When I first started at Churchill College, Cambridge, I was proud that I had joined an institution whose very existence was a testament to the legacy of a personal and national hero. As I walked around the college grounds, I felt that I was now part of a community that was much bigger than myself; a community partly defined by the life and times of our country’s greatest leader. Standing for the college toast at my first formal dinner, the words ‘To Sir Winston, and the Queen’ almost made me believe that my own life was now, in a small but important way, linked to the life of the great man himself.
It seems that the college leadership, however, don’t feel the same way. After graduating last year, I returned to Churchill College last week to attend the annual Scholar’s Feast, one of the most important events in the college calendar. After the main course, the Master, Dame Athene Donald, rose to offer the college toast, as she usually does at such occasions. ‘The Queen’, she said. Sir Winston was no longer mentioned.
Had I misheard? The people sitting nearby were surprised that the traditional salute to Churchill had been shelved. Had Dame Athene simply forgotten or misspoken? In the context of an increasing number of attacks by Cambridge academics on Churchill’s reputation, it seemed unlikely to me. But still hoping the inevitable conclusion could be avoided, I asked the College to clarify. The response was as unsurprising as it was utterly demoralising:
‘This is part of a bigger review of all College formalities designed at fostering a more inclusive and less formal atmosphere.’
As part of this ‘review’, the college has decided that only the Queen will now be toasted at annual feasts. For other special dinners, the Master will just toast the College itself and ‘those being celebrated’. The toast to Sir Winston will be raised for one event a year, the Founder’s Feast, but has been ditched for all others. The implication is that Churchill is somebody to be embarrassed or ashamed about, only to be acknowledged awkwardly when forced.
Even if you ignore the College’s strange view that formalities should be less formal, their agenda seems clear. After all, this is the same college that previously launched a ‘year-long programme’ of events to look at Churchill’s ‘backward’ views on empire and race. This programme included events where students were told by far-left academics that Churchill headed up an empire that was ‘worse than the Nazis’. This wasn’t a ‘critical examination’, it was a character assassination. Though the college was eventually forced to drop the initiative after rightful criticism from Churchill’s family, the direction of travel was clear.
Academics have generated a lot of noise when it comes to Churchill in recent years, often by making deliberately provocative statements. Comments like branding Churchill ‘the perfect embodiment of white supremacy’ cause understandable outrage and attract the attention of the press. But quiet, subtle measures are just as much of a problem. These changes might be small, and many might not even notice if Churchill is dropped in a toast, but rituals like this are a crucial part of how we uphold our traditions and connect ourselves to our past.
In the context of a Cambridge college, the rituals that have developed over time help you acknowledge that you are just one small person in an academic community that predates you and will outlast you. They should inspire you to learn the lessons of those great figures, like Churchill, who came before.
Yet the college appears to be doing away with all that. One would expect Churchill College to be proud of Sir Winston and all that he achieved, but instead they seem only to be ashamed of him. This titanic figure in our nation’s history is apparently not worthy of admiration or respect in the very college that bears his name.
There have been many high-profile attacks on Churchill’s legacy – we have all seen his statue in Parliament Square repeatedly vandalised. But we must be equally aware of the smaller attacks on Churchill and our national heritage that are taking place in institutions like Churchill College. And those of us who admire his feats and deeds must protect his legacy and the traditions we value.
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