Sitting in Oxford University’s august Sheldonian Theatre on a hot summer’s afternoon for my son’s splendid D.Phil. degree ceremony, I was of course aware of Morris having spoken there on 15 November 1879 as part of the SPAB campaign against the restoration of St Mark’s in Venice. As the ceremony proceeded, however, I was also aware of the sound of drilling and hammering wafting in from the upper-floor open windows, which at first I took (in the spirit of News from Nowhere chapter VII) to be a road-mending gang outside in Broad Street, but in fact, as I realised later, was workmen revamping the New Bodleian Building opposite. So perhaps the more apt literary reference for the occasion was Jude the Obscure, which my MA supervisor John Goode once described to me as a novel about an Oxford workman repairing the very college walls and architecture which kept him excluded in the first place.
Vice Chancellor Andrew Hamilton (who incongruously appeared with a sticking plaster down his nose) told us in a trenchant opening address that we were to have a ‘solemn ceremony’, and with all the organ music, mutual doffing of mortarboards and Latin speeches, we certainly got that. He justified such heavyduty ritualism in Matthew Arnold-style terms, as being appropriate to the university’s 900-year dedication to pursuing the ‘best that has been known and thought’. Well maybe; but I couldn’t help feeling that it had as much or more to do with that other absolutely crucial social function of Oxford University, that of consolidating English ruling-class culture and values, of ideologically cementing that public school-Oxbridge circuit of privilege and entitlement which gives us, say, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron today.
So the Morris we needed to remember in the Sheldonian was not after all the SPAB activist of 1879, but rather the revolutionary socialist who spoke just down the road at University College in 1883 or in the Holywell Music Room in 1885, and whose Oxford branch of the Socialist League did indeed try to break down the divide between undergraduates and workers, to let the drillers into the Sheldonian as it were. For if Oxford is a place where ruling-class cohesion is forged, it is also, by the same token, a place where it can be challenged; and the William Morris Society should certainly establish an intellectual and political presence there and rouse young minds to idealism and justice. Morris’s own ‘Oxford campaign’ between 1879 and 1895 sets an interventionist standard and challenge we have yet to match.