It takes a brave person to come out in support of Boat Race protestor Trenton Oldfield. I am neither brave, nor coming out in his support, but I do think he has a point.
When Oldfield, an Australian-born LSE graduate and self-styled “guerilla architect”, swam in front of the crews during the 158th annual Boat Race, he justified his actions as a protest against elitism. As he declared on Twitter, “elitism is an idea, a way of living/seeing not what background you have”. The broad point Oldfield was making, is that ‘elitism’, however loosely defined, is bound up with the ways we experience the world and act in it, and that the Boat Race - the ‘Xchanging Boat Race’, to give it its full title - is a glorious spectacle of overblown toffery which reinforces inequalities, class privilege and the self-serving interests of the wealthy. In short, the ‘elites’, to use Oldfield’s favourite word.
The immediate response in the right wing press has been savage. The Telegraph decried Oldfield’s actions as “a futile protest that was dead in the water”, while The Sun happily called him a “crackpot swimmer”. Predictably, The Mail has led the charge against Oldfield, calling him “rudderless and deluded” while the ever-understanding Melanie Phillips castigated him as a “rebel without a clue and the politics of narcissism”. One writer even used the opportunity to launch a bizarre attack on the LSE.
It has to be said that Oldfield’s blog post, ‘Elitism leads to tyranny’, published shortly before his dip in the Thames, has not exactly helped his cause. Reading his manifesto, feels a bit like watching George Galloway’s passionate speech in front of the US senate on Youtube, before clicking through to the clip of him pretending to be a cat on Celebrity Big Brother.
Oldfield makes the (very reasonable) point that “the boat race, while accessible to everyone, isn’t really advertised or promoted as something for the general public to attend”, and that the stretch of the Thames set aside for the race “is a site where elitists and those with elitist sympathies have come together every year but one for the last 158 years to perform, in the most public way, their ambition for the structures and subsequent benefits from elitism and privilege to continue”. A quick glance at the Boat Race’s website seems to support this view: its hard to imagine many national sporting events boasting a ‘Bollinger Champagne Bar’ as “the place to be” when watching the action.
Unfortunately, several thousand words later, we find Oldfield incoherently ranting about “something akin to slavery and imperialism” before suggesting everyday “guerilla tactics” such as tow-truck drivers removing Nick Clegg’s and David Cameron’s cars, cleaners depriving right-wing professors’ bathrooms of toilet paper, and pest controllers introducing ‘new pests’ to the offices and homes of ‘elitist sympathisers’ (quite how, I have no idea). Most ridiculously, and in what seems to me in direct conflict of his criticism of the powers- that-be “spying on our emails”, he suggests that “If you are a builder repairing the house of an elitist can you also bug it and share the footage and audio online?”.
Unsurprisingly, statements like these have been easy prey for the nation’s army of columnists and opinion-writers, as has the fact that Oldfield has admitted that he comes from a privileged background: a criticism which seems to neatly forget that Friedrich Engels was the son of a factory owner, that George Orwell went to Eton, and that Tony Benn renounced his hereditary peerage.
Unquestionably, Oldfield’s actions were dangerous, and I have great sympathy for the athletes whose years of preparation were ruined by his act of protest. I also commend the actions of race officials who quickly ordered a re-start and for the RNLI who fished Oldfield out of the chilly water. But the point that some commentators have missed, is that the force of Trenton Oldfield’s protest was not against the sport of rowing, nor the athletes and the universities they proudly represent. In this regard, Martin Cross’ comments in the Guardian are misguided: defending his sport, the former Olympic gold-medallist says that the “rowing community... will remember Oldfield's stunt as a misguided assault on the values they hold dear”, but they won’t, or at least shouldn’t. If Oldfield’s beef was with rowing, he would have been better off targeting the British Championships in Nottingham in July - at the very least the security would be more lax. Similarly, as a Cambridge student, I know first-hand that the vestiges of snobbery and privilege remain, but the reality is that most students at Oxbridge are simply bright, hard-working young people who are making use of the excellent educational facilities those institutions provide, regardless of their social background. What Trenton Oldfield was protesting against was the unique spectacle of class distinction and privilege that the Boat Race, a venerable yet highly commercialised national institution, openly celebrates.
With all its pomp and grandeur, its Bollinger Bars and its Hooray Henrys, The Boat Race remains an outward manifestation of the lingering air of Old School Ties, shameless nepotism and subtle prejudices which still pervade much of public life in Britain. As Oldfield Tweeted, “75% of judges, 70% of finance directors, 45% of top civil servants and 32% of MPs have been privately educated”, and while these statistics shouldn’t necessarily imply that Britain is run by champagne-swilling toffs on the banks of the Thames, they do speak to the uncomfortable disparities in upward mobility which the event of the Boat Race, if not the actual race itself, freely entertains.