Will it or won’t it? The question that has been on the lips of academics, campaigners and historians on both sides of the culture wars has finally been answered – Rhodes will not fall.
Oriel College’s announcement last week came as a shock to many in Oxford, as well as further afield. So incensed were some of the university’s geography dons that they published a statement saying it is a "source of shame" for the city that the imperialist Cecil Rhodes is still "honoured" with a statue.
Even those who had wanted the statue to remain in its place were taken aback by Oriel’s conclusion.
"I was extremely surprised – I wouldn’t have expected the college would resist the pressure from the woke mob," one academic said. "Those of us who are in favour of keeping it daren’t say so out loud."
Last summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and in the wake of the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, "Rhodes Must Fall" protests sprang up outside Oriel.
Rhodes, a 19th century industrialist who donated a huge sum to Oriel in his will, was not a slave trader but supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa.
It was nothing the College had not seen before. Five years previously, student activists had argued vociferously that the image of Rhodes, whose legacy still funds Rhodes scholarships for overseas students, should be toppled because the Victorian imperialist was a "racist".
Oriel’s pledge, in December 2015, to enter into discussion about the future of the statue triggered an almighty row, culminating in furious donors threatening to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million if it was taken down.
By the following month, Oriel had been forced to cancel the proposed six-month consultation and the college’s governing body ruled out its removal after being warned that £1.5 million worth of donations have already been cancelled and that it faced dire financial consequences if it bowed to the Rhodes Must Fall student campaign.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and Oriel faced the same conundrum once again – this time under an unprecedented level of scrutiny from those campaigning for decolonisation and those at the heart of the Government who were vocal in their resistance to removal of statues .
It is claimed by some that Lord Neil Mendoza, the provost of Oriel who was offered a Tory peerage last year, was told in no uncertain terms by Boris Johnson that the statue was staying put – a claim both Downing Street and Lord Mendoza deny.
But the rumour mill persisted. "Mendoza was told that Boris wouldn’t allow it to come down. It was an important part of the culture wars," a source familiar with events alleged. "He took the sting out of the opposition to the Rhodes statue by setting up a commission."
Another don labelled the commission a "stitch-up", claiming: "The optics were deliberately loaded in favour of those who would want to pull the statue down."
The commission, chaired by Carole Souter, the master of St Cross College and a former chief executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, was set up last June and published its conclusion last week that the statue should go.
Protesters reiterate their calls for the statue to come down in Oxford last week
Credit: Laurel Chor/Getty Images Europe
By the time the commission made its recommendations, Oriel chiefs made a surprise announcement.
Last June, they said it was their "wish" to remove the statue. But the governing body’s declaration last week was that it should stay for the time being because it would take too long and be too expensive to get rid of it.
Insiders say the decision had nothing to do with any outside pressures or edict from Downing Street, and can instead be attributed to a "common sense cabal" of Oriel’s own fellows.
"There was enormous back and forth and tensions within the Oriel fellowship," a source said. "There was a small but very well organised common sense cabal at the heart of the fellowship who were very astute in their tactics."
Another factor which arguably came into play while the commission deliberated was the Government’s new planning laws.
"What has changed over the last year is the legislation," another Oxford don said. "You might take the view that the college parked it with the commission and let them plod away until they were able to duck out of the issue altogether."
In January, Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, announced that every statue would be given greater protection from "baying mobs". He said the Government wanted to change the law so that historic statues, plaques, memorials or monuments cannot be removed without going through a formal planning process.
The new laws, which came into force at the end of March, were intended to ensure that controversial statues and monuments would be explained and contextualised rather than hidden away.
The Rhodes statue is situated on Oriel’s Grade II listed High Street building, and its removal would be subject to legal and planning processes involving Oxford City Council, Historic England and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
The Rhodes statue is placed on the college's Grade II listed High Street building
Credit: John Nguyen/JNVisuals
Lord Mendoza said there were "considerable obstacles" to the statue’s removal, citing "financial challenges" and concluding that "in the current regulatory and legislative environment it’s not going to be possible".
Some Oxford dons have pointed out that the cost of removing the statue is not insignificant at a time when finances are weighing heavily on college bursars. "Colleges are having a really tough time financially – they are not going to spend all that money doing something that they don’t really want to do," a source said.
"Taking the statue down would be a hideous cost, and Covid has drained the pot more than ever. If Oriel said ‘we will take it down straight away’, it would alienate a huge number of their alumni. They are not that wealthy a college and another donor boycott would really hit them where it hurts."
But if anyone thought the statue decision marks the end of the Rhodes saga, they can think again, according to Robert Poll, the founder of the Save Our Statues campaign.
"The dial has definitely moved in a different direction, but not necessarily better," he said. "There is much less risk of statues being removed by force or by councils, partly because of planning changes and also because it’s become clear that the public are against it."
Mr Poll said the main risk now is from the "explain" part of the Government’s "retain and explain" strategy for statues. One of the commission’s recommendations was to erect an explanatory plaque by the Rhodes statue which would be "visible to passers-by".
"In the instances we’ve seen so far where plaques have been added to statues, historians have been ignored in favour of activists," he said. "What they will come up with for Rhodes, I dread to think. I can assure you it will not be a balanced view of history."
A government spokesman said: "We have been very clear that the Government does not support the removal of statues, and has changed planning regulations to give heritage stronger protection."
"It is always legitimate to examine Britain’s history, but we should aim to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad. While the policy decision not to remove the statue was a decision for Oriel College to make, any movement or alteration would have required planning permission and due consideration."