A few columns ago, I told the mortifying story of how I totally died at the Oxford Union. Today I’m going to tell you how I managed to avoid the same fate on a more recent trip to the Cambridge Union, where I spoke in a debate and opposed the motion: ‘This house would open its doors to refugees.’
Partly, I was just better prepared. One of the benefits of a public-speaking disaster is that it makes you particularly loath ever to repeat the horror. I can’t say I spent any longer on my speech. What I did do, though, was co-ordinate much more with the rest of my team beforehand (ex-MEP Godfrey Bloom, current MEP Roger Helmer, economist Alasdair Macleod) so that we knew what we were all going to say and didn’t repeat one another’s arguments. This forced me to write my speech a week early instead of at the last minute: something I commend to debaters because then the material sits in your head and matures and becomes familiar.
Then there is the simple fact that Cambridge is a much better-mannered place than Oxford. It’s not that the undergraduates are any less left-wing — especially not if they’re at King’s, where Jeremy Corbyn would be considered a bourgeois capitalist running-dog lackey. But Cantabrigians are more fastidious, austere and thoughtful than impetuous, thrusting, ostentatious Oxonians, and are consequently much less prone to shouting down their opponents.
But the main reason it went so much better is that I went in fully expecting to lose. (As indeed my team did lose, big time, by a margin of about 90 to ten.) This imbues in you the kind of grim fatalism the 300 must have experienced at Thermopylae or that gladiators no doubt felt as they saluted the emperor. There’s no stupid voice in your head going: ‘Maybe if I smile sweetly enough I can make them like me.’ Instead you think: ‘Sod ’em!’ You’re going to end up face-down in the dust, whatever you do, but at least you can take a few of the bastards with you.
I’m amazed — almost disgusted with myself, actually — that I was naive enough to expect otherwise at Oxford. But the thing people don’t realise about me — which I generally try to keep secret because it’s kind of off-brand — is that in real life I’m a really, really nice, sweet-natured, trusting, innocent person. And also one who lives in a fantasy world. So when I stood on the debating floor that time in Oxford, grinning dementedly, and tried to put all my listeners at ease by opening with an ad-libbed quip about Aids, I genuinely thought in my deluded imagination: ‘Ha, I’m going to win over these kids with my engaging mix of shambolic charm and no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is right-wing politics, just you see...’ This illusion lasted for all of the split-second it took before the boos and hisses began.
Has anyone ever attempted to quantify just how incorrigibly leftwards our great universities have drifted in the past decade or so? I’m not sure how you’d measure it, but it surely must be the case. In the bar afterwards I met five out of the total of 14 undergraduates I calculated had voted for us. One — as a gesture of defiance — was dressed in cords, tweed jacket and Viyella shirt. Thirty years ago, people with their politics would have been, while not the majority, at least part of a sizeable minority. Today, they could scarcely have seemed more freakish and isolated if they’d turned up in doublet and hose. Except that that analogy doesn’t fully capture the prejudice they suffer. Like Catholics in Elizabethan England, they must congregate discreetly, only expressing their faith openly when they can be sure they are in like-minded company. The persecution isn’t always overt, at least not in Cambridge. But there’s little doubt that they’re the one group which doesn’t get the perk of special privileges for its minority status.
This stultifying conformity of political opinion in modern university culture really ought to worry anyone who cares about our country’s intellectual future. It’s not the doctrinaire left-wingery that’s the problem so much as the closed-mindedness that goes with it. My side’s speeches weren’t at all bad; certainly a lot more eloquent, lucid and factually accurate than the opposition’s. But I’ve no doubt that even had we combined the oratory of Churchill with the wit of Oscar Wilde and the brilliance of Einstein, we would still have lost by about the same 90 to ten ratio.
When I first experienced this at that Oxford debate, I thought it must be an aberration. As I sat listening to the speech given by Alan Rusbridger, I remember musing gleefully to myself: ‘We’ve won this one. No way are kids bright enough to have got into Oxford going to be swayed by this kind of turgid, boilerplate Guardianista tripe. It’s an insult to their intelligence.’
What I now realise, having gone through the same process at Cambridge, is that, no, this is how it is. If you’re representing the liberal-left side on any given proposition, then frankly you could fart your way, badly, through the telephone directory and still be greeted like Caesar dragging Vercingetorix through Rome in chains. If you’re on the ‘wrong’ side of the argument — as of course I always will be — then it’s morituri te salutant.
‘Why do you do this?’ asked a student journalist from the Tab. ‘Because even if I can make just one person change their mind it’s worth it.’ Thanks for listening, whoever you were. And thanks to the rest of you, sweet, fresh-faced Cambridge undergrads, for at least not wearing your hatred quite so openly…