How the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy turned into press censorship

In the week that the Leveson Report (recommending statutory – albeit arms-length – regulation of the press) was published, I’ve written in Cherwell about the Leeds Student Union’s attempt to muzzle its student paper, the Leeds Student. The NUS ‘No Platform’ policy is now having a chilling effect on the freedom of the student press. Quick shout out to my cousin Joe (pictured) who is Sports Editor on the LS; it is through him I first heard about this disconcerting development. 

Update: apparently the NUS motion – which was put to a referendum – has been resoundingly voted down: 1448 against vs. 399 for. Hurrah!

Just occasionally it’s important to look at the world outside this lovely little bubble in Oxfordshire. Bear with me for 5 minutes: as students – not as the apathetic apprentices to the Establishment we are often caricatured as – we should all be getting very upset about this week’s Leeds Student Union motion to censor their student press, specifically the excellent Leeds Student newspaper.

Most people will be familiar with the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy. If not, quickly swot up. Since its institution in the 90s No Platform has been continuously reinterpreted to encroach on more and more areas of student life. The status of student newspapers, the vast majority of which (including the Oxford Student, though not Cherwell) are supported by their student unions, has always been ambiguous but that old hang up students have about ‘free speech’ has for many years kept the student press editorially independent. Until now. After the Leeds Student published an interview with BNP leader Nick Griffin the student union has brought forward a motion to formally extend No Platform to the student press, preventing the LS from publishing stories about Griffin, or George Galloway, presumably unless the tone is suitably derogatory.

Image: Joe Bookbinder

The interview is very short, and generally unremarkable. Towards the end Griffin says some pretty unpleasant things about gay people. After the transcript there is a staunch defence of publishing the article. ‘Nick Griffin is an elected MEP, and three years ago in Leeds, a BNP candidate was also elected to the European Parliament. Whilst the views of this party may be unsavoury to say the least, whether we like it or not, they have sufficient local support to return elected members into political office.’ I happen to agree with that; in my view the best way to deal with extremists is not to marginalise them, but to let them undo themselves under the full glare of the public eye. Does anyone seriously believe that Griffin’s appearance of Question Time in 2009 had anything but a crushing effect on the BNP? Since then the party has performed absymally at local and national elections, it has suffered a leadership crisis and lost an MEP.

But you don’t have to agree with me to detest the Leeds Union motion. Because the real question is who decides? It seems that plenty of Leeds students disagreed with the Griffin interview – that’s not surprising – but, seemingly lacking any sense of irony, by seeking to infringe on the editorial independence of the LS the student union has itself embraced Griffin’s fascistic nonsense. As part of Cherwell’s editorial team I suppose I should be very excited by the student union’s attempt to castrate its newspaper. Embarrassingly, the LS has been winning more national awards than Cherwell in recent years. We would love to see a competitor emasculated by censorship.

Except not really, because it sets a dodgy precedent for other student unions around the country to fiddle with their own papers. Incidentally the Oxford Student published an interview with Griffin earlier this year and, as far as I know, they didn’t suffer any repercussions. The problem comes when assumptions lose their potency. Pre-Leveson, that assumption with regards to the press – national, regional and student – had always been that free speech is sacred. And though the student rags are small beer next to the national publications, we should be in no doubt that the culture change Leveson has provoked will empower the NUS at the expense of the student press in the same way that it will empower government at the expense of the nationals.

Should Leeds Student Union approve next week’s motion, I would suggest their obvious course of action would be to stuff ’em and go independent. It works for Cherwell and Varsity, in Cambridge. Whether it’s financially viable is a question beyond my pay grade, but even if going independent involved significant downsizing the LS should ask itself: who would want to read a paper that patronises its readership by censoring offensive content?

And whilst I’m loath to make this obvious disclaimer, sadly I feel compelled to lest I be labelled a BNP-sympathiser by some rabid demonstrator. So listen: I don’t like fascists either. I find their ideology repugnant and wholly illogical. So confident am I in that assertion that I’m going to trust my peers to draw that conclusion for themselves. This very much echos the Leeds Student’s defence of the article: ‘We are not here to police what students read; we know that students are intelligent enough to make up their own minds.’ Quite right. But what if they aren’t? Hell, the price you pay for a free society is that there might occasionally be some uglies knocking about. Get over it.

A final thought; it is no doubt the leftish constituent of the NUS that is pushing No Platform down our throats. How tragic it is, given the debt free societies owe to the progressive Left, that a movement with such a noble history should now turn its energies to stifling the printed word. How hollow and insecure the Left must be for it to shy away from the debates it once dominated. Perhaps the Left should stop doing Nick Griffin’s job for him.

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Should High Table be abolished?

Earlier this month two students at Somerville College, Oxford, proposed a JCR motion to ban High Table – that epitome of the Oxbridge scene – which affords its guests a special status not generally offered to students themselves. The motion I understand was heavily defeated; in any case a JCR motion of course has no binding power on the college itself. The symbolism is what matters. One of those students, Sarika Sharma, makes the case for abolition in this Cherwell debate, reproduced here. I oppose. 

Sarika Sharma

At a JCR meeting at Somerville College, Olivia Arigho-Stiles and I proposed a motion for the abolition of High Table. While it was strongly rejected for mostly sentimental reasons, our case still stands. Many Somerville students actively voted in support of High Table, believing that it embodies respect for senior members of the college and a celebration of academic success. But this argument fails to take into account the damaging side-effects of this tradition.

