Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Student Politics at LSE and Yale

Over at the AFF magazine there is a brilliant article on Yale student politics by James Kirchick. If you have time go and read it as it is a wonderfully written piece and the picture it builds of Yale politics is both amusing and important to the wider point I am about to make. Note carefully that this is not written by a right winger but by an American liberal and yet his conclusion is clearly that the right wing student politicians are far more intellectually engaged in the debate on campus.

I saw this for myself at LSE. LSE is probably the most political campus in the UK with elections turning Houghton Street into a genuine battleground with everyone attempting to force leaflets advertising their candidate onto the poor, confused, international, or otherwise apolitical, students. The LSE Student's Union is the only one to maintain a weekly general meeting for the discussion of motions. The Union General Meeting (UGM) has a somewhat anarchic style with near constant heckling and a barrage of paper greeting any speaker who the masses consider disagreeable or who cannot hold the audience's interest. However, just as at Yale, there is a clear divide in the way that the right and left approach student politics.

Of course, it is first necessary to remember that the politically active will be a minority of students, even at a university like LSE, and the description that follows is of the divisions within that minority. Plenty of LSE students find the whole business of student politics vaguely unsettling and spend their time studying or drinking like the students of any other university. However, the politically active are important for mainstream politics and an interesting subculture; it is worth looking at the differences between the left and right wings of that subculture.

Left wingers are, essentially, already behaving as politicians. They take the business of student politics exceptionally seriously; passing motions to condemn this and that, running protests at real world injustices, real and imaginary, and working incredibly hard to secure elected positions. They also work at the other elements of creating a politics in miniature within the student's union: turning on each other, cementing alliances and making enemies.

By contrast, the main extra-curricular focus of the politically active right wingers at LSE was intellectual. The debate society was always right leaning, the Hayek society was, and is, a buzz of discussion even if much of its output was at the amusing end of the libertarian spectrum, the constant stream of arguments within the right maintained a degree of intellectual sophistication which none of my left wing friends could claim for their own social networks; they would discuss how rather than why.

Engagement with the UGM or electoral student politics was treated as something of a game with the "score" each year being the number of major left wingers we could deny office through spurious alliances with the Athletics Union or some international student group or the number of motions we could defeat through sheer force of rhetoric. Always the odds were heavily stacked against us but every year we managed, through a unity and verve our opponents could not match, a few enjoyable symbolic victories. Making, for just a few months, the student newspaper's editorials shift to the right was my great trophy, for example, along with playing my part in a significant conversion to the right wing. In the end, most students are left wing and we were always going to lose but, in the knowledge that in mainstream politics this is not the case, it was great fun to play at guerilla warfare politics.

I think there are two reasons why right wingers tend to be more interested in intellectual engagement at university:

1. Left wing politics proper genuinely starts at, or even before, university. The mainstream left is increasingly concerned with empowering a series of victim groups, whether unions, ethnic minorities or feminists who are seen as constituting an effective counterbalance to capitalist power. Students are one of these groups and are seen as an important political force in lobbying for their own interests, such as stopping tuition fees, or weighing in on national debates through demonstrations and other activism. By contrast, the right does not have the same legacy of class politics, Disraeli's aspiration to represent one nation feeds into a modern dislike of interest politics, and tends to eschew activism. As such, it is more important to right wingers that they become intellectually equipped for the national debate than that they become part of a student movement.

2. Left wingers don't need to engage with people they disagree with. Thanks to the sheer weight of numbers on their side a left wing student can probably go their entire university career without meeting an outspoken right winger beyond, perhaps, a lonely voice in a student newspaper column. By contrast, a right winger will constantly be meeting left wingers who, if they like him/her, will try to make them a convert and, if they dislike her/him will attack them in shrill tones as a deeply evil underminer of the common student good. Some right wingers wilt under this pressure and retreat to the shelter of "I'm not very political" but plenty don't and become very good at defending their beliefs. In order to become this good at defending themselves it is necessary to have thought through their assumptions and approach to the world very carefully; nothing makes this self-examination necessary for a campus left winger.

I don't know how important the disparity I've identified will be. It could be that my year at the LSE was exceptional, I've had some rather dismal reports of the LSE right this year, but the report from Yale suggests that it is indicative of a broader pattern. Equally, it could be that this will not translate to adult politics. However, it would seem to make university a far better training ground for future right wing politicians than future left wing ones.


Jackart said...

I like this post and agree wholeheartedly. I think when discussing lefties, you should swear more. Words like c***, w*****s, t****p*** and f***** a****h**** come in very handy and I now find it difficult to describe lefty students without them.But that's an issue of style over substance.

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