Monday, 13 August 2012

OUCA and the Strange World of University Politics

It is now a difficult admission that I make when I say that I am a registered member of OUCA, the Oxford University Conservative Association, or "OCA", as it is now known after a very embarrassing Michaelmas term last year. In my time at Oxford I never went to a single meeting however, bar one lecture by the esteemed Douglas Carswell MP, and I am certainly being made to feel right now like I dodged a bullet.

A great deal of fuss has been made recently about the BBC documentary Wonderland: Young, Bright and on the Rightbroadcast on Thursday 9th August. Tim Stanley, for example, in his Telegraph blog has said of it that "there is something odd about being an active member of the Conservative Party at the age of 19", and while I do not necessarily agree with that sentiment, I must admit that there was something very odd about those young men.

The programme follows the lives of two young conservatives, one at Oxford and one at Cambridge, as they navigate the treacherous avenues of their respective University Conservative Associations. A contrast between the two is established early-on, with one of them presented as a canny and sly former president of his association, highly capable of manipulating the levers of power within his organisation to get what he wants, while the other is a bright-eyed and naive youth with the lofty aspiration of being placed in charge of "buying the biscuits" for his society's meetings. The irony is, of course, that the former, in spite of his Winston Churchill-styled affectations, seems to fail to implement even a single reform in his time as the president of the society, and the latter eventually gives up on his cheese-mongering schemes in order to focus on his studies

Not that I am embarrassed to be a conservative. Far from it, although this show has certainly achieved the aim of making conservatives (and Oxford students in general) look rather silly. As it is presented, members of OCA seem to spend most of their time plotting and scheming against one another for so little personal gain that it seems to be almost an end in itself. Most evenings seem to be spent sitting cackling beneath a portrait of Margaret Thatcher, dreaming of the havoc about to be unleashed by their latest backstabbing antics, and all the while actual politics - you know, the kind of stuff that involves you going out to debate with and win over supporters from people who actually disagree with your views, rather than your supposed friends - takes very much a sideline.

This show is obviously made for television and, in my experience at least, what it presents is thankfully not at all typical of either Oxford students or of conservatives. Rather than whine about this point however, it is useful to take a look at what the programme does seem to get rather chillingly correct, which is the weird world of university activism.

My only real experience of this level of pettiness was as a student at Reading where, minutes before Dan Hannan MEP was due to arrive to give a much-anticipated lecture on Europe, a band of mischievous imps, allegedly from the Lib Dem society, crept around the university tearing down the posters which told everyone where they needed to go. The end result of this, of course, was that relatively few people turned up and I was able to ask Mr Hannan lengthy and dull questions that would have bored the back legs off a snail. Or something like that. In any case, my point is that where politics meets university, a lot of naughty capers often seem to materialise.

The Oxford Union
This is a real shame, especially since many of tomorrow's finest politicians are surely currently at university and, as much of the commentary has complained, probably taking part in such activities as I write this. I would take such suggestions with a mighty pinch of salt however - David Cameron, for example, famously steered well clear of such things during his time at Oxford, and Boris Johnson decided that his time would be better spent running for office within the Oxford Union. Instead, I suspect that such behaviour is largely unique to "wannabees", and by that I mean those who perceive themselves as "outsiders" to a system.

A sad fact of this episode is that each of the boys is eventually revealed to be concealing their less affluent backgrounds from their fellow members, a fact which causes no end of stress and heartache to the Oxford chappie in particular, directly leading him to report some seedy goings-on within OUCA to the national press, if the narrative is to be believed. What is sensed throughout is a desperate desire to belong, and as we gradually uncover the truth of the boy's background we are led to realise that the foppish handkerchiefs, the loud tweed and the contrived accents were all part of a carefully constructed mask designed to hide him from his peers. We are led to feel sorry for him then, as he appears even more pathetic to us when his disguises fail and in fact highlight to us the features he would rather have kept under wraps, presenting an image of a fictional Oxford that clearly exists only in the two boys' minds; a place where they can suddenly become accepted as the true blue "toffs" they always wanted to be. No longer intimidating to the casual viewer, they appear suddenly comical. While copying characteristics foreign to them, they end up behaving farcically, almost as characters in a pantomime mimicking members of the audience.

What was originally a dig at Tories in general therefore becomes a laugh at these two unfortunate characters and a staged revelation of the fact that conservatives are clearly so distantly removed from normal society that these two had to make complete fools of themselves just to fit in. This is of course far from the truth: Eric Pickles and William Hague, for example, are both cabinet ministers as well as being very senior Tories, and they are both stalwart Yorkshiremen who make no attempt to conceal the fact, indeed even revelling in their heritage. The difference for the youngsters however, is that they happened to be at university at the time.

University, rapidly becoming the rite-of-passage among adolescents it became long ago in the USA, presents the perfect opportunity for young people to experiment, find their places in life and discover the personal qualities that suit them best, all without the baggage of past lives that they dragged behind them while at school. Student societies likewise often (but not always) resemble archetypes designed to attract like-minded people with a like-minded desire to take on particular characteristics peculiar to each society. A new student may join an athletics club to be sporty and fun for example, he may go clay pigeon shooting to wear a tweed cap and drink port and he may equally join a society associated with particular subject because of a reputation the society might have (be it learned or otherwise). In such a way people join political societies to learn to debate, to scheme and to take a shot at feeling like a senior political figure for a brief moment. Such scheming therefore is an end in itself: allowing a level of experimentation with self-image within a safe environment, it deliberately targets issues that don't matter, leaving the schemers with the necessary skills and self-assurance to focus on things that do matter later in life. Both subjects of the documentary clearly lacked this crucial self-confidence that a university as an institution seeks to nourish.

Oxford is not always such a safe environment however, and as the Cambridge chap points out, both of them find themselves stumbling into precisely the sorts of situations that would destroy a political career, regardless of their ages. These undoubtedly promising young men had the misfortune of showing their mistakes for all to see on national television, rather than in the privacy of their group of friends, and for that they will now most likely find themselves relegated to the dark land of local politics, where a certain level of pettiness would seem to be an entry requirement. Far from presenting a picture of a pair of disadvantaged youths who come to grow and discover themselves, they have have shown themselves to us when at their most vulnerable and have almost certainly halted their political development once and for all.

There's a lesson in there somewhere, I think. Perhaps something about "stick to your convictions, especially on TV" or perhaps "what happens in Oxford stays in Oxford". Or perhaps it's the show's own message, which would seem to be something along the lines of "anyone can achieve anything if they try hard enough! ...Unless they're a Tory".

Wonderland: Young, Bright and on the Right can still, for a short time, be watched by UK viewers at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01l9zfm/Wonderland_Series_5_Young_Bright_and_on_the_Right/.