In practice High Table elevates the senior members of a college above normal diners, in the spirit of the old feudal order. Society today broadly embraces the idea of egalitarianism, in that all human life is inherently of equal value, whatever class or creed. The High Table system is simply not appropriate for this day and age.

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The exact set-up is different in each individual college: some, such as Brasenose, emphasise the division more strongly by providing better quality food and cutlery to those sitting at High Table. Other colleges like Somerville have a more informal atmosphere in hall: gowns are not worn, and the food is the same quality everywhere. Despite this, the literal elevation of High Table creates fundamental distinctions between diners, which is why I proposed the motion.

There is no doubting that the nature of academic institutions is hierarchical, but to have this asserted in a supposedly communal place of eating makes little sense. Where you ought to eat is irrelevant to your place in the hierarchy of academia, and hence high table is a wholly unnecessary act of veneration.

Respecting senior members of the college and celebrating academic achievement must find other, less offensive outlets, which do not place one group beneath another. To abolish High Table would be a simple change and is hardly a radical idea, but it would nonetheless show a strong commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and other egalitarian values between those who are eating in the college community.

Anachronism is inescapable at Oxford, and while a bit of pomp seems like nice, harmless fun, it also serves to remind us of our university’s socially elitist past.

Oxford needs and wants to improve access to students coming from diverse and under-privileged backgrounds, and this involves thinking seriously about the image it projects to the wider world.

You may be so accustomed to the Oxford bubble, its culture and its traditions, that you would not sense the way in which High Table is likely to be understood by someone from outside our university culture. Guests tend to express either awe or discomfort as they look up to High Table. It gives off a sense of superiority that is very antiquated to the point of being surreal.

Tom Beardsworth

Ok, High Table is hierarchal and old-fashioned. And yes, it’s very pleasant to be a guest at High Table and, naturally, the exclusivity of the whole affair is slightly peeving to those who aren’t invited to join it. But once you understand that the only objection of the Somerville students who proposed the JCR motion is ‘exclusivity’, their case begins to fall apart.

Unless you’re in cahoots with the anarcho-communists, you’re not going to object to exclusivity per se. Most of us are inclined to object to any society or institution that excludes people based on race or gender (though the membership policy of the Black Police Officers Association might make you think twice on that one). But few people take issue with groups that discriminate on the basis of some form of merit. The rugby team will pick the best rugby players (alas at Brasenose, I am not among them); socially, we all court friend- ships with some people, at the exclusion of others, because we find them funny, attractive and caring. And higher education of course remains ruthlessly meritocratic, as the top universities admit only those who have jumped over the requisite intellectual hurdles.

Similarly, High Table exists to confer special privilege and status on those who in college’s judgement deserve it. No doubt that judgement may at times be dodgy at best: that the late Eric Hobsbawn, the Marxist historian and Stalin apologist, held that honour at a series of Oxbridge colleges over his long life smacks me as pretty offensive. Nor would it surprise me to learn that a fair number of High Table guests are there by virtue of being mates with the Principal – just like the pre-debate dinner at the Oxford Union is packed out with the President’s cronies dining on your dollar. To suggest that not everyone at High Table deserves to be there does not stretch the bounds of credulity. The selection process, to the extent that there is one at all, is undoubtedly rigged in favour of the elderly, the decrepit, the religious and the wealthy. But that does not mean to say that the institution of High Table is inherently odious. If I may be permitted to throw out a couple of platitudes: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; mend it, don’t end it.

You may not think that the current crop of suits who enjoy High Table are particularly deserving, but in that case we should change the rules about who is entitled to dine there, rather than abolishing the practice altogether. If High Table is an anachronistic injustice, then so is Oxford and indeed, most of human society. The Somerville motion was resoundingly crushed by their eminently sensible JCR for the obvious reason that there is such a thing as achievement. Only the envious and miserable would deprive colleges of the right to laud achievement by serving something a bit fancy for dinner.

Cherwell Interview with Michael Crick

Oxford is full of over-achievers. Everyone knows one, the person who will not rest until they’ve ascended the top societies; the suit who walks around town with the air of the Cabinet Minister they will one day become.

Michael Crick, previously Political Editor of Newsnight, and now Channel 4’s Chief Political Correspondent, was of this sort. He was an absolutely massive hack, editing Cherwell, chairing the Democratic Labour Club and becoming President of the Oxford Union – to which he returned last Thursday to participate in the Media and Politics debate. He’s a little embarrassed about it now – “It was awful. It was office accumulation for the sake of it” – but not at all remorseful. And why should he be? For it helped launch a glittering career in political journalism.

After Oxford Crick joined ITN, helping to launch Channel 4’s news team in 1982, and then working as its Washington correspondent, winning an RTS award in 1988 for his coverage of the Bush-Dukasis Presidential Election. From there he swapped to the BBC, first with its flagship investigative programme Panorama and then with Newsnight, becoming its political editor in 2007. But last year he hopped back to 4; he is now the Chief Political Correspondent of the network he joined as a lowly trainee three decades ago. He is famous for the political ambush, the prickly question and the chase. His greatest hits are when he does all three. When Iain Duncan Smith faced a leadership crisis, he delivered a speech at Party Conference famous for the line “The quiet man is here to stay”. Ironically he refused to take questions after the speech. Crick followed him to the next event, from which, as Duncan Smith left, he yelled: “Aren’t you taking this quiet man thing a bit far?” It is in no small part thanks to Crick that we have political satire like The Thick of It.

