A very conservative look at Conservative students
In its search for stereotypes, BBC2’s Young, Bright and on the Right seemed oblivious to how much politics has changed.
I do hope Alastair Campbell’s been okay. Back in June, the former New Labour spindoctor was busy telling all and sundry about how he felt ‘quite ill’ and ‘queasy’ during a night at the theatre.
He was in fact praising, rather than criticising, Laura Wade’s hit West End play, Posh, finding its thinly veiled depiction of the privileged entitlement of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club – the elite student club which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were notoriously members of – a terrifying indictment of contemporary Tories. Given his sensitive stomach in the face of well-to-do Conservatives, watching BBC2’s Young, Bright and on the Right might have left him ‘talking to God on the big white telephone’ for the rest of the night.
Young, Bright and on the Right was straight out of the Ronseal school of documentary-making: in depicting young Conservative students at Oxbridge, it claimed to do exactly what it says on the tin, and, like Laura Wade’s play, seemed calculated to make you feel like you’d accidentally swallowed a tub of the famous wood stain. These were young Conservatives all right, with the studied mannerisms and dress code ripped from the pages of Brideshead Revisited, posters of Maggie Thatcher on their walls, and all of them obsessed with proving how ‘sound’ they were at their dining events. As a portrait, it wasn’t so much warts’n’all as port’n’cheese.
Except that – gasp – these weren’t really supposed to be Tories at all! They weren’t from Eton, not even its lesser-known Scottish equivalent, Fettes, like Campbell’s old boss. They didn’t come from money, titles or land. These were not slick and charming Tory toffs, but hard-working and socially awkward students from difficult backgrounds who had fought their way into the elitist and socially homogeneous dreaming spires of Oxbridge. One of them was from Yorkshire. What were they thinking of?
Well, William Hague, possibly, or maybe Harry Enfield’s famous Tory Boy character, based on William Hague. Or the state-schooled libertarian rebel David Davis. Maybe even John Major. Come to think of it, the Tories have historically been full of people outside of the aristocracy. Lots of working-class people have voted for them, too. Which isn’t particularly a defence of the Conservative Party but is the sort of detail you may want to consider or mention when putting together a documentary on the topic.
Yet, of course, Young, Bright and on the Right wasn’t really interested in asking probing questions about what Conservatism means in the twenty-first century, whether the rise of Cameron and Johnson et al is really a return to the status quo or actually represents – as the increasingly fractious relationship between leadership and party base indicates – a profound shift in what it means to be a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party at a time when the presiding government doesn’t seem overly fussed by the Unionist bit and seems quite keen to legalise gay marriage.
For those understandably not very interested in the workings of the Conservative Party, there are at least important questions about why bright and free-thinking young students felt the best route open to them for getting on was the one most openly hostile to them. Maybe there were searching questions about the state of mainstream student politics, about a meek National Union of Students that seems more interested in policing its members’ lifestyles through welfare and awareness-raising campaigns rather than making principled stances against tuition fees and so on.
Indeed, rather than confront some of these complex and difficult questions around social progress and values in an fast-changing modern world, Young, Bright and on the Right stuck to exploring what young Tories are all about. It was, in essence, a very conservative look at conservatives.
So, yes, in its core characters of the weedily intense Chris and chippy dandy Joe we were reminded that Conservative student politics tends to attract the eccentric outsider who likes to talk tough and tries too hard to be accepted. We saw that obnoxious posh kids who walk around like they own the place (because they actually do own the place) can find ever newer ways of being obnoxious, here being caught in a scandal where they were singing nasty anti-Semitic chants while drunk. Student politics is vicious and back-biting because the stakes are so small but it offers a route (however narrow) into big party-political machines. Above all, it showed that people who really want to do politics for a living, as opposed to the means by which you effect some change in the world (even if to hold back the forces of change), are a really, really odd bunch.
The only indication in Young, Bright and on the Right that student life at Oxbridge has changed at all since about 1900 was that the editor of the student paper (who was more interested in finding a mortarboard for a photo shoot with a ‘fully nude gay male porn star’ than the latest news of internicine Tory bickering) seemed to come straight out of meeja satire Nathan Barley. Then again, the show had its own money shot, when it got Joe to break down crying on camera, talking about how hard it is having posh people sneer at his accent and how he couldn’t tell his friends about his father, who had served time in prison (without realising, perhaps, that imprisoned relatives is very upper class). He quits the Tories afterwards. ‘Tories don’t cry’, I think was the message.
They were actually very sweet and endearing, Joe and Chris, but sadly there wasn’t much evidence that they were bright. That student journalist probably has more luck getting on in the contemporary Tories than they do. There are undoubtedly others who can be classed as young, bright and on the right, and they are equally interesting and infuriating to argue ideas and politics with. It was probably wise of them to stay away, because they deserved a better showcase than this.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.