Last week, the Cambridge Union hosted a debate on the motion ‘This House Believes there is no such thing as good taste.’ During the debate, the prominent and respected art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon made the point that humans have an instinctive feeling for what is beautiful and what is repellent. There are obvious, undeniable examples of good and poor taste. To demonstrate this, he staged a long impersonation of Hitler’s views on ‘degenerate’ modern art. His parody included many offensive and racist comments of the sort you would expect from Der Fuhrer.
Graham-Dixon’s argument was clear, even if his impression of Hitler was shaky and his presentation somewhat eccentric. Everyone would agree that Hitler, in his striving for pure, Aryan forms of art, demonstrated poor taste as well as moral evil. Indeed, Graham-Dixon’s impersonation was itself an example of poor taste. And so if we can all agree that there is such a thing as poor taste, then logically there must also be such a thing as good taste. The students watching the debate seemed to agree – his side won.
But in the days following the event, the reaction in Cambridge has been completely hysterical. Graham-Dixon’s comments were taken completely out of context and deliberately misinterpreted. The student newspaper Varsity apparently asked him to clarify whether he aligns himself with Hitler’s ideology. Cambridge’s ‘BME Officer’ called for the Union president, Keir Bradwell, to resign for allowing such terrible comments to pass by unchallenged.
Under pressure, the Union and Bradwell have behaved pathetically. On the night, Bradwell introduced Graham-Dixon as ‘one of the leading art critics and presenter of arts television in the English-speaking world.’ But he immediately chucked his man under the bus. In a written apology, which reads a lot like a KGB-induced confession, Bradwell condemned ‘the thoughtless and grotesque language used’ and ‘the deplorable nature of his remarks.’ This is odd since after Graham-Dixon had finished his speech Bradwell congratulated him for conducting ‘perhaps the longest Hitler impression this chamber has ever received, a remarkable accomplishment for tonight.’
Stranger still, in his apology Bradwell claimed that he ‘believes strongly in the values of free speech’ – but then immediately contradicted this by saying he ‘got the balance between my role as representative of our membership and facilitator of speech wrong.’ What is the Cambridge Union actually for other than ‘facilitating speech?’
Bradwell then pledged to create a ‘blacklist’ of people banned from ever attending the Union again. With all the zealotry of a convert, he promised that he would also share this list around other university debating societies. Anybody judged to have transgressed will be banished to perpetual cancellation. Graham-Dixon was to be the first man condemned. Andrew Lownie, a former president of the Union, has rightly branded the move as ‘Stalinist.’
The saddest part about this story is how utterly unsurprising it is. The Cambridge Union, whose motto is ‘defending free debate,’ has a poor track record when it comes to defending free debate. Back in 2019, the then-president of the Union, Abdullah Shah, told the Telegraph that he wouldn’t invite Nigel Farage to speak on a solo platform. At my time in Cambridge, it was widely known that conservative-leaning students would rarely get a chance to speak.
Cambridge students are supposed to be reasonably intelligent. No thoughtful person could watch Graham-Dixon’s full speech without understanding the simple point he was making. Yes, the words he cited were crass and inappropriate – but that was exactly the point. Is the Union suggesting that students are so weak they cannot tolerate offensive words, which were in this case quotations from one of history’s worst demagogues, as part and parcel of rigorous debate? Or are they simply being disingenuous? Regardless, why would any sane person volunteer to speak at the Cambridge Union again, if this is how they are going to be treated?