for the entire motion to be removed from the meeting, having realized my mistake and error in judgement, and would ask for your forgiveness for my transgression.”

In response to the controversy, Queen’s College JCR President Ebrubaoghene Ayovenefe wrote a Facebook post to all JCR members in which he strongly condemned the motion.

Ayovunefe wrote: “I can’t believe I actually have to say this in the year of our lord two thousand and nineteen, but the Queen’s College JCR does not endorse imperial apologia, nor does it in any way support the view that it was ‘underrated’.

“One of two things is true. The article point of the motion in question (which has since been withdrawn) was written with either i. little to no forethought on what was being said when that ‘joke’ was written, thus demonstrating a frankly astounding ignorance of the inherent violence of colonialism, its consequences on the peoples who suffered under the colonial project, and their descendants still reeling today from its aftershocks; in which case, I would kindly invite the proposer and seconder to, after sincerely apologising to the JCR, educate themselves on the British imperial project and how it much contributed to the comfort which they enjoy as residents of this country, relative to the descendants of Britain’s imperial subjects. If the two are finding such particularly difficult, I can provide some recommendations for reading, or I could let them know what it is to be a native of a country Britain used as its imperial whipping boy for almost a century.

“Or ii. the proposer and seconder knew all of the above and, in the name of ignorance, a “joke” or needless provocation, decided they just didn’t care; in which case, I would rather less kindly invite them to examine the faults of their own characters and begin to work on developing a degree of sympathy for others, and a thorough understanding of why such comments are not only resoundingly insensitive to the natives of former colonial nations (such as myself, for one) but why it is not their place to make such a mockery of colonialism, but rather their place (and, indeed, their moral imperative) to educate themselves on and involve themselves with the various decolonial efforts taking place in social and academic spheres.

“An apology is not enough if it is engendered merely by the collective censure of one’s peers, rather than a more profound understanding of how one has erred.”

Speaking to Cherwell, Ayovunefe defended the JCR committee, saying: “until Hilary Term of 2018 the vetting process allowed for motions to be discussed or dismissed at the discretion of the JCR Chair, a power which was removed from our constitution on the grounds of its potential for undemocratic abuses of power, and one which we will consider restoring in the light of this motion.

“This article point in question and the levity with which it was included in the motion point not only to a frankly ubiquitous ignorance of the colonial project and its legacy, but also to the outright denialism of this legacy’s effects, which occur at the level of both the personal and institutional.

“I need only gesture to Professor Nigel Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ project to demonstrate how normalised imperial apologia is both in Oxford and in society at large, and how reflexive attempts to whitewash the extent to which the standard of living Britain enjoys are a consequence of its position as a former colonial power have become in the wake of the historical revisionism of Empire.”

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