Tory boys in trouble

Oxford University cuts its links with young Conservatives

The Daily Mail reports:

Oxford University has banned its students' Conservative Association from using its name after a race row.

The university has severed all links with the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA) and ordered it to change its name.

OUCA, which boasts Margaret Thatcher as its patron and William Hague as Honorary President, was embroiled in a scandal in June when student politicians were urged to compete to see who could tell the most offensive racist joke.

Nick Gallagher, the group's publications officer, was asked to repeat "the most inappropriate joke you have ever told" as part of a drunken hustings for the next president of the body.

He said: "What do you say when you see a television moving around in the dark? Drop it, n****r, or I'll shoot you!"

Three cheers for Oxford University! It's about time the powers that be took some sort of action against the loons, wackos and wingnuts of OUCA. I witnessed their mad antics as a student at Oxford in the late 1990s -- I vividly remember a Tory boy named John Storey who, in the words of the Oxford Student newspaper, once disrupted a student union meeting with "Nazi-style salutes, cries of 'Viva Pinochet' and alleged drunken behaviour". (If you want to get a taste of the right-wingery and antisocial behaviour of OUCA and its members over the years, check out the detailed Wikipedia entry here.)

The Mail also reports:

The Conservatives said OUCA was not part of the party, although many association members were also members of the party.

A spokesman said: "People who behave in this disgusting and reprehensible way have no place in the Conservative Party."

This is entirely predictable -- and wholly inaccurate. Despite repeated denials and evasions by Central Office, the fact is that the nutjobs of OUCA have always found a home in the official Conservative Party. As the blogger Paul Sagar noted in June:

. . . this official excuse of non-affiliation is hard to square with the Conservative Party's friendly relations with OUCA. In 2008 five members of the shadow cabinet -- including David Cameron and George Osborne -- spoke at OUCA meetings. This year alone, John Redwood, Michael Gove, Viscount Monckton, newly re-elected Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, Edward Leigh (chair of the über-right-wing Cornerstone group) and former Tory leader Michael Howard have all spoken at OUCA.

But then, it's hardly surprising that OUCA and the Conservative Party are on such friendly terms. OUCA's alumni include Margaret Thatcher, William Hague, Jonathan Aitken, Lord Rees-Mogg and Daniel Hannan.

OUCA is a breeding ground for future Tory stars. It is not a fringe organisation trying to jump on the Establishment bandwagon, it's the youth wing of the national party. That's why so many top Tory politicians were members, and why so many still attend OUCA events. Yet time and again OUCA members are exposed as racists.

Over to you, Tory party spokesman . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder