Snobs, privilege, and the Oxbridge Unions

These people made PG Wodehouse characters seem like portraits in brutal realism
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It was hard not to feel a small flicker of pleasure when I read yesterday that "Britain's most prestigious debating society, the Oxford Union, is being torn apart by allegations of racism and dirty tricks." In my first term at university, I peered into the abyss that is the Cambridge Union. I have never met people before or since quite so strange and unpleasant.

Ruzwana Bashir, a Muslim woman from Yorkshire, was narrowly elected president of the Oxford Union. A vicious right-wing clique has, according to her friends, launched a hate campaign against her, and tried to have her election overturned. She must have cheated. She wore the hijab at school. She does not know all the words of the National Anthem. She doesn't even sleep around. As well as these slurs, Ruzwana was harrassed by anonymous phone calls on the day of her election.

"A self-serving clique is now manipulating the rules to legitimise its prejudice against an Asian girl becoming president," one insider has been quoted as saying. Well, you might think, student politics is notoriously vicious. (Henry Kissinger once noted this is because "the stakes are so low.") Why should the wranglings of a few privileged brats bother anybody out here in the real world?

Like it or not, Oxbridge is an important filter for Britain's governing class. A majority of civil servants, politicians, business leaders and opinion-formers pass through those damp universities. There has been a huge effort over the past few years to explain to students from normal backgrounds that Oxbridge is welcoming to them, that it is not full of snobs, racists and extras from Brideshead Revisited caressing teddy bears and assaulting foxes. It matters to all of us that these initiatives work, if we are not to be perpetually governed by the children of the rich. Yet every year, all this good work is crippled by the Oxford and Cambridge Unions.

I would not have believed the Cambridge Union was real if I had not witnessed it myself. One night in Fresher's Week, a few of us from King's - the college with the best state school recruitment record - wandered into a debate about the impeachment of Bill Clinton. The central debating chamber - self-consciously modelled on the House of Commons - is divided into two opposing sets of leather benches. The ghosts of Union presidents past watch you from the back wall, captured in cracked photographs. Ah, I thought, here will be the famous intellectual cut-and-thrust. We hid our bottle of vodka and listened intently.

"Ladies and gentlemen, at least John Kennedy cheated with Marilyn Monroe," one of the debaters was intoning. "I ask you to look - at this!" He produced a picture of Monica Lewinsky in white trousers. "I ask you: you are President of the United States. Would you risk everything for this dog?" Cheers and guffawing. Several posh girls on the front row cackled their approval. Surely, I thought to myself, he will be eviscerated by his opponent? The boy speaking in defence of Bill Clinton stood. "What the gentleman opposite does not acknowledge," he said sombrely, "is that the President has a penis like the weird gherkin you always leave at the bottom of the jar, so he can hardly be expected to do better than Miss Lewinsky!" A volcano of approval burst forth; the neighing and whinnying echoed throughout the chamber.

For our first term, three of us developed a habit of getting drunk and going to gape at the Union. The Clinton debate was, it turned out, an unusually erudite discussion. Debaters never - not once in my hearing - tried to learn anything about their subject. Indeed, the whole point, it seemed, was to know nothing and to witter on anyway, dazzling your audience with your ability to speak confidently in total ignorance. (This is the trick that the English public school system has perfected. We are global leaders in fact-lite waffle.)

The most startling thing about these young men and women was the curious mixture of privilege and self-pity that drove them. Despite belonging to the richest 1 per cent of the world's population - and quite possibly of Britain's - the Union's denizens were convinced that they were victims. "The most persecuted minorities in this country," one Old Etonian (in school-tie, of course) proclaimed in a typical oration, "are fox-hunters and motorists."

They displayed a paranoid obsession with "political correctness", a subject which dominated debates week after week. These children of privilege seemed to genuinely believe that not being allowed to use words like "nigger" and "faggot" was a totalitarian oppression on a par with slavery and homophobia; anybody who tried to talk about any genuinely disadvantaged group would be howled down with cries of "It's the PC police! Waa-nooh! The PC police! Waa-nooh!"

These were people so weird, so exaggerated, they make PG Wodehouse characters seem like portraits in brutal realism. In my final year I was coaxed - against my better judgement - to speak in the big annual debate, 'This House Has No Confidence in Her Majesty's Government". I defended some of Tony Blair's actions. This was seen as a wild position on the far left. I began by talking about some of the estates near where I live, and how neglected they were under the Conservatives. To my surprise, a few braying toffs on the opposite side started muttering, "Hear, hear!" Confused, I pressed on, and at some point mentioned some of the redevelopment money given to council estates. Suddenly, the toffs' expressions changed: "Oh, poor show!" they cried. It was only later that somebody explained: They thought I had been talking about the decline of landed estates.

Of course, toffs should be allowed their pleasures, however distasteful. But they should be stripped of the prestige of dominating an institution at the heart of Oxbridge. There is a simple solution to all this, a way to guarantee that the Oxbridge brand is no longer poisoned by the Unions. At the moment, neither Cambridge nor Oxford has a central building owned by their student unions. They are the only British universities in this position.

The Union Societies should not be confused with the student unions themselves. The Unions are private organisations dominated by the strange hobbit-creatures I have described; the students' unions belong to the entire student body, and are run by normal people. The answer is clear: the students' unions should buy out the Union Societies, redesign that heinous "debating" chamber, and turn the Union buildings into resources for all Oxbridge students.

The remaining knots of social privilege in Oxbridge - now thankfully a minority - need to be dealt with aggressively. The Bashir affair is more than a fleeting embarrassment: it is an indicator of how aggressively the aristocratic élite will defend its gilded nest against outsiders.

Admissions policies in some colleges are improving. A handful are recognising the extent to which private schools shamelessly play the system, and they are weighing the system in favour of state school students in response. But there needs to be action on the part of the students' unions to transform the universities from within too. They need to protect them from terrible publicity. Where better to start than by fumigating the Oxford and Cambridge Unions and consigning their 18th-century absurdities to the dustbin of history?