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Boris Johnson has weighed in on the “culture wars” battle over the removal of a portrait of the Queen from an Oxford students’ common room by sending out a message that he “supports” education secretary Gavin Williamson’s criticism of the decision.
The president of the University of Oxford’s Magdalen College has defended students’ right to “free speech and political debate” and said that college staff have received threatening messages as Mr Williamson branded the portrait’s removal “absurd”.
But the prime minister signalled his backing for the comment, with a 10 Downing Street spokesman telling reporters: “You have the education secretary’s words, which the prime minister supports.”
Members of the Middle Common Room at Magdalen College voted for the change by a majority, saying the monarch represented “recent colonial history” and could make some feel unwelcome.
Mr Williamson tweeted that the monarch has “worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect around the world”.
She was a symbol of “what is best about the UK”, he said, as he condemned the decision.
“Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd,” wrote Mr Williamson.
“She is the head of state and a symbol of what is best about the UK.”
As the furore over the picture escalated, barrister Dinah Rose, who was appointed president of Magdalen College last year, tweeted an appeal for an end to abuse of staff over the decision.
“If you are one of the people currently sending obscene and threatening messages to the college staff, you might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen,” wrote Ms Rose.
“Or whether she’d be more likely to support the traditions of free debate and democratic decision-making that we are keeping alive at Magdalen.”
Ms Rose said she would have voted to keep the picture, but added: “I will back to the hilt their right to debate and decide this issue. Protecting free speech in universities has never been more important.
“The Middle Common Room bought a print of the Queen in 2013 to decorate their own common room, and voted to take it down a few years later. Are we really so fragile now that we’re policing student votes about decor?”
And she added: “Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation.
“Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.”
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick called the row “student union politics”, but he said he is “proud” to have a portrait of the Queen in his office.
He told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “I’m a huge fan and supporter of Her Majesty the Queen, I think we are incredibly lucky to live in a country with a head of state of her stature.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to disrespect her out of ignorance in this way, but I don’t think that we should waste too much time on student union politics.”
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham told Nick Ferrari on LBC: “These kind of gestures are getting a bit out of hand.
“We should always respect the Queen, but particularly now, given things that have happened in the last few months.
“Let’s get a sense of proportion and a bit of respect. People can air their views but those kind of gestures are divisive actually – they just divide people, and I don’t think they achieve much, to be honest.”
On its website, Magdalen College Middle Common Room describes itself as “one of the biggest graduate communities of the traditional Oxford Colleges”.
It states: “Our graduates come from many different countries throughout the world, and have diverse interests, academic and otherwise.
“The MCR forms an integral part of the Magdalen graduate experience – not only do we organise social and cultural events for students so that we can make the utmost out of our time in Oxford, but we also provide a network of support for graduate life in representing the concerns of students to the College.”