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Kathleen Stock’s adventures in wonderland

During the philosopher’s talk at the Oxford Union politics and fantasy became the same thing.

By Will Lloyd

To understand why, at around 5.15pm on 30 May, the student activist Riz Possnett glued their left hand to the floorboards of the Oxford Union, you needed to know several other things first.

You needed to know that since the first weeks of April, the union’s decision to invite Professor Kathleen Stock, the gender-critical feminist philosopher, to speak there, had generated a deep unease around the university. Several colleges – St Edmund Hall, Mansfield College, Christ Church, St Anne’s and St Hilda’s – passed motions condemning Stock’s invitation. The university’s LGBTQ+ society had also urged the Oxford Union to rescind it. Ugly accusations brocaded these statements: transphobe, transphobia, trans-exclusionary, misinformation, divisive, harm.

When the University of Oxford’s Student Union (OSU) reportedly severed its fiscal ties with the Oxford Union (OU) and banned it from its freshers’ fair (the OSU and the OU, a debating society, are not part of the same organisation), the unease ratcheted up once more. This is the union’s bicentennial year. The OSU’s decision, which would probably have disastrous financial consequences for the OU, meant it might also be its last.

The OU was already showing its age. The society was once described as “an incomparable school” of politics. It was the padded room where undergraduate Boris Johnsons learned the points of order, dirty tricks, ad hominem attacks and punchline-heavy debating skills that would be their special currency once they reached the House of Commons. The Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper (with some eccentricity) used an entire book to accuse the OU of being the hatchery that Brexit sprang from.

Today though, in a changed university, the union is not quite what it was. Undergraduates, drawn less from public schools and more from London’s best comprehensives, are less interested in joining this Tory-coded space. (The Bullingdon Club, another institution with a similar genealogy, is apparently down to its last two bottle-smashers.) Much of the union’s membership is now drawn from foreign postgraduate students, whose general ignorance of British politics means that they see it as a knockabout debating shop, rather than a cradle of supposedly toxic right-wing politics.

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Oxford is much less sure of itself than it used to be. The university is anxious to conceal its privilege rather than flaunt it. The old spirit of brilliant insouciance and easy scepticism is an embarrassment. Officially, Oxford speaks the language of social change, outreach, output and diversity. Unofficially, it is hard to sit at a high table dinner these days without an affected remorse ringing all around.

Since Brexit the value of an Oxford education – which traditionally includes learning the blustery rhetoric of the union – has been questioned. “What had we done for Boris?” Asked a former master of Balliol recently. “Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No.” Here was the deeper unease that loured above the city. An institution that had existed for centuries to build our elite, then give it the tools to perpetuate itself, was no longer convinced by that mission.

That’s not to say the old guard and the old values have entirely disappeared. After Stock had been condemned for several weeks a counter-protest emerged. In a letter to the Telegraph 40 academics – including Richard Dawkins and Nigel Biggar – warned that preventing Stock from speaking would be a disaster for the entire university. “Whether or not one agrees with Professor Stock’s views,” the letter read, “there is no plausible and attractive ideal of academic freedom, or of free speech more generally, which would condemn their expression as outside the bounds of permissible discourse.”

A counter-letter, signed this time by 100 academics, appeared ten days later, and only a few days before Professor Stock was due to speak. It claimed that her appearance would not be “an open discussion or balanced debate” and stated that “trans students should not be made to debate their existence”.

The old values looked upon disagreement as a virtue (and as an enjoyable way to spend an evening). Almost anything, once it was dressed up in black tie and civilised within a framework of rules and artificial courtesy, could be debated. But the new values believed that there were questions that could not be discussed. Even framing controversies around gender identity as questions, or as controversies, was barbaric. There was no debate. This was not a “culture war”. What counted as permissible discourse had changed. In the words of the second letter, “The theoretical debate over gender does not matter – what matters is trans people’s basic living conditions, autonomy, dignity and respect.”

At last, on the eve of the event, no less an authority than the Prime Minister intervened. Rishi Sunak told the Telegraph: “University should be an environment where debate is supported, not stifled. We mustn’t allow a small but vocal few to shut down discussion. Kathleen Stock’s invitation to the Oxford Union should stand.”

Stock’s invitation did stand. Whether that meant the staff and students of Oxford University actually agreed with the Prime Minister was another matter entirely.

[See also: Richard Dawkins interview: “What I say in biology has become pretty much orthodoxy”]

Oxford has been described as the middle of middle England. Much of what happens at Oxford, even when it takes the form of self-criticism, still operates as an advertisement for the centrality of Oxford.

On Tuesday afternoon the Oxford Union, a collection of gloomy neo-gothic red brick buildings separated by a damp, walled courtyard garden, felt like the centre of something. There were, of course, the usual teenagers in their college hoodies, sat at benches, eating crisps and boasting to one another. But there was also a posse of journalists from major national newspapers here, and a squad of security goons dressed in ninja black, and the committee members of the union, all students, who whipped around the place, galvanised by event glamour.

A boy called Santiago, dressed in expensive corduroy, was the union’s press lead. He chain smoked in the garden, and jealously guarded a collection of press passes that he said were reserved for properly accredited journalists only.

It was nearly 3pm. A delegation from what was being called “the other side” was expected to turn up at any moment. There was talk of 500 drag queens – no, 1,000 drag queens! – descending on the union’s debating chamber. To do what? Nobody really knew. Online I read that the other side were already outside the walls of the union protesting – well, they might have been outside, but they were nowhere near the union. A newspaper’s live blog said that Stock’s talk was “set to be one of the angriest rows to rock Oxford in recent years” but the streets around the union were quiet.

“I’m just here for the drama,” said a boisterous, suited American postgraduate. He said he was only dimly aware of who Stock was, and confessed to “watching too much Tucker”. He believed that the other side were authoritarians. “Most people here,” he said, talking about the university, not the union, “are retarded”. Someone told him to stop giving out quotes and he chuckled lavishly.

Matthew Dick, the unfortunately named union president, sprinted past us waving a clipboard. He was going to interview Stock at 5pm. He gave me a wet handshake. When I asked him whether he or the union had received any threats he grimaced. “I don’t want to comment.” He scuttled off with his clipboard. Other committee members continued to wasp about, generating a strange, faintly hysterical micro climate in the courtyard. In that enclosed space, surrounded by high walls and old, crenellated buildings, it was possible to imagine that you were waiting for a siege to begin.

That fantasy ended when security emptied the courtyard and told everybody to queue outside on St Michael’s Street. The drag queens were yet to arrive and nor had Stock. The queue soon bent round the corner towards St Peter’s College. An Oxford queue: tweedy, spectacled, boater hatted and bicycle helmeted. Several students were wearing gowns: they had come to the union straight after their exams had finished. A pair of committee members, a boy in a suit and a girl in pearls, watched them nervously. She told me that the protest – which was still mysteriously in the offing somewhere – was “nothing we can’t handle”. We talked about how free, if it was free at all, speech was at the university. “You find out what other people’s views are on Stock,” the boy said, “before expressing yours.”

I took my place in the queue after speaking to other students who said that Oxford suffered from a “purity culture”. They had affection for Stock, who they saw not as an academic or an author, but a symbol of reality. Like her, they did not believe that sex was a social construct, and they were amazed that saying this had become so contentious. Only one student, thin and shivering behind me in the line, seemed to be at an angle to this view. When I asked them whether they thought the event should go ahead they rolled their eyes.

[See also: Adventures in the manosphere]

In her book on Oxford, the writer Jan Morris described the university as an “anvil of England”. It was in chambers like the union’s debating hall, where we took our seats just before 5pm, that “successive national issues were hammered out, and national attitudes were repeatedly forged”.

On the surface, the issues being hammered out between Stock and Dick were about gender identity, biological sex and women’s rights. They were the issues that Stock had spoken about for years, the issues that she claimed had forced her resignation from the University of Sussex in October 2021 and swirled around her ever since. But beneath those issues was a question: were there now “national issues” and “national attitudes” that were so split and so vexed that there was no longer a way to forge a consensus on them? Even that morning on Radio 4’s Today (hardly the most partisan arena) Nick Robinson had managed, clumsily, to compare Stock to Oswald Mosley. If the BBC couldn’t talk about these issues without irritating everybody, then who could?

