The King and Country debate

On the evening of , Oxford Union members assembled for their regular Thursday night debate to consider the motion That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country. The fact the motion was carried, by 275 votes to 153, caused outrage amongst some members of the establishment, ignited a media storm and captured international attention. More than any other event, it is perhaps the proceedings of that night and its aftermath that ensured the Oxford Union Society’s place in history and its hold on public consciousness.

Image of 17 smartly dressed men arranged formally outside the Oxford Union debate chamber door.
©Gillman & Soame. Oxford Union Society Standing Committee, Hilary Term 1933.

The Debate

The motion was initially suggested by the Librarian, David Graham, and as was custom, officially selected by the President, Frank Hardie. There were three student speakers – Kenelm Digby from St John’s College, Keith Steel Maitland from Balliol and David Graham himself, also from Balliol. Additionally, two guest speakers were invited to give their perspectives. The well-known philosopher and Union member C.E.M. Joad advocated for the motion, while former Union president Quintin Hogg argued against it.

The debate itself unfolded without any notable incidents. Joad’s articulate presentation of an absolute pacifist stance was widely acknowledged as crucial in influencing the result. Only the student papers and Oxford Mail sent reporters.

The Aftermath

The controversy surrounding the debate erupted on with a letter in the Daily Telegraph entitled, Disloyalty at Oxford: gesture towards the Reds. It purported to be by a Union member Sixty-four, later revealed as Telegraph writer J.B. Firth. A flurry of similar press stories and published letters from readers followed. University Unions across the country began holding duplicate debates, further fueling the controversy. One group of non-resident Oxford Union members even proposed to remove, or expunge, the records of the debate.

On , at the debate following the King and Country motion, a group of 20 to 30 intruders marched into the hall and tore the record of the debate from the minute book. The intruders were variously described as undergraduates, members of the University boat club or members of Oswald Mosley’s fascist party. According to conflicting reports, the pages of the minute book were either burned or torn up on the steps of the nearby Martyr’s Memorial. The minutes were subsequently rewritten by the Secretary, Dosabhai Karaka, who in Hilary term 1934 became the first Union president of South Asian origin.

Several weeks later, on , a packed House divided on the motion to expunge the records of the King and Country debate. The motion was defeated by a decisive 750 votes to 138. This second vote was about something quite different from the original. The resident Oxford members resented the intrusion of non-resident members in their affairs. The President was also credited for swaying the result with his speech making clear that this was not a rerun of the previous motion, but a childish and absurd attempt to alter the historical record.

As a historic symbol of cowardice, two batches of 275 white feathers were sent to the Union in the aftermath of the debate – one for each of those who had voted for the motion. When questioned about the feathers, Union President Frank Hardie made a joke of the parcels, suggesting that all those who voted for the motion could claim their allotment.

Page of hand written text listing the speakers in the King and Country debate.
©Oxford Union Society. Rewritten minutes of the King and Country Debate.
Black and white printed page, advertising the debate of the motion to expunge the record of the King and Country debate from the record.
©Oxford Union Society. Order paper for debate to expunge the minutes of the King and Country debate.
Photograph of two crossed white feathers, with the words "My allowance of white feathers" written underneath.
©Oxford Union Society. White feathers sent to Kenelm Digby, proposer of the King and Country debate motion. Pictured as pasted in a scrapbook he compiled of the event.

Significance

The timing of the motion significantly shaped the public terms of the debate. During a period of rising international tensions and with the devastation of the First World War within living memory, the debate speakers focused on pacifism and the best way to prevent future war. The supporters of the motion were, however, publicly criticised as decadent or communist inspired youth, expressing disloyalty to the King.

It is true that the Union’s junior officers and committee members were largely liberal and left-leaning, reflective of a wider intellectual shift during this period. The Communist party, however, played no part in the debate. The monarchy itself was barely mentioned, rather the King and country part of the motion was largely taken as short-hand for a jingoistic and imperialist call to war. The students seemed serious and earnest in their convictions. The President defended the extreme phrasing of the motion against criticism, particularly the inclusion of the in any circumstances clause, by stating that there would have been no divergence of opinion and thus no debate otherwise.

The extreme reaction to the debate’s outcome appears to have stemmed from concerns regarding the moral values of the nation’s youth and from apprehension as to how the result would be interpreted internationally, in the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan and Germany. Claims that the outcome of the King and Country debate persuaded dictatorial regimes that Britain lacked the resolve to resist aggressive expansionism have though been largely discredited.

Anniversary debates

The motion that the House would not fight for Queen and Country, often omitting the in any circumstances clause, has been debated on various occasions in the past. It has always been defeated.

The first such debate took place on , when Tariq Ali was Union President. The invited guest speakers were Richard Acland and Reginald Maudling MP. The motion still attracted considerable controversy and was filmed by the BBC. Union trustees protested over the perceived slight to the Queen. The motion was narrowly defeated on that occasion with 466 votes For the motion and 493 Against. There is a British Pathé video from the event. The Term Card advertising the events from Tariq Ali’s term as President can be viewed here.

Black and white formal photograph of the participants in the 1965 Queen and Country debate. THe backdrop is book filled shelves in the Goodman Library in the Oxford Union Society.
©Gillman & Soame 1965 Queen and Country committee photograph.
Formally arranged photograph of the standing committee, participants and guests at the 2023 King and Country debate. The backdrop is the book filled shelves of the Goodman Library at the Oxford Union Society.
©Roger Askew. 2023 King and Country debate photograph

Similar debates were held in Trinity term 1981, Hilary term 1983, Hilary term 2008 and Hilary term 2013. Click on the respective dates to view the term cards listing the Union events from those terms.

The most recent anniversary debate took place on . It was the first time since the original debate that the Oxford Union revisited the King and country motion whilst a king sat on the British throne. The motion was defeated, with 88 votes For and 190 Against. As well as current students Isabelle Horrocks-Taylor, Louis Wilson, and then President Charlie Mackintosh, those invited to speak were Tobias Ellwood MP, George Galloway, General Sir Richard Shirreff and Mark Ormrod. Their speeches can be viewed on YouTube by clicking their names.