The job of political correspondents is to follow the day-to-day dramas that typify public life, and to analyse the characters of their subjects. Extraordinarily however, given the enormous pressure they exercise on the political class, what is often overlooked is the character of the journalists themselves.

Crick exudes the same characteristics in person that he gives out on screen. He is sharp, boisterous and funny. Opening his speech at the Union, he pivoted around the despatch box to address the President, John Lee, to deliver a phoney tribute that concluded with a description of the relationship between the Union President and Standing Committee as akin to that between a “villain and his sheep”. He is totally absent of any deference to the Establishment, for the simple reason that he had already outgrown it by the age of 22. But he’s very different from Jeremy Paxman, to whom this description could also be attributed, because he doesn’t take himself all that seriously. He is entirely prepared to accost politicians in the street, or chase them down corridors at party conferences, to demand an answer to the question of when exactly they stopped beating their wives.

The reason Crick totally lacks humility with politicians is because he knows the game so intimately from his Union days. Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister, was a contemporary – beating him to the Union Presidency on Crick’s first attempt. He learnt from that, and won next time around. “The best elections” he tells me, “were when you frightened off the opposition so there wasn’t any, and there were a few of those.” This sound very much to be the school of Robert Mugabe electioneering, but then again it is the Union. During his campaign Cherwell “gave me a two page spread [fully one third of the entire paper in those days] – it was basically a manifesto for my candidacy.” Given the opprobrium regularly poured by the student press on the Union nowadays, I find this hilarious. But just as the country at large treated politicians with greater reverence in those days, so the Union was seen then as more of a serious focal point of student life.

And Crick has had no small role in smashing that wholly undeserved reverence. He clearly loves the job, applying the same skills he acquired as a student hack to making politicians squeal in front of camera. What makes a good hack, I ask? “It’s about getting people to do things when you don’t actually have much power, just the power of ambition” is the straightforward reply. The same applies to journalism. After the Leveson Inquiry the media industry is currently on its knees, but the importance of holding power to account has never been more important.

Predictably perhaps, Crick’s familiarity with politicians has made him totally immune to their charms and suspicious of ideology. He left university firmly in the Labour camp, though “to the right of 1980s Labour”, a natural stance for a grammar school and Oxbridge lad of that generation to take. This soon changed. “You have an opinion-ectomy when you go into broadcast journalism” he says very matter-of-factly, though print journalism is of course an entirely different kettle of fish. At Oxford he had “always intended journalism to be the means into politics”, but when the opportunity to stand in a by-election in a safe Labour seat presented itself, he turned it down and has “felt liberated” ever since.

More than that though: thirty years of close association with Westminster life has hollowed out the politics in him. As a leading political observer he is constantly asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, but in doing so he has unlearnt and rejected the ‘ought’. It’s dispiriting to hear him say, both because of what it tells you about the cynicism of Parliament by those closest to it and the implications of that: that we’re going to continue to see dull humanoids occupy Parliament. So apathetic is Crick that he “[doesn’t] vote at all, partly because of the job I do but partly I don’t know what I think any more. The only view I have now is that I’d bring back capital punishment, but only for people who drop chewing gum on pavements.”

What words of wisdom does he have for those who want to follow him into media career? “Build alliances” is his answer, “stay in touch with people you meet at Oxford.” The implication I take from this is that journalism is nepotistic – if you look at how many journalists had parents or close family in the profession then you’ll understand how true this remains. Crick however claims never to have obtained a job through contacts, but as the industry contracts and graduate schemes become scarce, they will be increasingly important. “Being a journalist employs a narrow range of skills” is his last piece of advice, so it’s vital “to master those skills” and develop a specialism in the area you want to cover.

That powerful people go to great lengths to avoid Crick is a testament not only to how well he does the job, but to how much a spirited and informed democracy relies on quality, investigative journalism. As Newsnight, Crick’s old haunt, has been thrown into crisis in recent weeks, that point should be made with all the more force. Whilst I can imagine despising the nakedly ambitious Crick as a student, the grown-up version is almost impossible not to warm to. In that sense the message for today’s generation of hacks is far from bleak.

Book Review: ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ by Richard Aldous

The book has been out a few years now, but I read it fairly leisurely over the summer and thought it would lend itself to a novice-like review. I’m keen to get a knack for book reviewing but this is my first ever proper attempt.Image

‘It is surprising that there has been no earlier attempt to write a book on their relationship’, opens Richard Aldous in his biographical account of Gladstone and Disraeli, the Liberal and Conservatives giants who carved up a fat chunk of the nineteenth century between them. He’s totally correct. Westminster politics is nothing if it isn’t bitterly antagonistic. Aldous tells a story about the two men that makes the Blair-Brown rivalry seem like a childish fall-out in the sandpit.

The Lion and the Unicorn is more historical drama than political biography. It stresses, above all, their mutual loathing. Later in life Disraeli would call Gladstone the ‘A.V. [Arch Villain]’, Gladstone affectionately termed Disraeli the ‘Grand Corrupter’. They shared all of the characteristics that made them adversaries, and none that made them allies: a celebrity status, an eloquence rivalled only by the other and an attitude to principles coined best by Groucho Marx – ‘if you don’t like them, I have others!’

Aldous maintains a vivid and energetic narrative style. Each passage, 3 to 4 pages each, is episodic and the passages together are loosely chronological. It’s a style that works with the tone, pace and attention-grabbing situ-dramas that unfold from page to page (this can get irritating, but only if the book is read in one or two sittings without interlude). Even a nineteenth-century novice will have their imagination caught by Aldous’ powerful and witty account. The message of the book is imprinted firmly on the reader’s consciousness: politics is personal, and ugly, and thrilling.

