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Oxford’s Conservative Association: the other scandal

The University of Oxford has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons, thanks to a few unruly members of its now disowned Conservative Association. The sordid tale revolves around an event at this year’s hustings involving racist jokes, which has been seized upon by the media as a typical example of how Oxford undergraduates, privately educated rich people or Conservatives, depending on the personal prejudices of the particular commentator, are terrible people. The university has now withdrawn the Conservative Association’s affiliation, Michael Howard has cancelled a speaking engagement and two people have been expelled from the Conservative Party.

Normally I’d be in agreement with the University’s decision; I certainly would be if the meeting had been organised as the Guardian reported it.

However, the comments to their recent article contained an account of the meeting that sounds altogether more realistic and was written by someone who was actually present. As with most news stories about contentious issues it boils down to a squalid round of sensationalism that leaves everybody looking bad except the students themselves.

What has become – through various iterations of press recycling – a drunken evening meeting with inappropriate jokes on its agenda appears actually to have been a normal hustings event, held at two in the afternoon, in which members of the association asked various questions of the candidates for positions. One member asked the candidates to repeat the most inappropriate jokes they knew, which the Returning Officer attempted to prevent. Two candidates responded anyway, the second being told to sit down by the Returning Officer but continuing in an attempt to annoy him.

The students who requested and supplied the offensive humour have since been expelled from the Association, and rightly so. There the matter ought to have rested, but an angry member, disgusted at the behaviour of colleagues, reported the story to a student newspaper, which passed it on to the Daily Mail. The involvement of that bastion of self-righteous hypocrisy ought to explain how the collapse of order at a student society meeting became a national issue.

When the meeting is seen in this light, Oxford’s decision looks less like a determined move to crack down on racism within its halls and more like a spineless attempt to distance itself from a scandal. The students themselves policed their membership and took what action they could against those responsible for the unacceptable humour. It wasn’t an officially sanctioned part of the agenda and it was stopped as soon as it could be, and that’s where the matter should have ended.

Once the national press were involved, the result was inevitable: regardless of what the university’s investigation discovered, anything other than draconian action would be presented in the press as condoning racism, and the public would believe it. Many people think that Oxford students and Conservatives are all privately educated, most people think that a private education means the same thing as being a member of the peerage, and everyone knows that aristocrats are all evil. Class war. Right on.

What has been forgotten here is why racism is wrong. It’s wrong because it causes people to be treated as faceless members of a group and not as individuals. It’s wrong because it’s based on speculative and wildly inaccurate opinions about what it means to belong to that group; it’s wrong because it’s ignorant and it’s wrong because it’s unfair. Snobbery is wrong for the same reasons, and it’s a common misconception that it only works in one direction.

The Oxford graduates I know did not go to private school; my parents habitually vote Conservative, and neither has a drop of blue blood. In the same vein, it’s interesting that of all the Conservative party leaders since 1975 including Baroness Thatcher, most have not come from the ranks of the aristocracy or even the gentry. This is not in any way relevant as a measure of their competence as national leaders, but it goes to show that the preconception that informs many of the attitudes I’ve heard over the past few days is – as is so often the case with preconceptions – wrong.

This is not intended as a vindication of the Conservative party, yet it is possible that a certain amount of unfairness has been shown to a student society because of its political and academic affiliations. I feel that the unfairness stems from prejudices among the journalistic community and the public at large against those who are seen to represent privilege. Oxford would be unable to sustain its current intake if it only accepted applicants from certain schools, and it certainly could not expect to maintain its academic standards if it attempted to do so. We may be forced to accept that some people are there on academic merit, and surely nobody would suggest that it’s wrong for students to be affiliated with a mainstream political party.

It may be galling to see other people doing well because they’re more talented than we are, or because they work harder; but it’s scarcely unfair for them to be doing so, and it’s no more an indication of privilege than becoming employee of the month for doing one’s job well. Neither do all people support a particular party because of their class backgrounds: some have even made an informed choice that expresses their own considered views, and that seems quite likely in a talented and well-educated student community. It’s easy and comforting to think that someone might have got where they are by sporting a particular school tie, but ease and comfort are not good motives for wilfully ignoring reality. In any case, envy is an ugly emotion, and it’s not a good basis on which to build social equality.

Such considerations aside, writing condemnatory opinion pieces based on what one tabloid heard from a student rag is unbelievably sloppy journalism. There’s no excuse for racism in a political association, but neither is there an excuse for lazy, knee-jerk reportage that reinforces class prejudice to sell newspapers. If someone had taken the trouble to track down some witnesses, ask them about the events and come to an informed conclusion about what the answers meant, that would have been different.

As it is, the argument has degenerated into an emotive slanging match that has little to do with the issues or the original events. I can form my own opinions, but I need some facts if I’m to do it effectively. The ladies and gentlemen of the press ought to be giving me those facts, not regurgitating their own commentary.

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