Matt Burwood is the President of the Association for Hilary Term 2017
The Oxford University Conservative Association, with nearly 2,000 student members, is likely the biggest student political society in the country. With such a large and growing membership, it’s perhaps surprising that non-members often have little idea about what the Association actually does. I thought it worthwhile to reach out to those not in-the-know, and give a sense of what attracts so many Oxford students to OUCA.
It’s impossible to get such an enormous membership without being inclusive, and Liberal Democrats, Labourites, international students, and the politically unaligned make up a sizeable proportion of our members. We maintain especially strong links with our former Coalition partners, amicably sparring with each other at our respective debating events. To characterise OUCA as insular, an echo-chamber, or uniformly on the right of the Party is to neglect our strong traditions of open discussion and cross-party engagement.
While it is impolite to turn the discussion to oneself, it seems helpful to introduce myself before embarking further on what is an unashamed plug for my organisation. In my “day job”, I’m a Physics and Philosophy student. This often surprises people who assume that History or PPE are all but prerequisites for participation in student politics. Not only am I a scientist, but my politics might not be quite what you expect; OUCA is home to a veritable smorgasbord of political persuasions, from the Burkean “high Tories”, to the “Ken Clarke” centrists, to the liberal Cameroons.
I describe myself as socially liberal and economically conservative, a stance popular among younger Conservatives influenced by the Coalition years. I campaigned to Remain, yet I respect the arguments of the Brexiteers and I don’t see politics as binary. It’s not a choice between good and evil, and it’s obvious to me that the Greens, Labour, Tories and Lib Dems all share the objective of making the country a better place in which to live. The difference is one of approach and philosophy – there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all get along as a politically diverse student community.
“Port and Policy”, our weekly debating event, certainly conjures up different images for different people. For me, as a non-drinker, the event is a chance to grab a glass of cranberry juice and listen to an astonishing range of views on an impressive range of topics. For others who fancy a spot of port – many Labourites among their number – it’s a chance to end the weekend on a high. Being on a smaller scale than at the Union and having a less rigid format, our debates are the perfect opportunity for novices to hone their rhetorical skills. A fair proportion of the audience will be tipsy in any case, so they’re an easy bunch to please. Likewise, the best public speakers in Oxford are often to be found at Port and Policy, delighting in the jovial atmosphere, using carefully selected words to win the audience’s favour, or more often, whip them up into a frenzy of faux-outrage.
OUCA is about much more than debating, however. It’s also an excellent way to get involved with “real world politics” and engage with the local community. Oxford students often complain about the bubble, and wish they could escape a few times during term. To my mind, it’s essential to get out and see the rest of the country to be able to gauge public opinion correctly and form relevant political views; ivory tower thinking is all too prevalent at Oxford. We send volunteers every week to locations around the city and around the country, knocking on doors, having conversations with people from all walks of life, and finding out what people really think about Conservative policy. Politics is about talking to individuals about issues that matter to them, and signing up to OUCA campaigning is an excellent way to get involved.
But being a conscientious Conservative isn’t just about delivering votes. It also requires a strong sense of duty to the community and a commitment to charity. To this end, we send volunteers out on soup runs to help the homeless every week during term. A lot of people encounter the various homelessness relief programmes in Oxford for the first time through their involvement in OUCA, opening their eyes to the scale of the problem, the tragedy of people cold and hungry on the streets in the 21st Century, and the tremendous power of giving. Too many students are aware of these grave issues but never find within them the impetus to go out and make a difference. “Compassionate Conservatism” is about identifying a problem, making space in one’s schedule, leaving one’s comfort zone, and actually doing something to fix it.
Last but certainly not least, what really sets our Association apart is our ability to attract high-profile guest speakers. OUCA gives students the chance to meet the people at the heart of government policy and other parts of public life. During my short period of involvement we have met Theresa May, William Hague, Nicky Morgan, John Major, Sajid Javid, Edwina Currie, Michael Heseltine, and many more besides.
This term we have yet to hear from Jeremy Hunt, Patrick McLoughlin, and Andrew Lansley. I tried to make my term card relevant, inclusive, and representative, inviting people whom I thought would make a tangible difference to the way we view politics. We heard from the CEO of Leave.EU, and a packed room of divided opinion respectfully took part in the Q&A. We then heard from the Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, who spoke about female participation in politics and the differences between the Conservative and the Labour strategies. We also heard from the Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, who spoke of the need for fair job applications on an ethnicity blind basis, but likewise spoke of the perils of classifying people not as fellow human beings, but as categories according to race, religion, gender, or origin.
I hope that some of the ideas I’ve illustrated or exemplified here might change some prior perceptions about OUCA’s role in university life. It is all too easy to write off one’s opponents as less kind, less caring, or less legitimate – Conservatives are just as guilty of this as anyone else. But this is not a helpful approach. Only by actively engaging with one another socially and intellectually can we hope to learn from our differences rather than be divided by them.