This is not at the expense of scholarship however. It is difficult, though not impossible, to find assertions not adequately substantiated. Aldous has immersed himself in diaries, speeches and contemporary journals. Famously Disraeli was an accomplished novelist; the apocryphal line ‘When I want to read a good book, I write one’ is often attributed to him. It turns out that Gladstone, dismissive of Disraeli’s literary ‘dalliances’ had read every one of his works. “The first quarter clever, the rest trash” is how Gladstone judged Vivian Grey, Disraeli’s first novel. Yet it didn’t stop him reading the others.

Occasionally one feels that Aldous has not scratched far below the service. Concluding a chapter on Disraeli’s first yearin Parliament, he writes scathingly: ‘Disraeli had lived his whole life under the influence of [Lord] Byron. Now…he was dismissed by society as a sensationalist without either temperament or prospects. He was, at best, an amusement, or, at worst, an ostentatious Jewish upstart’. This rough and ready torpedoing of Disraeli’s nascent political character is probably unfair; Aldous’ characterisation seems just a little too close to that of the eponymous hero in Vivian Grey. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor probably better suited to Disraeli’s generation than his own, had always been derided as similarly louche – until he became the country’s favourite Tory.

To the extent that the two have a popular reputation today, it is Disraeli as the eccentric and Gladstone as the statesman. By delving into the personal Aldous turns that on its head completely. He spends a lot of time – too much, you think at first, until you to realise the full extent and persistence of the problem – talking about Gladstone’s sex life. His diaries recount “vigorous” masturbation, “which returns upon me again & again like a flood”. Later he became infatuated with prostitutes, visiting ’80 to 90’ of them between 1849 and 1852 under the guise of ‘rescue work’. Without any bite of his own, Aldous presented Gladstone as a rank hypocrite, preaching stern Christian virtue by day and prowling Soho by night.

Disraeli by contrast, though famed in his youth for affairs with older women, had found true love. The reader takes great pleasure in their relationship. After the first reading of the 1867 Reform Bill, Disraeli had routed Gladstone in the Commons debate. Already late in the evening, he declined the deluge of invitations from Tory grandees in favour of returning home to Mary Ann, the widow he’d married three decades previously. By now over 70, she waited up into the early hours for ‘Dizzy’ with a bottle of champagne and a Fortnum and Mason’s pie. “Well my dear” Disraeli remarked, “you are more like a mistress than a wife”.  Aldous is good for those anecdotal nuggets. They embellish his tale, rooting political history’s great happenings in genuine humanity.

Aldous is not obviously sympathetic toward to the one or the other, but in this work I noticed that Gladstone was flattered by one big omission: his 1862 Newcastle speech for instance, in which the then-Liberal Chancellor endorsed the Confederate States of America.

The book has much to recommend it, if you’re the right reader. To those interested in the art of politics, be aware: it is more entertaining than instructive. To those looking for another angle on Victorian Britain, it’s probably best to head elsewhere – Aldous either dispenses with the relevant details or tries to interpret too much through Gladstone and Disraeli’s battles. With those qualifications any student and advocate of Conservatism will have a thoroughly pleasant weekend leafing through The Lion and the Unicorn; no comparable study currently on the market is so crackling with political drama.

Is London leaving the country behind?

This is a piece I wrote for Isis, the termly glossy published by OSPL – the same student-run company that owns Cherwell. It didn’t make the final cut, and I can see why. The North-South divide makes me think a lot, but I found it difficult to organise those thoughts around a distinct theme, and to make it fit with the material I was obliged to use – namely the interview with John Micklethwait, Editor of The Economist. I spent some considerable time on it however; so the final result is a good piece, an interesting one, but nothing spectacular.

‘All roads lead to London’ is not yet a quotation from Boris Johnson, a Classical Scholar, but it may as well be.

Few cities can claim to be global centres of finance, business, art, politics and media. Despite intense competition from BRIC economies, London remains a leading global city – and its lead is growing. The city’s advantages – its language, timezone, legal system, and diverse cultural life – have propelled it to becoming the “capital of the world” suggests Christopher Meyer, a former British diplomat. Deals involving euros or dollars are made as often in the British capital as in Frankfurt or New York.

“Every country in the world would kill to have a London,” says John Micklethwait, Editor of The Economist. He is surely right. Even taking into account recent dollops of public investment – CrossRail and the Olympic Games most recently – London is a national cash cow, contributing more in taxation to to national tax revenue than it withdraws. Oxford Economics estimates that the annual subsidy from London to the rest of the UK is £15-20 billion. Recognising this, the London Mayor is clamouring for greater fiscal autonomy:  according to the LSE’s Tony Travers, Johnson is, Salmond-style, attempting “devo-max for the capital”.

As things stand, London is institutionally embedded in the rest of the country, despite sharing ever less in common with it. Parliament and Whitehall have facilitated Scottish devolution, but it is difficult to imagine them doing the same for the capital. The problem is that institutions – seemingly fixed and implacable – cannot keep pace with the force of globalisation.Seismic economic change has made London less reliant on other parts of the UK; its interests lie in foreign markets rather than domestic ones. Consequently, financiers in Canary Wharf are more likely to visit Beijing than Birmingham. If they travel to Manchester, it is only to observe Chelsea play Manchester United from the safe confines of an executive box.

