In my address to last year’s Morris Society AGM held in Mansfield College, Oxford, I suggested that the Society should consider setting up a utopian studies subgroup based at Oxford University. A few years before that, in William Morris at Oxford: The Campaigning Years, 1879-95 I argued that Morris’s nine talks and lectures at Oxford over that sixteen-year period constituted a systematic campaign to win both city and university to his architectural and political values. So if we want the Morris Society today to become a campaigning as well as scholarly organisation, then Morris’s old university is certainly one possible starting point for this.
Just the other day, for instance, Oxford University opened a new lab in its Earth Sciences department funded by nearly six million pounds from the oil company Shell. This funding, over a five year period, will include research into ‘unconventional hydrocarbons’, including fracking, which is currently proving so controversial in my own county, Lancashire. Green campaigners argue that accepting massive funding from Shell will undermine Oxford’s credibility and work against its own research into global warming. The student group People and Planet claims that government cuts to research funding are ‘pushing our best universities into bed with the world’s worst companies’. The Shell-Oxford linkage is certainly an egregious example of that, and no-one in his own time better understood the link between capitalism and environmental despoliation than Morris.
So I suggest that the Morris Society – including its American and Canadian sister organisations – intervene in the anti-Shell campaign at Oxford, as a practical way of making our most important English communist thinker and utopian writer more relevant and better known at his own university. There are idealistic young minds to be won over here, a green-socialist future to be fought for.