Stock swept into the hall and soon afterwards the music and the screaming began outside. Dick, the eternal Oxford boy with his floppy hair, tortoise-shell glasses, caterpillar eyebrows and plummy voice (“I put it to you” was his verbose way of asking questions), introduced the event. Eurythmics blasted away from the protesters’ speakers on St Michael’s Street, and Annie Lennox’s robotic, androgynous voice carried into the union: Some of them want to abuse you… Some of them want to be abused…

It took ten minutes for the day to collapse in on itself. Stock was patiently explaining her position on whether trans women should be allowed to enter single-sex spaces such as bathrooms and prisons when it happened. A single clear voice, before a deluge of other voices: “Trans rights are human rights.” It was the thin student – Possnett – who had stood near me in the queue. They stood up, squirted glue into their left palm, walked calmly to the space in front of the stage, sat down and affixed themselves to a floorboard. “Oh dear,” said a voice behind my seat. Another protester at the back of the hall unveiled a trans flag. A third protester handed out leaflets (“Kathleen Stock is not welcome here…”). Those two were ushered out.

But what to do about Possnett? They sat there in front of Stock, and the pair looked oddly similar. Possnett might have been her child. Later it would be reported that the protesters “stormed” the chamber. Wrong. They had walked in with the rest of us. After weeks of controversy and obvious security concerns, the union had completely failed to protect the event, or Stock.

[See also: The feminist case against progress]

Waves of screams and bellows and applause and boos washed around the room. Possnett sat there, as quietly and as impressively still as the marble busts of famous union members ​​(Gladstone, Asquith, Macmillan, Salisbury) who watched on in judgemental silence. Stock looked on too, her arms folded. The philosopher rubbed her forehead, and you could imagine what the last five years had been like for her – the death threats, the open letters, the legal issues, the no platformings, the feuds, the relentless media requests, all the venom and spite and animus, having to say the same things over and over again about the same set of issues – and now whatever this was. Ultimately, she just seemed bored and tired. The committee member I had spoken to earlier, the girl in pearls, was flushed. She looked like she was about to cry.

When, after twenty-five minutes and the intervention of five heavily applauded police officers, the talk resumed, it was a disappointment. Dick had been under enormous pressure to cancel this event for the last five weeks and it showed. With too much force, he asked Stock a series of entry-level questions about her views. Irritated by the loose way Dick threw around specific language, she said: “I still don’t really know what you mean by ‘gender’.” For ten seconds Dick floundered around. Gender, meaning you know, what, errrmmm… until the auditorium exploded into giggles.

Stock said she didn’t mind the protest. She said that it was possible (still) to disagree reasonably with each other and remain friends. “They want me to be evil,” she said. “They want a baddie. I’m afraid I am a very shit baddie.” Before she disappeared in a scrum of security guards, she warned against institutions becoming “propaganda machines”. Wasn’t that what they always had been though? Perhaps this was one of those sticky moments when the values being propagandised by places like Oxford were shifting. From the “effortless superiority” of “Balliol men” to the “No dead trans kids” placards of Balliol they/thems.

This was the other side of Oxford. Yes, it had been the “anvil” that Morris wrote about, where national consensus was forged. But there was also the Oxford that inspired fantasies. The secret nonsensical garden worlds of Lewis Carroll. The heady wonderlands of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and Evelyn Waugh. “We’re all mad here,” the Cheshire cat says at one point. Sometimes, as events at the union yesterday proved, the line between Oxford politics and Oxford fantasy blur.

As the hall emptied, boys in blazers posed by the now notorious floorboard. They pretended to be stuck to it, as Possnett had been, and their friends took photographs. Nothing had been settled. The discussion had not been “shut down” as the Prime Minister had feared, but it had been made ridiculous. In farcical conditions, the only two people who looked like they knew what they were doing were Kathleen Stock and Riz Possnett. It was their only point of agreement, and it was an accident.

Outside I spotted Santiago. The union’s press guy was having another cigarette. “I am very relieved,” he said. “I believe the coverage tomorrow will be positive.” Given everything that had just happened, it was impossible to tell whether he was joking or not.

[See also: Hannah Barnes: Inside the collapse of the Tavistock gender clinic]

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine

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