The most liberal town in the UK?

5 November 2018

I live in the walls of my college. It’s a beautiful old room, and I’ve been very lucky: I even have windows on both sides, one onto First Court, one onto the street. First Court is a sandstone square of tranquillity, golden light twinkling on Latin mottos and a lawn mown at exceptionally regular intervals. On the little stretch of street revealed by my other window, you can see about three beggars, on most nights.

This situation is what made me pause for thought when I realised that the Castle area of Cambridge had been defined as the ‘most liberal’ in the country. Specifically, the ‘Hope for Hate’ campaign, which characterised the area in this way, ‘distinguishes between six different cultural attitudes, or “tribes”, ranging from ‘Confident Multicultural’ to ‘Active Enmity’, of which Cambridge has been judged to fit into the former category, given its ‘“celebratory” attitude towards ethnic diversity, low economic deprivation, and proximity to universities’ (Amy Batley in Varsity).

Immediately eye-catching is, of course, the assertion that ‘proximity to universities’, in an area which is rather dominated by its famous University colleges, earns points on the liberal tally. After all, if the UK suffered a fascist revolution, it is reasonably likely that Cambridge, as one of the two oldest and most renowned academic institutions in the country, would be preserved in some form: the mere presence of a university does not necessarily indicate a liberal paradise. Indeed, the weight of Cambridge’s history, its intimate, ‘elite’ community and its historical association with the upper classes certainly makes it appeal, on occasion, more to staunch traditionalists than progressive liberals. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that ‘low economic deprivation’ is seen as an essential factor of ‘confident multicultural[ism]’, carrying the unfortunate implication that if an area is poor, it must be a little bit racist.

It is this kind of implied thought that has shaped the rationalisations, of leavers and remainers alike, on the result of the Brexit referendum, the general idea being that poor voters, in direct competition with large numbers of immigrants for jobs, were most eager for greater control on immigration. In fact, ‘of the 270 districts that had a lower proportion than average of people born outside the UK in 2011, in 229 (85%) the majority vote was for Leave. Of the 78 districts with a higher than average population born outside the UK, only 44% voted Leave’. In other words, multicultural areas, including areas of economic deprivation, are more likely to show support for multiculturalism: poverty does not necessarily exacerbate racial tensions, but lack of exposure to different cultural groups certainly does. Cambridge is not in the position where it can pat itself on the back for its affluence alone.

If these criteria seem inadequate, what, then, does it mean to be the ‘most liberal’? The most tolerant? The most in favour of individual rights? The most eager for social justice, for social reform? The Oxford English Dictionary would support all these definitions, among others, but they do not, as history has borne out, necessarily support each other. We, as students, as part of this town, generally ‘tolerate’ the homeless community of Cambridge, whether or not we ever give money or time to its members, as we quickly learn is not always possible in the crowded town centre, where we may be solicited for money on multiple occasions. We’re even polite: ‘Sorry mate, I don’t have any change.’ For the most part, we are not the sort of people who design bus-stop benches at a tilt, to prevent rough sleepers resting there overnight. But actively pressing for social reform? Part of a system constantly striving to be better? That I don’t see so much.

I think one of the main problems with being a student in Cambridge is that we all, more or less, share the double perspective that characterises my college room. If you’re a guilty type, a deep thinker, or, let’s face it, someone with even a little bit of social consciousness, you realise you’re left with a choice: pretend that you don’t notice and risk sounding like a clueless apolitical rich kid, or, like me, bang on about it all the time and risk sounding like a hypocrite. ‘Champagne socialist and proud!’ I giggle nervously, popping my prosecco and sliding my copy of Why Marx was Right out of the way of the fizz.

We invent subtle, anxious ways to define ourselves separately from the traditional, ‘elite’ culture of the university. I and others have been known to state that while it’s acceptable to wear a gown in college, anyone wearing a gown on the street is obviously a prick. Whether you agree with me about that in particular or not, looking at the relation between the University and the town it sits in is only one way to gauge the supposed ‘liberality’ of Cambridge University as a representative of Cambridge. It’s hardly an original point to notice that an awkwardness around social class difference characterises relations within the University as well as outside it. For example, a couple of weeks in to my first term here last year, on visiting another college, someone expressed shock that I had been to a comprehensive, claiming that everyone she’d met so far was either from a private or a grammar school background. She wasn’t being nasty, or even stupid: she was expressing, albeit clumsily, something sincere about the system she had become a part of.

And, as the middle class child of middle class parents, complete with postgraduate degrees and enough money for regular foreign holidays, I’m hardly the poster child for social class equality in Cambridge. It’s worrying, therefore, that the collective consciousness of Cambridge is often so painfully unaware that we are, not exclusively but generally, clearly a national minority within a majority less privileged than ourselves; we’re able students, but we didn’t get here on ‘genius’ alone. Those who think being ‘liberal’ isn’t really about social class, but an outward-looking, open attitude to other races, ethnicities, sexualities, and identities, would do well to remember that to avoid being parochial, the perspectives of our community must in themselves be diverse. We are not going to achieve this kind of balance until the University mindset stops being quite so centred on the concerns of the upper and upper-middle class.

And yes: we have come far on some fronts, with the debate about racial diversity in the curriculum and student body reinvigorated by the ‘decolonise’ movement and the shocking recent revelations of the proportionally extremely low number of black students admitted into Oxbridge colleges. Similarly, I feel that gender inequalities in Cambridge, such as the culture of some drinking societies in regards to sexual assault, which came under such scrutiny last academic year through the Facebook platform ‘Grudgebridge’, are constantly being challenged by engaged and passionate students and staff alike. We may have a long way to go, but at least the journey has begun.

But class has become a dirty word. Perhaps the most famously entrenched but often unspoken aspect of British society, it both consciously and unconsciously shapes all of our thoughts, even those of our nice liberal family and nice liberal friends. I realised recently that, at my college, we are all in the habit of referring to The Grafton Centre, a shopping area where you might risk being out of sight of some aged sandstone for a couple of minutes, as if it were miles away. Doubtless this is part of the ‘tiny world’ phenomenon which characterises a lot of the colleges in central Cambridge, where the longest we ever really have to walk to reach the place we need is about twenty minutes, but the fact remains that The Grafton Centre is not miles away. It’s about a seven-minute walk from college, at the most. I think the reason that we don’t realise this is that we see it as another world, perhaps even an inferior one, as made clear by the boy who I once heard refer to it as an ‘industrial area’, and who obviously wouldn’t know industry if hit him round the head. But what do I know? I’m also from a small southern pleasure-city covered in tourists, just like Cambridge; I haven’t seen much of industry either…

But if we’re all part of the problem (sometimes unwillingly, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes through no fault of our own), we must also be part of the solution. We must continue to challenge smugness, complacency and the parochialism that accompanies it. Because there’s nothing wrong with coming from a posh school, or having wealthy parents, or the luxury of taking a ‘gap yah’. But there is something wrong with resting on the laurels of our own sainted liberalism when the system we are involved with is patently inequal. And if we can’t manage more than that, maybe just being ‘liberal’ isn’t enough anymore.