Young, Bright and on the Right – A Response

Former CUCA chairman CALLUM WOOD worries the BBC 2 show will re-enforce stereotypes.

bbc callum wood chris monk conservative cuca ouca oxford university

I’d actually forgotten all about the film crew that tagged along to a couple of CUCA events in late 2011, but when I saw “Young, Bright and on the Right” advertised my curiosity was piqued.

When I was in the loop I knew all about student Tory politics. It would be a change, then, to regard the spectacle from the comfort of my living room. What did we look like to outsiders?

The Wonderland crew discovered an intelligent but socially awkward young man with plenty of political aspirations. They let him talk. They filmed him making loud pronouncements at a social event and badgering officers for a place on the committee. This wasn’t a documentary about CUCA. Student politics was little more than the backdrop for a documentary about how a keen second-year failed to curb his enthusiasm. It didn’t tell us anything new about the right-wing scene in Cambridge. It merely explored the ideas, concerns and expectations of the singularly animated Chris Monk.

A few of my friends saw the documentary and asked if all the student politicos were like this guy. We are not. Most CUCA members just want to whet their appetite for politics, make new and like-minded friends and be exposed to a range of different opinions.

A small handful are interested enough to volunteer to help out. They might want to help promote conservatism in Cambridge, or they might simply like the social aspect.

Naked ambition looks bad. Nobody wants to go to a drinks party and listen to someone talk about their schemes. It’s boring, it’s unsubtle and it’s ineffectual. Advancement in CUCA, and in the national party, is dependent upon being affable, presentable and having some semblance of ability. Menial tasks, unbridled eagerness and loudly expressed opinions don’t impress anybody.

The narrative structure of the Wonderland programme was quite strong, and provided a sharp contrast between the aspirant Chris Monk and the descendant Joe Cooke. At the beginning of the programme, Monk was an irritant and Cooke a dejected former Chairman with a difficult background.

After an hour, my sympathies were reversed. Monk proved to be somewhat insightful (“I see CUCA as a social activity”) and bowed out with the classic “focussing on studies” canard. Meanwhile, Cooke ended up being quite treacherous. Not content with having had his turn, he got himself into the papers with an exposé of anti-Semitic singing. Even the naïf Monk was able to see through this personal-damage-limitation chicanery. If Cooke abhorred the behaviour of his peers, why did he not challenge it on the spot?

Indeed, the seemingly cryptofascist shenanigans of his colleagues aren’t just a problem for their former chief. I’m sure that most people were watching the Olympics on the other side, but those who did tune in to watch “Young Bright and on the Right” probably took away a negative impression of Oxbridge. Apart from a few token punting shots and some scenes inside the Union, there was very little about Cambridge itself.

So far so good. Unfortunately, we will be tarred with the same brush as Oxford. The public consciousness will lump the two universities together and we will be tainted with all the unpleasantness of the dysfunctional O(U)CA. The directors knew what they were doing. They picked the most extreme examples of off-putting stereotypical undergrads.

I would like to believe that this is just a storm in a port glass, but by showcasing the worst of a tiny minority the documentary really risks cementing the dated image of public school privilege and social exclusivity that Oxbridge cannot seem to shake off.

Callum Wood was chairman of CUCA for Lent 2011.