The Observer revealed today that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were “sold as slaves” as part of a “slave auction” at the Oxford Union when they were students at the university.
On 12 June 1987, Cherwell student newspaper reported that the auction had raised just under £100 for Shelter, the homelessness charity. Bidders competed to “buy” Union figures – including the future Prime Minister – for the evening.
Johnson had formerly served as President of the Oxford Union for Trinity term 1986, while Gove held the presidency in Hilary term in the academic year 1987-88, just a few months after the fundraiser took place.
In the wake of recent global Black Lives Matter protests and renewed debate about Britain’s colonial past, Johnson and Gove’s actions will seem especially offensive and insensitive. The discovery also raises new questions about past elitist and discriminatory behaviour facilitated by the world-famous debating society.
However, a number of schools, university societies and charities have come under fire over the years for hosting similar ‘slave auction’ fundraisers.
The current President of the Union, Beatrice Barr, told The Oxford Blue, “I was shocked to read this report in the Observer; it’s clearly unacceptable behaviour that I personally find disgusting. I hope that the behaviour of two individuals involved with the Union over 30 years ago will not bear on students’ perceptions of the Union now. I urge those concerned to look at our statement from the 5th of June this year, committing to active anti-racism in both our events and our institutional culture.”
The Union’s Senior Access Officer for Trinity term 2020, Rachel Hart, added that, “I am in complete concurrence with the statement Beatrice has made”.
Johnson, who studied Classics at Balliol College, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, studied English at Lady Margaret Hall and worked on Johnson’s campaign to become President of the Oxford Union. Both Conservatives were prominent in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and Gove is widely seen as one of the most powerful figures in Johnson’s government.
Johnson faces widespread criticism for past remarks made as a journalist about ethnic minorities, women and the LGBTQ+ community, as well as his infamous participation in elitist activities as a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford.
Johnson and Gove are yet to publicly speak out about the revelations.