How the culture war came to the Cambridge Union—and I became the story

What was supposed to be a light-hearted debate was derailed when a speaker impersonated Hitler. But that was only the start of the trouble

November 16, 2021
Andrew Graham-Dixon speaking at the Cambridge Union on 4th November. Source: Cambridge Union YouTube
Andrew Graham-Dixon speaking at the Cambridge Union on 4th November. Source: Cambridge Union YouTube

On the increasingly common occasions in my life when things go wrong, I ring my mum. So when it was her ringing me, I knew things had gone really awry. “What’s this about the Union?” she asked.   

Over the past week or so, I have found myself asking this too. In my capacity as president of the Cambridge Union, I have been accused by some of facilitating racism, and by others—including John Cleese and Louis de Bernières—of being the embodiment of hyper-woke cancel culture. In short, I have become the figurehead of a scandal that I dearly wish wasn’t being called “Hitlergate.”   

First, the facts. On Thursday 4th November, I presided over what should have been a light-hearted debate (in fancy dress, no less) on the motion: “This house believes there is no such thing as good taste.” During the course of the debate, the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon performed a satirical impression of Hitler—German accent and all—that at least proved there is such a thing.

In its initial report on events, Varsity, a Cambridge student newspaper, depicted me as the culprit, since I had allowed Graham-Dixon to continue his performance. “Union President fails to intervene as…” began their headline. They hastened to mention that I had committed the cardinal sin of having two glasses of wine beforehand, too.  

By Saturday, three days later, Varsity had written three separate articles about my non-intervention. Inevitably, that weekend I became the subject of a storm of anonymous university-wide Facebook posts about my apparent tacit endorsement of racism. Tara Choudhury, the BME Officer of the Cambridge Student Union (a separate entity from the Cambridge Union) demanded I resign as president.   

The controversy may have been stirred up, but the vast majority of those who criticised me having read Varsity did so in good faith. Graham-Dixon’s language—including two uses of the word “n***o” in the voice of Hitler—was in my view grotesque, even if in context no one could seriously accuse him of hateful intent. (For those who ask why I didn’t object at the time, it is a longstanding convention that presidents don’t intervene against speakers—that has always been the responsibility of the membership.)

As president, I am a stout defender of free speech, but I also have a responsibility to make sure that our members, whatever their background, feel comfortable attending our events. Indeed, in my view these two imperatives go hand-in-hand: the Union can only stand up for free speech if our members enjoy our events and want to get involved in running them.

I therefore felt it was important I reassure our members, and I did so on the following Monday by relaying the fact (which I would otherwise have kept private) that I would be advising future presidents not to invite Graham-Dixon back. No president would give such advice based only on the content of a speech, but in this case it was justified for other reasons: Graham-Dixon spoke over our final speaker, accused a student of faking a foreign accent, and by the end had frankly derailed the debate itself. My mistake, of course, was in describing this advice as constituting a “blacklist.” We do not have a blacklist of offensive speakers at the Union, and we never will.

Yet as soon as this news broke, I became the villain for the other side in the culture war. One former Union president called my actions “Stalinist.” Louis de Bernières wrote me a letter (which he also sent to the Times) asking to be added to my list of banned speakers. Rod Liddle called me a “totalitarian.” John Cleese declared to his 5.6m Twitter followers that he would blacklist himself from the Union, and promptly pulled out of a televised interview I was due to have with him that Friday. (The subject? The merits of cancel culture.)  

I had facilitated Graham-Dixon’s freedom of expression by letting him finish his speech, and I had sought to repair the ensuing damage to our membership by apologising for what he said. Yet I now found myself the enemy of both sides of the culture war—Cambridge newspapers encouraging one view, parts of the national media the other.

Through all this, I think I may have learned something about how the culture war works. From the outset, Varsity and Choudhury were keen to make me, not Graham-Dixon, the face of Hitlergate. If your aim is to shrink the range of people the Union “platforms,” then I, a 21-year-old lacking lawyers or professional PR, make for a much easier target than controversial speakers. (In any case such speakers usually benefit from the publicity.) But there will be potential future presidents who look in horror at what happened—the levels of abuse that followed, and the speed with which the story escalated. Could we really blame them for shying away from controversy in order to avoid the same treatment? 

Cleese, Liddle and de Bernières’s trigger-happy responses only made things worse. They fuelled the story further and have led to some spectacularly abusive emails being sent to me. They made the risks to any of my successors who wish to court controversy far greater.  

Defending free speech requires strong institutions like the Union. But piling into the culture war can only undermine its authority. The Union has a proud 206-year history of standing up for free speech, and it is not about to end here—certainly not on my watch. But next time, we should all be more careful about how we react to stories like Hitlergate. And we should definitely wait for the full facts to emerge before no-platforming ourselves. I have learned it helps no one if the conversation stops.