Student politics, the home of goofy Tories or hardened Socialists, is perhaps the last place you would look for an example of identity crisis. Oxford’s political scene is largely unambiguous; you’re in the blue corner or the red. This is most apparent at the Fresher’s Fair, where the political types seem most polarised.
The Oxford University Labour Club, with knitted jumpers and terrible hair display a red banner, that reads ‘Forward to Socialism’. While a few tables down you find yourself in even more uncomfortable territory, among the Oxford University Conservative Association. OUCA seem to represent that bizarre strain of British right-wingery, a combination of Katie Hopkins’ Daily Mail vitriol and Sir Oswald Moseley’s Black Shirts. A hideous lovechild, if you like. Only, this is a lovechild that is insistent on growing out its patchy facial hair into little ratty moustaches, moustaches that look like they have crawled halfway up the face of each OUCA member before dying a protracted death along their upper lip. You can try and move on from the stall, but a few clammy handshakes later and you are lucky to escape without surrendering your own granny’s soul, let alone your email address.
In reality, however, these types and characters are nowhere near as clear-cut as they initially appear. The sensationalist press loves to bracket the Bullingdon, inequality and the Tory party together but the lines are not that plainly drawn. If you walk past a Sunday night Port and Policy at the Kings Arms, often the people who seem most stereotypically Tory, with their black tie and canes, in fact represent the strongest subversion of the Conservative stereotype.
One character in Magdalen, who has been banned from Oxford fencing for challenging a rival to a duel over a college marriage and who wears a three piece suit to eat his jacket potato in the Old Kitchen Bar at lunchtime, is not the 18th century owner of a plantation that he pretends to be. He is, in fact, an example of the college’s outreach scheme and comes from St John’s Malborough, a nineteen-seventies comprehensive in the Wiltshire town. His proposal of a Brexit rep, or his proclamation that he is Lord Sealand must not be taken at face value, as an indication of how ludicrously stereotypical he is, but instead as an indicator of how ludicrously stereotypical he is trying to be.
Jacob Rees-Mogg caricature of a caricature
Oxford’s left is no doubt party to the same accusations. A Fake News article ran the other day on Versa with a joke character called Iona Trustfund on the frontline of the University Strikes picket. However, the point rings true. The students who passionately support the strikes are those who have sufficient detachment from the £9,250 they pour away each year. Students who unquestioningly support the protest strike me as pretty odd. You wouldn’t see commuters holding hands with striking Underground workers, or NHS patients dancing around because their latest heart operation has been cancelled, no matter how punchable Jeremy Hunt looks. In the end, students supporting the very strikes in which they are being used as pawns and held hostage represents a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome.
Indeed, most of Oxford’s left ironically seem to be reinvented public school kids who have exchanged tailcoats and boaters for second hand shirts and corduroy trousers. The girls in French berets and those flappy three-quarter length trousers have usually come straight from Cheltenham Ladies College. Admittedly, even I pay something like one pound a year to the Labour party for membership.
There is an identity mixup at the heart of Oxford student politics. You are probably more likely to meet an Etonian from the Labour party than OUCA. Those characters who seem most keen to push themselves into the stereotypes of the Tory party or the Labour party, however, often are trying the hardest to compensate. This is the zeal of the convert argument; you only have to make it to the end of a Commemoration Ball to see it in action, when two hundred guys in their wing-collared shirts and white tie jackets start singing ‘Ohh Jeremy Corbyn’.
If you ever pick a copy of The Cherwell from out of the recycling bin in your college’s pidge room, you will read the revulsion towards the latest idiocy of OUCA or the Bullingdon Club. If the student paper couldn’t report on either of these two groups, the front page headline would probably read ‘Recipe Corner: Cheese’. But, this shock reaction, like the reaction of the tabloid papers is completely the wrong one. As I said in last week’s column, even a club such as the Bullingdon represents an attempt to fulfil a stereotype rather than a stereotype itself. Student journalism should not take the actions of Bullingdon, OUCA or the like at face-value, but instead see them as a rather sad attempt to fit into a label.