Why the Malia Bouattia saga is just the tip of the iceberg.
Student politics in Britain today is broken and something needs to change.
Normally, student politics is hardly the kind of news to make it onto the front pages of the national press. So when the three letters ‘NUS’ started popping up everywhere in the media recently, something was clearly amiss.
After years of absurd incidents and statements, the National Union of Students has outdone itself by electing as President a young lady with some highly questionable views on (amongst other things) Jewish students and the Islamic State.
It’s heartening to see this story get the coverage it deserves. But if we focus exclusively upon Miss Bouattia, then we’re missing the wider point of this episode. The issue isn’t merely about her (odious though her views are.) Nor is it just the NUS. No, the problem is that student politics in Britain today is broken. It’s turned into an echo chamber, populated by a self-selecting group of far-left activists utterly divorced from reality. Politics should be about action; instead, these people are so fixated upon ideological purity that they reject any alternative viewpoints, no-platform any critics, and refuse any compromise.
This far-left agenda is not only unrepresentative, it’s creating an atmosphere in universities which is downright exclusionary. The most obvious manifestation of this has been the open anti-Semitism which has somehow swept the country. Jewish students and institutions are viewed with suspicion, subjected to regular hostility – and these people somehow feel that calling it ‘anti-Zionism’ somehow makes this acceptable. Are they all dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites? Not necessarily. But their monomaniacal obsession with the world’s only Jewish state means that it’s hardly surprising when Jewish students don’t feel safe.
Aggressively exclusionary anti-Israel rhetoric is, however, just one symptom of a wider malaise affecting the student left. Whereas students have historically had an illustrious history of trying to reduce prejudice and divisions within society, there has been a quite extraordinary upswing in certain groups utilising divisive language to entrench division in areas such as race or gender. Whether it’s the frankly risible concept of ‘cultural appropriation’, or white men being excluded from campaigns against racism and sexism, this is a regressive step by this vocal minority – damaging decades of work against prejudice.
The word ‘minority’ is of the utmost importance here. Most students simply don’t give a damn about the petty, exclusionary campaigns being pursued by this minority. In between work, play and a rarely-encountered thing called ‘sleep’, we don’t have the time to work ourselves into a rage over potentially upsetting statues of 19th century statesmen, or to worry over ‘micro-aggressions.’ That’s because the vast majority of people – whether male or female, white or black – have developed enough judgment to not be perpetually offended at everything. We do not spend our lives in the quixotic pursuit of some utopia in which every trace of prejudice and unfairness has been removed.
Such a utopia might be theoretically possible. But to accomplish it would require the end of free expression as we know it, and the imposition of a single way of thinking upon all students. That’s a trade-off which the far left seem happy to make, as is evidenced by their disdain for free speech and their propensity for no-platforming anybody from Nick Griffin to Peter Tatchell. Combining a strange mix of ultra-liberalism and Stalinist-esque intolerance, they will not rest until they have turned universities into their own little paradise, free of any dissent. Miss Bouattia is one such person – so too are many within the wider student union movement. And because the apathy of most of us has left the political space vacant, these extremists have taken it over.
It’s all very well to reply – as many do – that if people disagree, they have the right to express this dissent. But the atmosphere on campuses is such that many are simply too afraid to do so. The extremists are casting the debate in moral terms, and labelling those who disagree with them as being ‘bad’, simply for having a difference of opinion. The vitriol which has been thrown at people who’ve dared to stand up to the student ultra-left is frankly unsettling, and it makes it hard to voice dissent. As such, we end up in the farcical situation when the only two viable factions in NUS elections are the (very left wing) Labour Students, and the (even more left wing) Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
In many ways it’s rather sad. Such events are bringing a bad name upon student politics, upon the left, and indeed upon the NUS. Student unions are a vital part of a healthy democracy – they’re the ones who should be standing up for students, representing us across the table from the government, and working to accomplish concrete goals for the student body at large. The NUS could be an incredible force for change in this country. Yet instead it’s become a self-congratulatory morass, content merely to make a lot of noise whilst accomplishing very little.
Cambridge may well vote to disaffiliate from the NUS this year. Doing so would be a welcome sign that we are waking up to the divisive, hateful policies of the extremist vanguard within the student body. But it’s not enough. We need a fundamental transformation of student politics, to make it more representative and receptive to diverse opinions.
For too long, students have let a vocal minority dictate the tone of political discourse on campuses – it’s time that the rest of us stand up.