Young, Bright and on the Right: A University College Graduate’s view

The story of two boys with a dream to scale the heights of Oxbridge university politics, the fabled nursery slopes for Westminster.

Both Chris Monk, 19 and Joe Cooke, 21, are passionate about politics and have been Conservatives from a tender age. Now they face an academic term that could make or break their future political careers. Despite the three-piece suits and plummy vowels, both are state-school educated and see themselves as outsiders in the Oxbridge social and political scene.

When Joe tries to effect change and bring about reform in the society, he comes head-to-head with 88 years of tradition. Will he eventually turn his back on a life in politics? And will Chris have the knowhow to impress the members of the political elite he aspires to?

Wonderland’s “Young, Bright, and on the Right” (available until 2:29AM Fri, 17 Aug 2012) aired last night with much criticism from both left and the right on twitter, including such comments as:

@LukeTryl: Well done BBC for a totally warped view of Oxbridge & undermining work to encourage those from non-traditional backgrounds to apply #YBAOTR

@WallaceMe: So far, about as representative of conservatives as Big Brother is of society #ybaotr

@AdamTyndall: “The whole point of the Conservative Association is that you get to pretend to be a member of the upper classes.” Sums it up. #YBAOTR

@C_Quigley: Ensuring there are biscuits is an underrated skill in politics…#YBAOTR#Wonderland

@TomCallow: By asking “Are you going to run out of biscuits?” and “How much cheese have you got?”, this guy’s a potential future chancellor #YBAOTR

and some of my own for good measure:

  • I wonder what a show about Oxford / Cambridge Labour Students would look like #YBAOTR
  • Boris-a-like Chris reminds me of Arnold Rimmer from Red Dwarf: thinking that Cheese & Port are important and above his station#YBAOTR
  • I bet this guy gets nowhere with the committee. So not the way to talk about elections I don’t think #YBAOTR

The programme has been effectively reviewed at Labour List, Progress Online, Daily Mail and The Independent so I’ll try not to go over old ground but one thing that seems so totally integral to the character of the piece and how it’s positioned by the Director on the BBC about “How easy is it to become a Tory MP without private education?” is the sense that about how both of these characters (and I use the term loosely because it didn’t do a deep enough job, for me, of explaining who they are so I can only judge how they the programme has been edited) may have been intelligent but weren’t smart or politically smart.

My desire to attend University came out of a desire to improve my education and life chances. At University I was elected twice to Union roles, representing a membership of just under 3000, but at no point would I say that I let it define me. I played Rugby, Gaelic Football, Basketball and Badminton for the institution, and was involved in directing one of the music and drama society’s productions, as well as being socially active with a core group of friends (on my course and in halls) and had outside hobbies I pursued. My desire to get involved with the Union wasn’t born out of a desire to go into party politics or government (however that has ended up since) but was out of a desire to develop my skills, get to know a few more people and get a few more strings to my bow for my CV for eventual job-hunting as a graduate.

However the two characters on Young, Bright and on the Right seemed so single-minded that they would only consider politics and party politics. A life focusing on political and personal semiotics, reactions, strategies and scheming is one that I think any guidance counsellor, parent, or university tutor would advise an undergraduate student to stay away from (regardless of institution!) because of the likely psychological effects that would come from being ‘100% politics’. I have no doubts that they probably weren’t as one-sided at University (at least I hope not!) but without the right support networks to deal with the rough and tumble of politics one can come out the other side quite jaded and affected by the whole experience.

Former NUS President, Gemma Tumelty, tweeted along the same lines as one of my tweets:

@GemmaTumelty:#YBAOTR Proves “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”- Kissinger. I even say that as former NUS Pres

Whilst I, personally, went in with the right reasons doesn’t mean I wasn’t subject to the kind of ethical strategies Joe hinted at in last night’s programme so I feel confident in being able to discuss the viciousness of student politics. I commented with another tweeter that party politics can provide a barrier for clashes individuals have in student politics, because it’s only based on whether you’re a member of Conservative Future, Labour Students, the Trots or Organised Independents, and that the worst student politics that can happen is when it’s got nothing to do with your politics and all to do with you

I remember over Christmas watching some political shows on Channel 4 that included The Deal and Miliband of Brothers. There was also another programme about David Cameron and Boris Johnson and how they attended Oxbridge: how Boris sought the spotlight and elected office whilst Cameron didn’t bother with it and just got on with his course. This is what gives me cause to say that the characters on last night’s show weren’t too politically smart because if I were them I would have enjoyed life at University, had a girlfriend (or partner), studied hard, had fun with activities and graduated with a collection of friends and acquaintances for networking later in life.

Chris astutely points out that “at 19 you may not be old enough to have a political career but you are certainly old enough to kill one off” and being part of this television show probably won’t do anything to support his political aspirations if he has any whereas Joe’s scorched earth revenge tactics on OUCA, and it’s then President, for rendering him irrelevant and without influence probably won’t help him because I doubt any of those Conservatives at Oxford then will want their political aspirations associated with his.

In student politics I think you need a thick skin, and you need the ability to vent about what’s happening to a close circle, and if you don’t have that I don’t think you are properly equipped to reach your potential as a politician. Many students I know dropped out of getting involved with the Union because they believed it to be too bitchy, cliquey or any other word you want to use that ultimately describes the incessant political manoeuvring and machinations of post-pubescent teenagers trying to run their Union.

However if I had any advice to dole out to anyone, left or right, wanting to get involved in student politics at University it would be this: concentrate on relationships first (be they sexual or friendship based), party, and enjoy yourself and everything else will follow when it’s right. Life is about people and without the respect or confidence of other people you’ll go nowhere so ignore the scheming and back-biting and let the cretins get on with it because with a tight network of friends you are far more likely to succeed than you are pieces on a chessboard of political strategy starting with you at university and ending up on Downing Street.

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