“The rest of the country tends to feel more and more resentful,” says Micklethwait, due to an emotional disconnect between London and the rest of the country. “The danger comes [when] you… have a government that thinks it can play around with the golden goose.”  Despite the near-death experience of the financial crisis, the City continues to fill the Exchequer with gold. In 2010 the City contributed £50 billion to the government’s revenue, some 10% of the total. It is difficult to imagine the country doing better in the absence of London’s subsidy: “Yes, you get steeper inequality,” says Mickelthwaite, but “Overall it’s an incredible bonus.”

Is the burgeoning inequity between London and the rest a price the UK should willingly pay? Back in 2006, when the Conservative opposition promised to “share the proceeds of growth”, David Cameron was fond of an analogy from Polly Toynbee’s book: Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain. She asked, if society is a caravan moving through the desert, even if all the members are moving forward, how far away do the ones at the back – the allegorical English regions – have to fall before there are two caravans, not one?

Toynbee argues that it is far from evident that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. During the last boom, although the South-East grew faster than the North, the frothy bubble of consumer credit and public spending gave the impression that debt-fuelled prosperity was a national, not London-based, phenomenon. Property in particular was a lucrative market for northern investors: city-centres across the North were  redevelopmed and gentrified.

But in reality, London’s size  has made it difficult for regional businesses to grow. Budding companies from outside London are in a permanent Catch-22. If they succeed then re-locating to London is a necessary step to further expansion abroad. If they struggle, then larger firms or private equity outfits from the capital are likely to swallow them up. When the FTSE 100 began in 1984, only half of its listed companies were based within Greater London; today the figure is over 70%. This means that professional services – accountancy, consultancy, law – are also concentrated in the capital.

When times are good, these changes go unnoticed. Jobs remain plentiful, even if the more lucrative ones are no longer available at home. But in bad times, educated graduates escape the regions to head for London – and when growth resumes, they do not go back. In 2012 over half of graduate jobs were in the South-East; the result is a slow brain drain down the M6.

Is there a solution? The Coalition Government is committed to building a high-speed rail service (HS2) extending to Manchester by 2033; this mammoth expenditure represents the centrepiece of its regional growth strategy. HS2 is designed to channel investment up the county, shrinking the distance between North and South, but who is to say that investment won’t go the other way? Manchester itself might hold the answer. Since the early 90s, the city has created a distinct identity and an integrated economic strategy. The University of Manchester has doubled in size in less than a decade – two of its scientists last year won the Nobel Prize for Physics. New developments such as MediaCity[VB4] , now home to several divisions of the BBC and ITN, promise to create the clusters of high-value activity that London currently monopolises. The city has taken stock of its major assets and sought to build on them: the area around Manchester Airport, the third busiest airport in the UK, has been designated an enterprise zone. The MetroLink – a hitherto inadequate tram system – has been extended to connect Salford Quays, the new home of the BBC and Granada Television, to an increasingly vibrant city centre.

But it won’t be enough. Government austerity has seen the number of public-private partnerships – of the sort that helped regenerate central Manchester after the 1996 IRA bomb – plummet. Private sector retrenchment has curtailed new development and investments.

“One of the curiosities of British politics… is how little the dominance of London shapes the politics of the English regions,” says Douglas Fraser, the BBC’s Scotland editor. It may yet do so. Birmingham in the late nineteenth century, with Joseph Chamberlain as Mayor, famously embarked on a heroic program of town planning and great public works. Similarly a walk along the neoclassical terraces of Grey Street in Newcastle, or an evening with the Halle Orchestra – the world’s oldest – in Manchester should remind us that municipal pride and endeavor weren’t always unique to our flourishing capital. For these peripheries to reassert themselves they must embrace charismatic characters that personify this pride.

However, attempts to introduce elected mayors in England’s major cities were overwhelmingly voted down in May. This should cause great remorse. Big personality mayors would have electrified a Northern political consciousness that has for too long been stagnant. When Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, speaks up for Edinburgh and Boris Johnson boisterously fights London’s corner, the North suffers. There is no name synonymous with the great cities of Manchester, Leeds or Newcastle. The North’s clout in the media is meagre. Strong regional titles such as the Manchester Evening News, the Guardian and the Daily Herald used to keep a finger on the northern political pulse; all are now defunct, emasculated or based in London.

For the time being, the English regions – lacking a distinct competitive advantage or identity, will continue to serve as the hinterland of Britain’s global city.

Cherwell: ‘OUSU is doomed to dullness’

Here’s my piece reproduced from last week’s Cherwell about Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), in light of tomorrow’s election:

On Tuesday polls open for the OUSU elections. Rafts of candidates are standing for coveted positions in the student union, and we’re all invited to help pick which smiley-faced do-gooders go Imagewhere. But even though it only takes about 40 seconds to go online and vote, most of us (82% last year) won’t bother.

To the extent that OUSU rests in our consciousness at all it is associated with three things: incessant emails, free condoms and David J. Townsend, in that order. Nothing much can change that, though perhaps if David J. Townsend just let us call him ‘Dave’ we might cultivate more of a cuddly affinity to the place.

This year’s contenders for President are promising to change that. Izzy Westbury’s tagline, ‘refreshOUSU’ has a certain ring to it, but it’s not at all realistic – and she knows it. The truth is that the fierce apathy students will once again show is entirely rational. That is because we are not one student body, but several (46 to be precise). Oxford is not a homogeneous mass with the student union at its centre; rather, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, it consists in ‘little platoons’. It is in the confines of college – that lovely space where social and academic life are messily integrated – where most of our problems arise and are then solved.

