I’ve just watched Young, Bright and on the Right the documentary about two participants in Tory student politics at Oxbridge. I was told beforehand that my reaction would be one of horror and in many ways it was. But not horror at the two central participants, but at the worlds they were inhabiting. I also found myself unable to stop – quite literally – bursting into tears practically every time Chris came onscreen.
Joe’s was the more moving story. His triumph was extraordinary and to find it so blocked and dented by the braying prejudice he encountered at Oxford was awful. But Joe seems to have a core of steel. I look at Joe, and I know he’s going to be OK.
Chris worries me more. Chris doesn’t have people skills and doesn’t understand people skills. At one point his Mum tries to chide him into at least pretending to have some, but he clearly doesn’t understand what she’s trying to say.
When the older, more confident boys are trying to subtly tell Chris he doesn’t have a chance in hell of being on their committee, he thinks they’re being encouraging. When he’s told he’s not on the committee despite there not even being enough spaces for an election, Chris believe the Chair lost the forms.
Or Chris’s projection of himself does. When you watch Chris’s hands twist over themselves again and again, when you listen to the way he talks as much as the things he says, you sense that a very real and core part of Chris knows these people he desperately wants to please will never let him in.
The last caption of the show revealed that Chris is no longer focusing on student politics. In my heart, I hope this was Chris’s choice – to get away from them before they rejected his desperately unlikely wish to be their President. But I suspect he was eased out by those with the confidence to know exactly how to do so and the viciousness not to care.
A quote I’ve seen a lot when discussing this programme in the last few days from Henry Kissinger puts it that student politics are “vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. I’m unconvinced.
Despite being a member of the Labour Party since I was 15, I never got involved in politics at my university. I was in a pretty wild phase in my life, having only just pulled myself out of a complete nosedive. hopelessly insecure, I went to one meeting of the campus Labour Group and found the atmosphere of the thing baffling. I went to a few meetings in town, but mostly at university I got on with falling into bad habits and falling in love with the wrong man. With some study thrown in for good measure. None of the friends I met at university are in politics.
I’m in two minds about this. Obviously I wouldn’t change my friends! And having some people to relax with outside of political life is great – even though I now see them less and less. But when I look at the people I know through politics, the most successful are the best connected and most of those made those connections through the bonds of vicious infighting in their student days. Twenty years on, people will gather together in their tribes and tell of the old battles. Those battle lines still exist and continue to be played out between the different factions in the Labour Party. Maybe this is the reason I feel so tribeless – I came into active politics too late in life to be chosen or to chose in the blood and thunder way one would at university age.
So while the large P politics of student politics may not make a great deal of difference (though they may – I just may not have experienced it) that isn’t what people gain from it. They gain a tribe, connections and a network that help you through the rest of your political career. If you decide early enough that you want a career in politics, and if you are academic enough to go to a university with a good Labour club, I’d say that’s not nothing. Fighting to be a player in that game, with those advantages are pretty high stakes.
Neither Joe nor Chris share my politics. We’re I to meet them, I doubt we’d have a great deal in common ideologically. I believe they have taken the wrong lessons from the evidence they have been presented with. I’m sure they think the same of me. But we do share a common humanity. That’s what I felt as I watched Chris’ optimistic word being betrayed by his body language. What I felt as Joe’s family beamed with pride at their amazing son and his obvious and comfortable love for them.
They are two young men who want to make the world a better place. I will stop them trying to do that in the wrong way. But I still commend them for wanting to do so. I hope they find peace, happiness and a better path.