It may have only merited a few paragraphs in the student newspaper and have taken place 33 years ago, but an Oxford Union Society “slave auction” in which Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were involved is powerful proof of how politicians’ pasts can come back to haunt them.
“Union slave auction” was the headline in Cherwell, the journal for Oxford students, on 12 June 1987. The small story has escaped the notice of the two men’s biographers and their profile writers until now.
On Saturday, however, in the light of the Black Lives Matter protests, the prime minister and the cabinet office minister had some explaining to do.
The Cherwell article tells how the auction, to raise money for the homeless charity Shelter, was billed at the time as “an opportunity to buy your favourite Union person for the evening”. Just under £100 was raised. It says Michael Gove “got himself a bargain at £6”, while Johnson and other students “were all sold in their absence” and adds that Gove, a candidate for the presidency of the Union, “attracted enthusiastic bidding”.
Johnson has previously acknowledged that aspects of his behaviour as a student were unfortunate, particularly his antics as a member of the university’s Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and George Osborne were also members.
In 2013 he said the all-male Bullingdon’s indulgences offered “a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness. But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up.”
Trivialising slavery is more difficult to explain in today’s political climate of heightened anti-racist feeling. Clive Lewis, the Labour MP for Norwich, whose father was born in Grenada, said: “You really don’t have to dig back into Gove’s and Johnson’s privileged student past to understand their current ‘light-hearted’ views on slavery and structural racism. Why would you?
“They lead a political party whose MPs routinely defend with impunity ‘blacking up’, hostile environment and ‘empire 2.0’. One funded to the tune of millions by corporations and individuals on the frontline of the post-colonial exploitation of the developing world. When you understand what both men and their party are enabling today and preparing for tomorrow, their past actions come as much less of a surprise.”
Shelter, which reacted to the death of George Floyd by saying it needed to do more to stamp out racial prejudice “and the systems which fuel it”, said it apologised if it had received a donation from the slave auction. “Shelter does not condone racism of any kind, and we are distressed to hear that anyone may have raised money for us in this way … We do not know if the money raised was received by Shelter. However, we extend our deepest apologies if so,” a spokeswoman said.
No 10 and Michael Gove’s private office, who were sent copies of the Cherwell report, said they did not wish to comment.
Student slave auctions to raise money for charity continued until recently in some universities. In 2017 at Loughborough, there were reports of two events called a “slave auction” and a “slave night” being advertised for new students. The events provoked an angry response from the university’s African-Caribbean Society (ACS), which said they showed a “blatant disregard for coloured people” and are now understood to have been banned.