In defence of Cambridge University Conservative Association
From the Chairman
Back when I was still an optimistic, fresh, naïve teenager – before the infamous bubble had worked its magic – I attended a history open day at Cambridge.
And, unfortunately, I was astonished by the extent to which the public school dominance of the university, which I’d been told about at school, was actually true. After exchanging the usual pleasantries with fellow attendees, the same question kept coming up; ‘Which school are you at?’ The ‘which’, rather than ‘what’, implied that there was a small selection of correct answers.
When I proffered the answer that it was a mediocre grammar school in Birmingham that they’d probably never heard of, it was a bit disconcerting when I got answers like ‘oh okay, is that like near Manchester or something?’ As an introduction to Cambridge, it was a daunting one. It was the first thing I told my Dad when he picked me up, and my friends at school.
By the time I had gone from A-Levels to results day to matriculation and the general disaster that was my freshers week, I was daunted by CUCA and the prospect of – yet again – explaining that some time ago the English crown had extended its reach beyond Watford Gap, and that some people didn’t actually pay for their education. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. At CUCA there was none of this.
We speculated a little about the future of the Conservative Party, and – realising that politics was unspeakably dull for 8 in the evening – we talked about the kinds of stuff that (I think) everyone else talks about. Colleges; what home’s like; how freshers had been; how bewildered and lost we were; and, of course, port (only joking).
This is the experience I have attempted to cultivate as Vice-Chairman last term, and as Chairman this Lent. CUCA has been for me – and should be for everyone – a relaxed, welcoming, open environment where anyone can come along and will almost certainly meet some like-minded individuals. Yes, we’re often idiots. Yes, we care about things that ceased to be controversial in the mid-20th Century like dress codes, life peerages, and the art of the perfect seating plan. But in my experience, almost everyone I’ve ever met at CUCA has been charming, interesting, pleasant, and fundamentally decent.
This is why I as Chairman was so shocked by last week’s events, and outraged that it occurred – whether it was directly to do with us or not. I felt that the line, “there is no room for people like this in our Association” summed it up perfectly – there isn’t, and I hope there never will be.
There have been accusations that CUCA ‘threw the individual under the bus.’ Perhaps we did, but he was dismissed from the Association long before we were approached for comment. We acted internally to ensure that the kind of person anyone who would be found at CUCA events would continue to conform to the characteristics described above. I didn’t want to be a member of the same Association as him, and it’s constitutionally tricky for a Chairman to resign, so he had to.
Aside from the shock of what actually happened, I was angered by the jeopardy that CUCA has been put in. I fully appreciate the sentiment that came in the response to our open letter to The Tab, that the Tories who don’t know what real life is like only care about themselves, and not the homeless man. It is, however, simply untrue. Central to the heightened emotions that day, and the chaos on the committee Whatsapp, was a genuine sadness that somebody so vulnerable had been abused in such a way.
I do not know a single other member who would even think about behaving like this, because most members are ordinary, perhaps a little eccentric, but fundamentally decent human beings. I was angry because the fantastic speakers’ events that we’ve lined up (like dessert with Alan Mak next week), the great social events like Cava & Chocolate and Port & Cheese, were now tainted by association.
I am determined, however, not to let one rotten apple spoil the barrel. These events, which we have postponed out of a sense of propriety, will nonetheless go on, because I am convinced that CUCA has something positive and healthy to offer the fabric of the university. Many may not like us, or might not consider attending our events. But they fill a niche which I believe nobody else does; a refusal to take itself seriously, to be as pretentious (peut-être un peu!) or unpretentious, political or unpolitical, indulgent or austere as one likes, and to still find a home. That is what CUCA will continue to be while I am Chairman.
If I might think self-indulgently for a moment, I have come to the view that my genuine outrage, as well as that of many others, was informed fundamentally by the shocking realisation of how vulnerable and marginalised many who live among us are. Though we might not think about it, we are all burning money. When I sit in Café Nero with a coffee and a muffin, drawing minimum utility for myself but burning the kind of money that would have changed the day of a homeless person, am I too distant from the white-tie-clad outrage that occurred last week?
We could all do more, and we all should. But I fear that the combustion of the bank note was symbolic of a wider, embarrassingly near problem. Not a problem with capitalism – no system has been invented which has rid the individual of the need to own and consume – but a problem of perspective. I mentioned our bubble at the beginning of the article, and it is one which totally excludes those homeless who watch as we waste money every day. The difference, of course, is the extraordinarily malicious intent of the actual burning, but I don’t think the impact is as far removed as we’d like to think. Why is my morning coffee more important than a square meal for a homeless man? It isn’t, and that’s a troubling thought.
The CUCA that I have come to love over the last three years is one which will bounce back from this week, but I think it is important to make one very clear point in order to do so. Whether you’re excited or shocked by the idea that the actions of an individual last week are what CUCA is about – it isn’t. The CUCA that I have spent the majority of my degree working for is one which respects others, which knows how to enjoy itself, and knows how to put on events which are as enjoyable as they are harmless.
Long may it remain.