Priya Gopal is a fellow in English and Postcolonial studies at ChurchillSAM HARRISON

I met Priyamvada Gopal in the Buttery at Churchill College, where she’s a fellow in English and Postcolonial Studies. I was apprehensive for our interview – just one glance at her Twitter page shows she’s a formidable force, unafraid of robust debate. But when I meet her, she’s warm and friendly, cupping a mug of Rooibos tea that she sips in between sentences.

Priya’s a prominent name in Cambridge – outspoken on social media, she attracted widespread attention in 2020 as a leading member of a working group set up to discuss the legacy of Winston Churchill in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Amidst the resulting media storm, Priya received messages of hateful abuse online and faced calls for her removal.

It’s hard to ignore the date of our interview. We’re speaking just a few days after King Charles’ coronation – in the aftermath of lavish pomp and ceremony, as well as the arrests of anti-monarchist demonstrators, which Priya vocally denounced on social media.

When I ask her about the coronation weekend, she tells me that the coronation was a “performance” – one that “sanctified the right of the very wealthy to rule”.

It’s strange, she says, the idea that “very wealthy people, when they do little bits of charity, are doing a service to society," when doctors, nurses, and teachers are being denied a pay rise in the midst of the cost of living crisis. The word “service," she says, is used to mask the inequalities in British society today.

"Any society has to engage with its histories"

When I ask her about the arrests of anti-monarchist protestors, some of whom were arrested for unloading placards from trucks and handing out rape alarms, she frowns. While “very serious” in themselves, she warns that they’re indicative of the growing powers of the police to determine what is and isn’t a crime under the Public Order Act. If we keep moving in this direction, she says, we’ll reach a point where “we’re likely to prosecute thought crimes”.

What about the monarchy itself – what place does it have in 21st century Britain? Priya stresses that the monarchy – and the country – needs to acknowledge its wider imbrication with race and empire. This is not just the case for Britain: “any society has to engage with its histories”. But Britain does have a past that is “deeply tied to empire and colonialism”, and it’s “absolutely vital” to engage with it.

Engaging with the past of empire is central to her work. But she tells me she’s careful when using the word “decolonisation” in academia – because decolonisation of academic institutions can’t happen “in isolation from wider society and other institutions”.

“All of us in the classroom at Cambridge or elsewhere are shaped profoundly by empire,” she says; decolonisation, in the academic context, is about “engaging critically with that legacy and using it to challenge ourselves and transform how we teach”.

"The current situation is untenable"

While campaigns like the open letter calling to rename the Seeley Library do play a part, she says that there’s a “disproportionate emphasis on naming”. These campaigns have value because they “seem doable” – but they can’t “stand in for the entirety of decolonisation”.

While her work centres on these issues of race, empire and colonialism, Priya’s also outspoken about industrial action. In the face of the marking and assessment boycott announced by the UCU earlier this year, I ask what her message is to finalists – many of whom are worried about the impact of industrial action on their plans to graduate.

“I absolutely feel for them [the students]”, she emphasises; but industrial action is the only “weapon we have in our hands”. There is, she believes “no other way” to tell the government and the employers that “the current situation is untenable”.

The strike isn’t just for today’s academics, it’s for the next generation of academics who are students now. The boycott isn’t meant “to hurt students”, she urges, but to create better conditions for them in the future. She fears for the futures of her own students who are moving to graduate education, who will be seriously impacted if “the problems in the University sector are not addressed now”.


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“A great many academics are unable to afford housing and shelter, using food banks; this cannot be good for either students or teachers or universities in the long run.”

Her views have attracted both admiration and anger online - and she’s warned before about the dangers of “free speech”. When I ask her what she means by saying that British society only champions “the right kind of free speech”, she brings us back to the beginning of our conversation – pointing out the failure of so-called champions of free speech to defend the rights of anti-monarchy protestors. “Actually brave speech”, she says, often fails to find support. “Champions” of free speech seem to “have very little to say about people who speak up in ways that are inconvenient”.

She fears that free speech has become little more than “an excuse to allow hate speech”. While debate is open ended, especially in academia, debating ideas that have been “scientifically discredited” is not something that an academic institution should be doing, she warns.

Academia should “move forward in knowledge”, not cycle back to ideas that have been discredited, she says. “At that point, it’s not a debate. It’s a pretext.”

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