The collegiate Oxford system dooms OUSU to irrelevance. OUSU is to students what the EU is to the British. We’re totally ignorant of what happens there, though vaguely suspicious that some kind of black magic is going on, and treat enthusiasts with a mix of amusement and condescension. To push the analogy explicitly, we don’t want to be ruled (represented) from Brussles (Worcester Road – OUSU HQ) because ‘we already have our own Parliament (JCR) thank you very much!’

It doesn’t help that Oxford is replete with clubs, societies and journals that suck away energy from the official student union. Proud institutions like the Oxford Union and OUDS who long pre-date OUSU dominate university life. Consequently OUSU is a shell. It functions in the shadows, rarely coming into contact with students (the one exception is RAG, its charity arm).

This is not to say that we don’t need OUSU. Indeed its foundation is instructive in why we do need it. In 1961, the University Proctors banned the then-weekly magazine Isis from publishing reviews of lectures. Students resisted, but lacked a body through which to represent themselves to the university. OUSU was born out of that need, and it continues to fight our corner today. But it will always fail to capture of imagination or, save extraordinary circumstances, touch our lives.

HuffPost: ‘How not to apply for a Banking Internship’

Reproduced from the Huffington Post

Though coveted by the Oxford masses, I have never been wedded to a career in finance. But breaking into the world of journalism is famously fickle and so – petrified at the prospect of inactivity next summer – I decided to begin looking elsewhere for work experience. Banking was the obvious choice. The prospect of earning £4000 was entirely palatable, and my ineptitude with numbers doesn’t quite amount to a phobia – so on a dull Sunday afternoon from the comfort of my laptop I gave it a shot.

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To my horror I catapulted through the preliminary stages – which involved a short exercise in form-filling and a couple of psychometric tests (the effect of which after a while is crushingly psychedelic). I was then invited to a telephone interview, which I wrote neatly into my diary before duly forgetting about it until the designated morning. Half-way through watching the first episode of Channel 4’s hit series Fresh Meat, the phone rang.

What followed was probably the most excruciating 60 minutes of my life; and that includes the abject terror of the primary school disco. I will respectfully preserve the bank’s anonymity; let’s just call it Bank X for now:
The first question: “what have you heard about X in the news recently?”. Beat. “Yes, I follow financial news very closely”, I reply with all the composure of an ignoramus on QI. Silence. Apparently this won’t do. ‘Shit, ok, don’t say Libor, don’t say Libor, just don’t’ I instruct the vocal cords as my mind frenzies for something slightly more ingratiating. ‘Nope, nothing? Right ok let’s go with it’.

“Libor” I whimper, immediately throwing some inane platitudes about it being an “industry-wide concern” into the huge pile of dung I’d just delivered to his door. I recall not so long ago an inebriated cousin, twice or thrice removed, informing an entirely sober Great Aunt that he thought she’d already “kicked the bucket”. This was worse.

And it didn’t get much better. I reported reading their annual report. Smelling a rat he asked me what I found most interesting about it. Dead end. I then stumbled through the inevitable ‘overcoming a challenge’ question without too much grief. Far more difficult to swindle my way through was ‘Give an example of a situation in which you’ve had to process and respond to data’. Yuk, spreadsheets terrify me and figuring out the unit price of 3-for-2 ready meals in Tesco is normally sufficient to send my cerebral cortex into a tail spin. I considered making a self-deprecating joke to that effect but by this stage the general air of sympathy and understanding had evaporated.

Predictably Bank X sent me this message last week: “When selecting successful candidates we look for evidence of all of our leadership behaviours, and strong motivation to join the FLDP [Future Leaders Development Programme]. Unfortunately on this occasion we did not see enough evidence of the above to progress your application to the next stage.”

Wholly accurate, and I think a reassuring sign of the renewed health of the banking industry. Oscar Wilde famously commented that he would not wish to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Similarly I reason, any bank prepared to hire me should immediately have their licence revoked. In this regard I have since offered my services to the Financial Standards Authority as an undercover applicant. I’m still waiting to hear back from them.

Now it’s easy to be flippant, you might say, when finance is not my ultimate aspiration. Tragically there will be, to borrow a recent turn of phrase, binders full of rejects who have their heart and soul set on finance. No irreverent words can bring comfort to them. Except this: my sneaking suspicion is that the whole internship racket is far less fun than the lovely HR people make out. Not that I’ll ever find out of course, but perhaps someone could let me know?

HuffPost: ‘Why Oxbridge Really Is For Everyone’

Reproduced from the Huffington Post:

With the UCAS deadline for Oxford and Cambridge Universities approaching, most prospective applicants will by now have revved up their engines: over the next two months they will sit rigorous tests, struggle through the self-consciously intellectual books listed on their personal statements and prepare for the infamous Oxbridge interviews (which are nearly always an anti-climax).

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A big-bunch of A-level students however, despite being predicted a flurry of ‘A’ and ‘A*’ grades, will watch the deadline come and go – because ‘Oxbridge isn’t for everyone’, right?

Tosh. You have to be fairly smart, though to demonstrate an ‘inquiring’ character is really the clincher. And of course it’s competitive – which means that you might not get in even if you do possess the academic talent in spades.

But to suggest, as Owen Jones did last year in a typically conciliatory article, ‘Abolish Oxbridge’, that applicants without a middle-class upbringing are unable to shine at interview is both patronising to those young people, and insulting to the intelligence of tutors.

