No City is an Island: Cambridge, Brexit and the Bubble-Myth

Olivia Sutherland 21 May 2019
Source: Pixabay

Whimsical conversations in the sun-drenched haven of garden parties, tweed-clad elderly gentlemen uttering twinkle-eyed witticisms over an evening port; the perfect English summer. The golden glow of nostalgia which enshrines discourse about our historic university can give the impression that Cambridge exists in an eternal neverland: cosy, independent and quirkily resistant to change.

Students of Cambridge know that this image is rather naïve. In an increasingly competitive academic milieu and job market, most of us spend more daylight hours glued to a library desk than cavorting outdoors with free-spirited abandon and a glass of Pimm’s, despite the national media’s regular attempts to suggest otherwise. Moreover, it is perhaps for the best that twinkly-eyed elderly gentleman are looking rather thin on the ground these days, with the average age of academic staff at forty-two in 2016.

Yet the cultural myth of Cambridge as an atemporal idyll subject to its own laws does persist within student society: from bops and bedders to the infamous fact that May Week happens in June, we are immersed in language and laws without application anywhere else. Supported by our historical separation, we’ve even invented a term for this insular status: the Cambridge bubble. Perhaps it is time to examine the way Cambridge culture is preserved artificially by the notion of long Cambridge-specific traditions, and re-situate this culture in a wider political context.

But does our collective, termly denial that anything worth talking about exists outside the parameters of Cambridge university have a real political impact? Though of course not a universal student experience, the swiftness with which bright, politically-engaged young students – one might say, the very people we would hope were readying themselves to make change in this volatile international political moment – can become oblivious to a news-cycle broader than student-politics at Cambridge, is much-remarked upon. In fact, under the guise of being a mere feature of the bubble, this ennui seems paralleled in the national mood. With a national debate about democracy and popular participation having rattled on since the 2016 referendum, the tedious, confounding and endlessly repetitive pantomime of government-delivered Brexit is ironically perhaps the most disengaging and wearying political spectacle imaginable for most UK citizens. We might pause to consider the fact that, however desperate the Tories’ agonising failure to deliver Brexit might look, the mind-numbing effect of constant stalemate over Brexit agreements serves the interests of precisely the small, elite group currently in power, subduing the anxiety and rage which found its demonstration in the Brexit debate, under a blanket of hopelessness and disenfranchisement.

Little wonder that over-worked students, passionate as they may be about certain intersections between Cambridge and global politics (such as university divestment from fossil fuels), turn their back on this uninspiring display. But the more we focus our gaze inward, the more we come to parallel that very same insular group at the top of national politics which have so wearied us. Our identities become founded on separatism: our own special terminology, our own special club, even our ‘relatable’ Cambridge experiences. We find more narrow ways to categorise ourselves all the time, be it with the heavy-handed gatekeeping of cultish society rituals or the subtler jokes which we use to distinguish ourselves from whatever kind of Cambridge student we do not wish to be associated with. But the notion of the Cambridge bubble helps us to naturalise this separatism, eliding over the sources of Cambridge cliques as often having class-based roots in the most prestigious public-school networks, and the future of these cliques in the graduate job market, as just part of what makes Cambridge, Cambridge. We are reminded of how arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg made clear in 2012, years before Brexit was an immediate possibility, that he was ‘in favour of nannies, not the nanny-state’. By associating his moneyed childhood in the elite and largely inaccessible experience of having a nanny, and his anti-Big-Government stance, Rees-Mogg makes the link between our formational experiences of insular privilege and a subsequent rejection of collectivism completely transparent. For without the intervention of a governing body to distribute both resources and justice, in an island without higher law, those with money and power hold on to them.

Cambridge voted to remain in the EU in 2016; the parochial attitude of an island-nation, which many Cambridge students are so indignant to find thrown up by the Brexit debate, nonetheless finds its parallel in an inward-looking discourse which positions Cambridge as an eternal historical exception to the rules. Because the Cambridge bubble isn’t a bubble at all: it’s a mirror. A distorted mirror, magnifying certain social groups beyond proportion and diminishing others until almost invisible, but a mirror to British society nonetheless.