The Conservatives ought to have loved Joe Cooke. A Yorkshire lad who was entitled to free school meals, whose father had gone to prison when Joe was four and who had still managed to make it to Oxford through the sheer force of his own will. Whatever you believe about the virtues or otherwise of Conservative ideology, this is the type of achievement they love to trumpet.
And yet, as we saw on BBC2’s Young, Bright and on the Right, the Oxford University Conservative Association did not love Joe Cooke. On the subject of his background, Cooke (a former OUCA President) said: ‘I’d never ever tell anybody…I’d be laughed at. I got laughed at for having a Yorkshire accent, let alone the truth.’
His solution was to change his accent, to, in his own words, betray who he was ‘to fit in with their warped reality.’ That warped reality, and trying to fir in with it, was really the theme of a documentary which was at turns tragic and damning. Indeed, that warped reality was given an excellent summing up by CUCA’s Chris Monk – Cambridge’s contribution to the programme – when he told his parents: ‘Half the point of the Conservative Association is to pretend to be a member of the upper classes for an afternoon…it makes you feel like you’re really at Cambridge.’
Now, the behaviour of CUCA and OUCA will not be news to any Oxbridge student and it is generally dismissed as the madness of a few, even by Conservatives – though we should still be concerned if this reinforces stereotypes of all Oxbridge students. Besides access concerns, there has also been criticism of the programme for taking advantage of its subjects – ex-Union President Calum MacDonald has claimed that they were not honest about their purposes and it did at times look like they were exploiting a hopelessly naive Monk for soundbites.
But while most viewers will have been distracted by the Associations’ ridiculous behaviour which is old news to students, it also revealed something much worse about Oxbridge Conservatism and the beliefs of its members.
Indeed, there was a double tragedy here. Cooke particularly had to change who he was while Monk was left sourcing port and cheese in order to fit into a world in which they are doomed to be forever outside. Worse still, that world is a terrible place where school and dress matter more than beliefs or even personality. They may pretend it is tongue-in-cheek, but there is never any suggestion at CUCA or OUCA that Conservatism is for people who do not habitually wear dinner jackets. Even the more tongue-in-cheek of CUCA members seem to have been staring too long into the abyss.
The lengths to which Joe Cooke had to go in order to fit in demonstrate that, at Oxbridge at least, Bullingdon Toryism is alive and well. There was no discussion of policy because there never is at either association, only an emulation (and perhaps not even that) of a snobbish Tory caricature which seems to be what they think the ideal Conservative looks like, and that Monk thinks Cambridge is really like, such is the hold of that particular trope. They are, of course, wrong and we can only hope that they grow out of it before they get anywhere near even a scrap of real power.