And of course we all remember Elly Nowell, the aspirant lawyer whose parodying rejection letter to Magdalen College, Oxford, hit headlines earlier this year. In a subsequent Guardian op-ed she complained “If you’re achieving high grades at A-level (or equivalent) you can feel quite a lot of pressure to “prove yourself” by getting an Oxbridge offer”. The ancient buildings and interview rooms were “intimidating” for kids who’ve “grown up on benefits on council estates”. I don’t wish to call Elly a liar, but is this young woman – wholly prepared to thrust herself into the national spotlight – really that terrified by the elegant stone masonry of Magdalen? Or is she cynically playing up to the metropolitan liberal stereotypes of what it means to be working-class at Oxbridge?

The truth is that Elly would have thrived at Oxford – whether she was the shy yet bright woman she presented herself as, or the confident go-getter we really know her to be. Ed Cumming, a Cambridge graduate on the Telegraph, is right when he says “College Life rewards joiners-in.” There are countless clubs, societies and niche groupings to immerse yourself in. What the universities of London, Leeds and Manchester have in size – Oxbridge makes up for in richness and variety.

And no, that isn’t alluding to the port-sodden debauchery of the Oxford Conservative Association – a fairly crude stereotype the BBC does its best to keep alive. The closest most undergraduates come to re-living the Edwardian Era is watching Downton Abbey on a dodgy cable connection in the JCR.

The collegiate system makes Oxford and Cambridge two of the warmest and most supportive student environments anywhere. It’s difficult to eke out a reclusive existence – even if you want one – with social, academic, catering and living spaces all integrated into the same place. By contrast my friends at other universities – ones supposedly renowned for their nightlife – often find themselves lonely and anonymous, tucked away in a quiet corner of some 70s accommodation block.

My own story is emphatically not one of deprivation. Both my parents went to university. So perhaps I cannot invest the same emotional energy into dispelling Oxbridge myths that others, Elly Nowell say, put into perpetuating them. All I can do is lay out the facts as I see them, describing how unstuffy and accommodating Oxford appears to me. Where pockets of cliquish behaviour exist, they are ridiculed by people who – largely through the Oxbridge experience – have become smart and self-assured enough to know better.

The tragedy of the ‘Oxbridge isn’t for you’ message is its threat to become a self-flufilling prophecy. Fortunately the converse is also true: heroic efforts by the Sutton Trust, as well as Oxford and Cambridge themselves, have finally started to bring state school admissions into line with where it should be. The facts, I hope, will start to drown out the voices of those who self-righteously stand against Oxbridge – unwittingly alienating the very people Oxford and Cambridge need to broaden their intake.

Oxford University students at Magdalen College ‘strike’ in dining levy row

Reproduced from the Daily Telegraph, 27th October 2012. See the article in print.

They have set up their own soup kitchens, organised large-scale home cooking sessions and accepted invitations from friends to dine at other colleges.

Students labelled the charges, which will apply to new arrivals at Magdalen College from next year, as “regressive”.

It is claimed that they could cause hardship among poorer students who already face rising living costs and tuition fees.

Officials at the historic college, whose former students include George Osborne, the Chancellor, insist that the price rise is necessary to reduce an annual catering deficit of almost £600,000.

It is thought that the boycott is costing the college up to £5,000 a week.

Miss Eccles serves soup to Olly Pearse (Tom Edkins)

At present, students can buy a range of meals for £4 in the halls, which have their own dedicated staff. Main courses include shepherd’s pie, chicken kiev, pasta, curries, chilli and fish and chips.

hey can also have a side dish of salad as well as a pudding and soft drink.

Under the plans, to be introduced from next year, new students face a compulsory levy of £150 a year to use the canteen, plus £150 per term to load up a card to pay for their meals, with any unspent credit not refunded.

Students who use the dining hall infrequently would be spared the annual £150 levy, but would have to pay an £80 non-redeemable fee per term for meals.

Meanwhile, “living out” students would pay a separate, annual fee of £90.

The college hopes that “fixed catering charges” will raise an extra £110,000 a year to cover overhead costs and maintenance of kitchens. It had initially proposed even higher charges but reduced them after protests.

Anger among the college’s 540 undergraduates culminated in the Junior Common Room voting to boycott the halls.

The two-week “strike”, supported by almost the entire student body, is due to last at least another week and has attracted support from students at other colleges.

Meg Trainor, Magdalen’s JCR president, said: “We believe the charge to be unnecessary, especially harmful to less well-off students and damaging to Magdalen’s access programme.”

Negotiations are ongoing with the governing body, which comprises the college’s fellows. According to the Oxford University Student Union, the new charge would make Magdalen the most expensive Oxford college to attend.

Founded in 1458, it is considered one of the university’s leading institutions, with alumni also including Cardinal Wolsey, C.S Lewis and Oscar Wilde.

Founder’s Tower and Cloister at Magdalen College (Alamy)

Mark Blandford-Baker, the college’s home bursar, defended the levy.

“Several other colleges in Oxford and Cambridge already have similar charges, so Magdalen isn’t exceptional in this respect,” he said.

“We remain fully committed to attracting and supporting the best students regardless of background. This is why we have appointed an outreach officer to encourage applications from under-represented groups.”

George Galloway: “I haven’t made any political errors”

Reproduced from Cherwell

There’s a famous scene in Spitting Image, ITV’s now expired satirical puppet show, parodying Neil Kinnock’s 1987 election broadcast. “Nurses, nurses, teachers, nurses!” the puppet Kinnock blasts into the loudspeaker. “Old people, black people, yellow people, nurses!” The Labour leader was portrayed as an excitable iconoclast carried away by the chaotic passion of his own rhetoric.

