Keir Bradwell let Andrew Graham-Dixon continue his Hitler impressionWikimedia Commons / Varsity

Content Note: This article includes discussion of racial slurs and an impersonation that involves the voicing of antisemitic and racist views

On Thursday evening (4/11), a speaker at the Cambridge Union impersonated Adolf Hitler as part of a debate on the motion: “There is such a thing as good taste.”

Prominent art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon – who was arguing against the motion – argued there was such a thing as bad taste, referring to Hitler’s regime in this context. 

He used Hitler’s artistic philosophy as an example – at which point he launched into an impression of Hitler that used the word “n*groes”, leaving a number of students who attended the debate feeling outraged.

Graham-Dixon has since clarified in a statement to Varsity that he does not align himself with Hitler’s ideology, but simply wanted to use the former dictator as an example to reinforce his argument.

Andrew Graham-Dixon’s impersonation went unchallenged by current Cambridge Union President Keir Bradwell, who was chairing the debate, and brushed it off as the “longest Hitler impression” he’d ever heard.

With the exception of one attendee who questioned Graham-Dixon’s argument – that Hitler’s aesthetic vision was in bad taste based on what he then went on to do – the audience remained silent, save for their applause for Graham-Dixon at the end. The majority voted with Graham-Dixon’s side – backing the motion by a majority of 12.

Bradwell was reportedly inebriated ahead of the debate. In messages seen by Varsity, when Bradwell was challenged on his controversial decision to drink prior to the debate, he initially defended himself by saying that “it was a light hearted motion. Doing it sober would have been hugely boring of me.”


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Union President Keir Bradwell on voting and access in the society

Immediately after the event, he claimed not to have made a mistake: “It was an entirely conscious choice” to let the speaker continue.

Yet some were unconvinced. The Union’s LGBTQ+ officer, Jude Jones, told the Union committee group chat that he thought the event was “genuinely disgusting” and found it “unprofessional” that its moderator, Bradwell, had been drinking at the start.

He also felt betrayed by his committee since “many of [them] were happy to laugh along and joke about it.”

Union President Keir Bradwell has since offered “unreserved apology for the comments made by [Graham-Dixon]”, adding that “neither [he] nor the society condone the thoughtless and grotesque language used”. He has expressed regret for not intervening, calling the impression “inexcusable”.

Bradwell continued, saying that he was heartened that a floor speech “pointed out the deplorable nature of [Graham-Dixon’s] remarks.” The Union President emphasised his commitment to free speech, but acknowledged that “[he] got the balance between [his] role as representative of [the Union’s] membership and facilitator of speech wrong.”

Bradwell also disputed claims that he was drunk, stating that he “had two glasses of wine over dinner beforehand.” He states: “I was not impeded in my ability to chair the debate; my failure to intervene was solely a question of lacking the courage to stop someone in front of a room of 400.”

Graham-Dixon told Varsity that the intention of his speech was to “underline the utterly evil nature of Hitler and his regime”:

He continued: “My point was that evil ideas in the sphere of art can have untold and even atrocious consequences in the rest of life. 

“I apologise sincerely to anyone who found my debating tactics and use of Hitler’s own language distressing; on reflection I can see that some of the words I used, even in quotation, are inherently offensive. It was not my intention to upset anybody, merely to persuade them that bad taste and bad morality often go hand in hand."

Graham-Dixon’s comments weren’t the only ones to make guests feel uncomfortable. One speaker said it was no surprise she preferred “Shakespeare” over “Cardi B” and classical music composers over “Drake”, making one non-white attendee feel alienated: as this was her first Union event, she wondered if “this is just how it works” or a freak exception.

The Union President has pledged that he “will ensure that this does not happen again.”

Corrections were made to this article on 06/11/2021 to include the Union President and Graham-Dixon's apology, and to reflect the context of the debate.