Diagnosis I: An Introduction to Cambridge

Jake Keisner 25 January 2019

In this new weekly series, Cambridge students offer their perspectives on the problems afflicting the university’s student politics. The series will cover a number of topics and attempt to identify the main causes of underwhelming and ineffective discourse within political institutions, apolitical groups, and the wider university. The authors will also attempt to propose some solutions in order to move the debate in a more productive direction. In the first instalment, a fresher provides their perspective on Cambridge’s student politics and comments on the malaise that has affected political engagement in the wider university.

When my family asked me over the holiday how my experience of Michaelmas Term in Cambridge had been, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the political atmosphere. I rather expect that they were anticipating a reply lamenting or celebrating the radical politics I had discovered, the late-night conversations on ideology, the vigorous arguments about liberation politics, the regular analyses of the events in Westminster.

These would all have been rational expectations after all, Cambridge is supposedly the home of the best and the brightest. Those that follow the national media or have had a level of interaction with Cambridge would, given the academic and intellectual ability of the students, expect the University to have a lively political landscape. My family had even more reason to suspect my experiences over first term would have involved a healthy, or unhealthy, amount of politics because I have always been a ‘political’ person and I am studying history, a course that often touches upon topics that are politically charged. It was much to their disappointment to hear that I had not found Cambridge to be a very political place. What follows from here is a fresher’s perspective of three main spheres of Cambridge politics, and how each of them has failed to be anything other than inadequate.

The first sphere to consider it that of the wider University. As already mentioned to you, I have found the whole place to lacking a spirit of vitality. Of course, those heavily involved in activism will have a very different experience and are not meant to be included in this category, but it seems that the majority of students at the university are simply too busy with work to have time to spend on such frivolities. It is undoubtedly harder to engage in a long evening of political debate when there is an essay due yesterday. Furthermore, as the statistics on parliamentarians and former PMs shows, Oxford does seem to just attract the “political” type a lot more, perhaps due to their historic, though in my mind unfounded, reputation for the humanities, the PPE degree, and a self-selection bias which draws a certain type of irritating hack to The Other Place. It is also worth considering that maybe Cambridge students aren’t so odd after all and just want to get on with their lives without discussing Gramsci, Burke or the likelihood of a US-China trade war every day, especially given that some of them may be writing an essay on it shortly in any case. This feeling of political detachment, perhaps in some way a product of the Cambridge bubble, may be negative or positive, depending on your level of tolerance for political discussion, but it certainly does exist. The image of the Cambridge student in an armchair passionately debating the issues of the day bears little resemblance to the reality of listing drinking society boys in the Cindies smoking area. Even scandals and crises that have rocked the Cambridge scene à la Grudgebridge seem to fizzle after a while, and the appetite for serious topics is even weaker.

Contrasting with this university-wide quiet liberal apathy is the sphere of student activism. ‘Radical’ in nature, this sphere is exemplified by movements such as Zero Carbon and Disarm, Divest, Decolonise (although I’m not entirely sure about the order in which they plan to implement these). Causes such as these are arguably admirable, though one has to consider whether their strategies have paid off. Only four colleges have claimed to have divested from fossil fuels, with only a third of Christ’s students signing a petition for full divestment, and the university has been far from acquiescent to their demands. However, this sphere of activism, for all its faults and the frustration it causes to the more quietly conservative at this university, is a model of vitality and enthusiasm, and the intention to tackle issues of ecological disaster, access, and racism is commendable and certainly engages a portion of the student-body.

The same cannot be said for the party-political sphere, in particular the Cambridge University Labour Club and the Cambridge University Conservative Association. CULC, whose alumni include the illustrious Dianne Abbot, Kim Philby and Andy Burnham, has so far been something of a non-entity in my experience. Their irrelevance and lack of popularity is best demonstrated by the open applications for nine college reps according to their website. It is perhaps fitting that, just like their leader’s position on Brexit, no one is sure if CULC actually exists. CUCA, on the other hand, certainly does exist, though they are deservedly known far more for their faults than their positive attributes. Regrettably, for conservative students in Cambridge, CUCA is less a serious political organization and more a serious stain on the legacy of Disraeli. This is unfortunate for a society that can claim such urbane gentlemen as Kenneth Clarke as alumni. Whilst it is distressing to see one of the nurseries of our current party of government as such a childish talking-shop-cum-drinking-society, I am confident that it does not represent the type of conservatism that I hope lies in the hearts of my fellow students. Perhaps the current state of affairs on a national level will rouse some students to turn these organisations into something more than benign non-entities but my experience so far has given me little hope. The Liberal Association has the honour of being an organisation that I have found to be full of oddly normal people with a purpose other than climbing a political ladder. This may be because, although they are formally affiliated with the Liberal Democrats, their party ladder can only take them as high as Vince Cable’s chances of being PM.

Student politics at Cambridge in these three spheres of general, activist, and party thus seem at times laudable, more often laughable, and, most frequently, apathy-inducing. One can only hope, my editor in particular, that this coming series of pieces can point things in the right direction. Maybe this time next year a fresher’s perspective piece will have something more positive to say. One can only hope.