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Nadine Dorries grants listed status to Cecil Rhodes plaque at Oxford college | nadine dorries

The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, has been accused of stoking culture wars after deciding to grant listed status to a controversial plaque commemorating the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes at a University of Oxford college.

The decision to grant the plaque Grade II listed status overrides an earlier judgment by Historic England determining that the plaque lacked the “richness of detail” required for listed status.

The plaque is located near the statue that thousands of Rhodes Must Fall campaigners have lobbied fiercely to have removed because of the businessman and politician’s views on colonialism and race.

Academics and experts in colonial history have accused the government of deliberately stoking culture wars and “whitewashing” the brutality of colonialism.

Kim Wagner, professor of imperial history at Queen Mary University of London, said: “This is simply what one would expect from Nadine Dorries and a discredited government, which has nothing left but the pursuit of its inept culture-war project.

“Cecil Rhodes has become a rallying point for imperialophiliacs, and the slogan to ‘retain and explain’ is just part of the ongoing effort to whitewash his legacy and that of the empire more generally. Luckily, most of us don’t get our history from statues or plaques.”

Hannah Woods, a historian and the author of Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, said Rhodes was a controversial figure in his era, when many regarded him as a “liability and a maniac”.

“It is deeply depressing that amid our current culture wars we seem even less capable of critique than Britain’s 19th-century imperialists themselves,” she said, adding that it was ironic that “Rhodes enjoys more favorable coverage in sections of the British media today than he did during his own lifetime”.

Sathnam Sanghera, the author of the bestselling book Empireland, tweeted: “Why govern when you can just play in the culture wars?”

Rhodes was a student at Oriel and left the college £100,000 when he died in 1902. He drove British colonial expansion in southern Africa as well as founding Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) and the De Beers diamond mining company.

He was a white supremacist whose policies as prime minister of the Cape Colony are seen as having paved the way for apartheid.

Last year Oriel College’s governing body published a report saying it wanted to remove the statue and plaque, which the college said it remained “committed to” despite Dorries’ decision.

The college later decided not to take this forward because of the costs and complexities involved, since the Rhodes statue is already Grade II listed, and opted instead to focus on improving access to scholarships for UK students of African and Caribbean heritage and students from sub- Saharan Africa.

In response, about 150 academics across the university signed a letter saying they would refuse to teach the college’s undergraduates or help with its outreach work, or attend any seminars or conferences it organised.

Oriel said it was not involved in the decision to list the plaque, which is a matter for the culture secretary, who has final say on whether sites of historical interest should be listed. The minister receives recommendations from Historic England, but is not required to follow them.

Historic England said the DCMS “agrees with our listing advice 99% of the time”.

Dorries determined that the plaque had architectural interest as a “fine example” of its genre created by a notable sculptor, Onslow Whiting, in 1906, and as “an unusual and elaborate personal tribute”. She said Rhodes was a “nationally and internationally important individual whose life and work impacted fundamentally on the story of British imperialism in southern Africa in the late 19th century”.

A Historic England spokesperson said the plaque was “not without architectural merit, as an example of commemorative art” but that it lacked “the richness of detail and modeling to mark it out as of national interest for its artistic quality”.

He added that there was “limited depth” to Rhodes’ connection with its location and his legacy was “already well represented on the list”.

A DCMS spokesperson said: “We are committed to retaining and explaining our heritage so people can examine all parts of Britain’s history and understand our shared past.”

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