Were Spitting Image still going, I daresay the show would have caricatured George Galloway – the Respect MP for Bradford – in much the same manner. His buzzwords are different of course: “murder”, “imperialism” and “Bush-Blair” were deployed indiscriminately throughout his speech last week at the Oxford Union.

His elected topic, ‘The World At War’, was a safe one. Though accusations of demagoguery and misogyny have ruptured his relationship with the Left, the undeniable doggedness which he brings to the anti-war movement still earns him their grudging respect.

By the time we sit down Galloway has been at it for over an hour, and an hour of bellowing acoustics, thrusting gesticulation and fierce mental awareness would incapacitate most politicians. He has visited the Union before, on one occasion, in 1988, as a guest of the then-President Michael Gove. “We became friends,” Galloway recounts with a surprising warmth. Though both hail from modest Scottish backgrounds, such a friendship still seems peculiar.

It should be remembered that Galloway has some experience of cosying up to people with whom – ostensibly at least – he does not agree. Infamously in 1994 he lauded Saddam Hussein for his “courage, strength and indefatigability”. Less than a decade later, as the courageous Iraqi dictator hid in a hole near Tikrit, Galloway led the anti-war movement back home, calling for British soldiers to “refuse to obey illegal orders”. Once this had prompted his expulsion from the Labour Party, he began clamouring for Tony Blair’s extradition to the Hague for “war crimes”. He repeats the demand in our interview, referring to the “indictment I carry in my briefcase” and promising to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the former PM if they ever find each other in the same room.

“I haven’t made any substantial political errors,” Galloway retorts, after I suggest that these sorts of serial mishaps undermine his credibility as a politician. He does, however, confess to errors “of phrasing and words”. The distinction is an odd one to make, given that his recent guide to the “sex game” provoked the resignation of Salma Yaqoob, Respect’s leader. Galloway seems sincere when he says “we’re very sorry that she’s left”, but sees the subsequent media storm as essentially poppycock: “When someone leaves us, they are invested with such an importance, an importance which they were never given when they were with us.”

But why does he never apologise for his bouts of verbal flatulence? “Not true, simply not true, you haven’t done your research as well as you thought you had,” he counters. When I asked for an example of a public apology he had made, he shrewdly declined: “It wouldn’t profit me to go through my list of regrets.” But it might profit me of course, so I went and did some homework.

And it turns out he has recently apologised to a tweeter whom – in the heat of an online ar- gument in August – Galloway branded a “window-licker”, a derogatory term for the mentally handicapped. His apology was limp and equivocating, but still it was remarkable that he made one at all. Perhaps the relaxations of a honeymoon in Indonesia with his fourth wife have evinced a softer side.

But will he apologise over his rape comments? “No.” He believes that “Julian Assange has been set up. The allegations against him… are entirely bogus.” The problem is that for Galloway to accept that the allegations constitute rape, he could no longer be so sure of the conspiracy he has built up around WikiLeaks. Without irony, he concluded an answer on the topic to a PhD student, Nicole, with this diatribe: “Trust me on this, sister, the day will come when you’ll be embarrassed to have asked me that question because you’ll know what you don’t know now. I’ll forgive you for not knowing it.” Needless to say Nicole was less than impressed by this generous gesture.

It is well known that Galloway holds himself in high regard. There’s a story in Chris Mullin’s new diary that is fast becoming legend in Westminster. During a parliamentary visit to Vietnam, Mullin recounts a special meal laid on for the delegation: “Almost everyone at the table had lost a member of his family. One had lost four brothers. This didn’t stop George regaling them with tales of ‘my first injury in the struggle’, which turned out to be a kick he received from a police horse during the 1968 anti-war demonstration outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.” The following day, at another meeting, “George again regaled the assembly with tales of his long service to socialism. The district chairman, a canny old boy, listened politely when George again referred to his ‘first injury in the struggle’. Then, without batting an eyelid he inquired: ‘And what was your second?’”

Galloway’s antagonists will variably tell you that he isan egotist, a conspiracy theorist, a hypocrite, a dictator-loving sycophant, and a rather nasty bigot. These criticisms undoubtedly sully his reputation, but they also energise the vocal minority, who – as Galloway never tires of remind- ing me – have “elected me to the British Parliament six times”, most recently in the “Bradford Spring” that liberated the oppressed peoples of West Yorkshire earlier this year.

Another slightly peculiar boast is his presence on “alternative” media. Specifically he is tagged in “over 12,000 videos on YouTube”. That’s funny, because barely eight weeks previously, Galloway had spoken on his ‘Molucca Red’ channel of a mere “11,800 videos, the last time I checked.” He obviously keeps a close tab. It seems that Galloway’s globetrotting schedule, hopping from Venezuela to Kazakhstan in the week before we met, doesn’t stop him cultivating the cyber-vanity of a 14-year-old schoolgirl. One thinks it’s beneath him, until you remember that this is the same George Galloway who let Channel 4 film him licking milk out of the hands of one of his fellow Big Brother housemates.

At the St Stephen’s Gate Entrance to Parliament stands a statue of Charles James Fox, the Whig MP ejected twice for treacherously supporting the American minutemen and, later, the French revolutionaries. For a time Fox cast a lonely figure with a lot to say but few sympathetic enough to hear it. Vindication by history saved his reputation. Galloway – who has evoked Fox on multiple occasions – is acutely conscious of the opprobrium poured on him by the British media and political establishment: “I don’t ask anyone to love me. I am what I am.”