Students are "fed up" with the bad press the Oxford Union is generating. Photo: Flickr
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Oxford Union speakers urged to withdraw after rape allegations against president

The women’s officer of Oxford’s student union, OUSU, and another student have started a campaign for the Oxford Union president to resign from his post after he was accused of rape and attempted rape.

Oxford students have launched a campaign to force the Oxford Union's president to resign after he was accused of rape and attempted rape. 

The Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, Sarah Pine, and second year history and politics student Helena Dollimore are asking high-profile speakers to withdraw from Union debates.

Two weeks ago, the Union's current president, Ben Sullivan, was called in by police for questioning on allegations of rape and attempted rape. He has been released without charge on bail, and returned last week to his position. He denies the allegations, and made this statement to the debate chamber:

“As you may be aware no charges have been brought against me and I have the utmost faith in the police and Crown Prosecution Service and the British legal system as a whole. I know that sooner or later the truth will prevail and justice will be served.”

Pine and Dollimore have so far contacted about 30 of the upcoming speakers, explaining the situation and asking them to pull out of their appointments at the Union. They include Human Rights Watch’s David Mepham (who has agreed to pull out), band Foster the People, American entrepreneur Julie Meyer, Newton Investment CEO Helena Morrissey, MEP and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, actor Evanna Lynch, Baroness Lawrence, singer Paloma Faith, and New Statesman editor Jason Cowley.

Pine, who is campaigning in a personal capacity, calls it a “push for equality in the Union”. She decided to contact most of the Union’s booked speakers because they “wouldn’t have been aware of the situation and might not have been aware of the students’ feelings around it”. However, she admits that “there are differences in opinion” about whether or not Sullivan should resign.

Oxford student Helena Dollimore, who is campaigning jointly with Pine, said that she believes high-profile speakers should reconsider their commitment to the Union. “Ordinary students are just getting quite fed up at the Oxford Union and the press it’s generating, the reputation it’s generating, the message it’s sending out about our university.”

A vote of no-confidence in the president has been called for this Thursday by an ordinary Union member, but I am told that even if this passes, it does not automatically mean Sullivan will resign.

The open letter has been signed by New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.

UPDATE: Under Oxford Union rules, a member can only be suspended if criminal charges have been brought, in which case the Standing Committee can take action. See p16 of the Oxford Union rules for further details.

UPDATE, 18 JUNE 2014: Thames Valley Police confirm that the case against Sullivan has been dropped and he will not face charges.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage