The scandal at the Oxford Union is an opportunity to reassess our values

The forcible removal of a visually impaired student should be met with institutional change for one of Britain’s oldest students’ societies, argues Henry Hatwell 

November 21, 2019
Oxford skyline

The Oxford Union’s catalogue of errors in dealing with the awful treatment of Ebenezer Azamati during the No Confidence debate last month amount to a damning indictment of the society.

Revered around the world as the “last bastion of free speech”, the union has long shown itself to be little more than a private members’ club for the elite who come to Oxford with more contacts than would fit in a Rolodex. These events are evidence that work still needs to be done to bring the union into the 21st century.

After Azamati, a visually impaired postgraduate student from Ghana, was forcibly removed during the debate, I challenged Nicky Morgan – secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport – on the floor of the chamber that night, which you can see on YouTube (from two minutes in). 

Her response was shameful. Instead of expressing dismay at the apparent assault and manhandling of a student by union staff, Morgan went on to hail the union as a “home for all students”. 

It wasn’t a home for Azamati that evening. And it appears that the union’s defence of human rights and dignity doesn’t stretch to those being dragged out by their ankles. MPs Barry Gardiner and Graham Brady, who were both there debating alongside Morgan, also didn’t raise an eyebrow at the treatment. For politicians who bang on about values, it’s nice to know how meaningless their words really are.

In the weeks following the event, Azamati was found guilty of violence in response to being set upon by a security guard. The union wasted funds on the expenses of those running the disciplinary committee and then chose to repeat the charade by disputing Azamati’s appeal.

Over the five weeks, there was radio silence from the union’s executive committee and no effort to tell its members or the wider public about its actions.

In response, the Oxford University Africa Society launched a campaign to get popular support for Azamati and picketed Theresa May’s Benazir Bhutto Memorial Lecture in the chamber on 15 November. Protestors were heard clearly during May’s speech.

This enthusiasm fed into the work of our group to galvanise support to impeach the then union president Brendan McGrath because we were frustrated by his approach to Azamati’s appeal.

Drawing on active voices from within the union, the Africa Society and others, we held a conference call well into the early hours on 18 November to strategise. We devised the impeachment motion and set in train what would become a hugely successful campaign. The motion went up in my name and we reached the required number of 150 signatures within four hours, eventually reaching 301 before the notice was taken down from the union’s noticeboard.

Reaching that many people so quickly is a sign of just how important this issue is to the union’s membership. I am proud of how we managed to galvanise support for our campaign. And while I welcome McGrath’s resignation, there is still work to do. 

Following McGrath’s resignation statement, we immediately set about planning what should happen next. The current problems are not just because of McGrath’s presidency and they reach wider than Azamati’s case. Every elected official at the union needs to reflect on whether serious institutional reform needs to take place and the role they can play in pushing for it.

Former union committee members and political figures such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Nicky Morgan, and House of Commons Speaker Jacob Rees-Mogg (interestingly, also a trustee of the union) need to search their consciences to ask where their response was when their university society was under attack for its actions. 

For better or for worse, the Oxford Union is important in British political life and it is an all-consuming endeavour for those students who seek office there. I call on these leaders to come out now to say where they stand on our collective values and what they think the union should do next.

Having met with the union’s acting president to discuss changes to the society’s staggeringly complex 252 pages of rules and to push for an independent investigation into what happened, my attention will shift to getting to grips with the union’s structural arrangements, as well as writing to vice-chancellor Louise Richardson, asking her to formally end all links between the union and the university. Although the union is officially independent from the university, it is still advertised in the university's undergraduate prospectus and its library is available in the university’s catalogue. Breaking ties completely will hopefully protect the institution’s reputation from this or similar scandals arising from the Oxford Union, adding pressure on the union to act.

And I have begun sifting through reports and trust deeds in order to make a complaint to the trustees of the bodies that run the union, as well as to the Charity Commission. 

Throughout this process, I have drawn hope from the collaborative approach of our team, many of whom have never met in person, as well as from Helen Mountfield QC and principal at Mansfield College for her tireless dedication to making things right and in representing Azamati during his appeal proceedings. 

For Azamati, I hope that his dignity in defending himself and in combatting barriers to his life at Oxford will inspire others. 

For the union and for our politics in general, I hope that we have collectively shown that it is not enough to shirk responsibility and blame others, nor is it enough to say to wait for someone else to act. 

That night in the chamber, I should not have been the only person who raised a point of information; we must all search our collective conscience to ask why I was. 

Henry Hatwell is a fourth-year student at St John’s College, University of Oxford, studying law with French law.

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