Trevelyan College Rugby’s suspension: the correct response?

It was right to suspend Trevelyan College Rugby – and we need to do far more


For years, Durham University and its student body have been largely disconnected from the community in which our University is situated, with regular talk of the ‘Durham bubble’ and an ‘us and them’ divide between students and local residents. This weekend’s revelations of the social organised by Trevelyan Rugby Club have brought the relationship between students and the city many of us are proud to call home to a new low.

I’ve heard people say that the backlash the proposed social has received is an overreaction. Those making these arguments have no understanding of the importance of Durham’s mining heritage and of the history of the wider community. It is near impossible for anyone not from County Durham to comprehend the offence caused by the mockery of the events of the 1980s, or of how patronising it must be to be told that such deeply classist comments are acceptable on the grounds of ‘free speech’. The University we attend sits on a former coalfield, and every year hundreds of thousands of people flock to the annual Durham Miners’ Gala to celebrate our city’s rich heritage. As someone who did not grow up in the area, I do not pretend to be able to speak on behalf of local residents; but as someone who wants to be able to understand our shared history with the City of Durham, I take my lead from friends who have lived their entire lives in County Durham. The overwhelming reaction from them was one of total disgust.

It is impossible for anyone not from County Durham to understand the events of the 1980s

One of the lines of reasoning used to justify the social was that the event was ‘political’ and voiced valid opinions about the events that took place during 1984-85. This thinking is out of touch with reality. The issue at stake here is not an individual’s view on pit closures, the miners’ decision to strike, or the actions of Thatcher’s Government – all of these are largely irrelevant, despite the fact that myself and others hold very strong views on such matters. The true root of the outrage is the crass trivialisation of the suffering felt during this time by local communities and real people.

As a result of the events that ‘inspired’ the Trevelyan Rugby Club social, many communities were deeply divided and many families lost their livelihoods. The scars from these times still exist, as many of the worst affected areas never fully recovered from the damage that was caused – this includes some parts of County Durham. The memories of these times are still keenly felt by many residents of our city, especially for the large number who lived through that period.

The real issue here is the crass trivialisation of the suffering felt by the local people

In light of the issues outlined above, I feel little need to articulate further why Trevelyan Rugby should be banned and made to take responsibility for their actions. But we must also recognise that simply banning one sports team, or having a few reprimanding chats with others, is not enough, and is to completely misunderstand the wider context of what has happened. The culture that exists at Durham University facilitated the belief that it was acceptable to plan this social and to engage in such classist caricatures.

We must confront the fact that Durham University is an elitist institution which systematically locks out and discriminates against students from lower socio-economic and working-class backgrounds. Whether it is extortionate college fees with a lack of financial support, Freshers’ Representatives telling new students who can’t afford to buy a suit to buy one anyway because it’s an ‘investment’, or senior University staff proposing higher fees for Bailey Colleges because of their ‘heritage’, Durham’s hostility towards young people from these backgrounds is evident every day.

Durham University systematically locks out and discriminates against working class students

The responsibility for changing this culture does not just lie with Trevelyan Rugby: it is a responsibility that is shared by all those connected to Durham University. I’d like to make a couple of suggestions to all Durham students. Take a visit to one of the most incredible and historic venues in our city, the Durham Miners’ Hall on Flass Street. Take a look inside the ‘Pitman’s Parliament’ and speak to some of the members of the Durham Miners’ Association. Then, perhaps even better, go to the Durham Miners’ Gala on 14th July next year. This was possibly the greatest cultural and political event I have ever attended. I hope Trevelyan Rugby are there and I hope they enjoy their day. Perhaps then they might stop referring to miners as ‘filth’.

Fear of upsetting certain partisan attitudes has triumphed here


‘The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.’ Or, to put it simply, to silence non-conformists is to make yourself a prisoner of your own actions, that you will deny the speaker not only the right to be heard but yourself the right to listen. It is self-evident truths like these that make On Liberty a good candidate for required reading in schools. It would serve one well before opening the chamber door and venturing into areas where your opinions are not met with nods and the audible clinking of champagne glasses.

It may also benefit those who run institutions such as our University. The contract we hold with our college is that, at the end of our degree programme, we shall emerge as refined individuals. We are to be more employable, not only in the jobs market, but also in the collisions and conflicts encountered in typical day-to-day life. What this necessitates is the harbouring of an entire spectrum, beginning to end, of thought and expression. It now seems to me that Durham’s blinkers have extended beyond what is reasonable.

If a politically-themed bar crawl can no longer be organised, maybe I am not at an intellectual institution

The Trevelyan College Rugby social was an example of poor planning and miscalculation, but this does not seem to be the focus of the discussion taking place. Instead, it could readily be believed that the club had coordinated a disruptive rally with the locals as the target. It is clear from the event page that this was not the case. If William of Ockham were here, he would summarise it as a student group using historically significant subject matter as the basis for a purely recreational and harmless activity. I have no care for rugby socials, but if a politically-themed bar crawl can no longer be organised out of fear of offence, perhaps the most cowardly of all fears, then I am not sure it is an intellectual institution that I am enrolled at.

What is most mystifying about the University’s decision to suspend the rugby club is the fact that, in simply organising such an event, the club is not airing a political view of any kind nor staging a protest for or against a cause. I am understanding of the locals and students from nearby families who suffered under pit-closing policies, but no reasonable person could or should see this event as being provocative or as having the intent of preying on such sensitivities.

Trevelyan Rugby Club is not airing a political view or staging a protest

Regardless, an unequivocal, out-of-proportion response from the University and students followed without a whiff of surprise – the event was labelled as ‘deplorable’ and ‘wholly unacceptable’. It must be questioned here, as it will not be elsewhere, the moral opportunism of those espousing this faux outrage. Setting the bar for political jesting at a lower level for your opponents seems remarkably convenient. This is especially true when considering that some of these are likely the same individuals you would have caught singing ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ when Thatcher passed in 2013.

To suspend the club is to create an awful precedent

Like any elite institution, Durham has a reputation and image that it is in the interest of maintaining, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of law-abiding student activities. The university has a moral obligation to protect students by restraining from crumbling under the fear of upsetting certain partisan attitudes. Individual colleges may wish to prohibit the event occurring on their property – and that is fully within their rights – but to suspend the club is to create an awful precedent.

James Delingpole wrote in The Spectator earlier this year that, for a real Oxbridge education, you should go to Durham. He described the former as possessing ‘sterile, conformist, PC monocultures’, and I took pride in Durham’s contrasting diversity of thought. Sad as it is to say, I now fear we have fallen in line with these very institutions that consider ‘social justice’ to be more important than the freedom of ideas. For the sake of the posterity, as well as the existing generation here at Durham, I hope we reverse what is emerging as a dark pattern.

Photographs: Paul Simpson via Flickr and Creative Commons

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