A Cambridge University college has insisted it will keep debating the actions of historical figures such as Sir Winston Churchill, after a group set up to look at the former prime minister’s links to the empire and race was disbanded.
One academic at Churchill College has described the breakup of the group, set up in the wake of the murder in the US of George Floyd last year, as “deeply disappointing and very troubling”.
An online event organised by the group and hosted by the college in February came in for criticism from Churchill’s grandson for “trashing” the wartime leader’s reputation.
Former Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames said the event – The Racial Consequences of Churchill – marked a “new low in the current vogue for the denigration in general of British history and of Sir Winston Churchill’s memory in particular”.
He questioned whether the college should continue to benefit from the association with Churchill after hosting the event.
Professor Priya Gopal, a member of the working group on Churchill, race, and empire, said the college was “very rattled” after that event and the coverage of it and told them there could not be another panel discussion.
She said attempts to organise a third event on commemoration looking at statues and memorials to historical figures were subject to a “back and forth” with the college, which subsequently said it could not officially host the event.
Prof Gopal, professor of post-colonial studies, claimed: “People invested in myths of British imperial greatness have put pressure on the college not to have certain kinds of discussions around Churchill.”
She said due to “frustration at the veto exercised by (the college) council” over future events she had communicated to the working group and college master, Professor Dame Athene Donald, in May that the group “should dissolve itself”.
But she said this had not happened and claimed the college had disbanded the group on Thursday, via an email thanking them for their work.
She said: “They thanked us for our input and said our work was now over because we were never meant to be a long-term group anyway.”
Prof Gopal said she had been of the understanding that the group would continue into 2022.
Of the group disbanding, she said: “It’s deeply disappointing and very troubling in terms of what it means for academic freedom and for honest discussions around empire and race.”
Prof Gopal said she had been told “the pressure from the family is immense”, which she interpreted to be the Churchill family, “and that one of them threatened to resign as a trustee and said that he would take the donors with him”.
In a statement, Churchill College master Dame Athene rejected any suggestion Churchill’s family were involved in any decision around the group’s future.
She said the working group was “intended to have a finite lifetime, in this case the current academic year”.
She added: “Despite there being some contact with Churchill’s family, whose support (not least for the archives) has always been very important to the College, they are not involved in the College’s governance processes, and the implication made in some quarters that they, Policy Exchange or the national press might have been steering matters, is to misunderstand our governance arrangements.”
Dame Athene said she had been told the group had decided they would not make further recommendations on a third event, and that Prof Gopal had written that the group might as well dissolve itself.
She said: “Rightly or wrongly, as master, I took that statement at face value: that they had in fact disbanded themselves.”
She added: “Unfounded allegations are now being levelled both at the broad College community and at me personally.
“I would nevertheless stress that the College will continue engaging in debates, examining the actions of important historical figures including Churchill himself, and working on challenging attitudes.
“It will not stop us looking at all aspects of our community and our work to ensure we create an environment welcoming to all. Our work here has only just begun.”
Responding to the college’s statement Prof Gopal tweeted: “I stand by my claims, and reject the tendentious and false rationale given for the dissolution today of the Churchill working party.
“It is true that several members of the working group had intended to resign.
“The disbanding today was a way for the college to pre-empt that imminent embarrassment.”