I walk into a room in Balliol College to find about a dozen students sitting in a circle, quaffing rum like pirates and passing round big bags of crisps, for all the world a parody of a Monday night pre-lash sesh with the rules to Ring of Fire being hopelessly forgotten in every general direction.
But no, these cool kids are ‘Oxford Students for Liberty’, the Libertarian society which used to be loosely affiliated with Shami Chakrabarti, head of the pressure group Liberty. That was before they were deaffiliated because the big politicians were worried they were going to do something crazy. Um, likely.
My initial impression is that these are the guys you want to be picking for your Uni Challenge team rather than signing up to chain themselves naked to the Chinese Embassy crying ‘Free Tibet like my genitals are’. These people are both beautiful and intimidating. As I pick my seat, feeling a guilty cloud of 45mins-lateness and journalist self-consciousness descend on my shoulders, a storm of debate is occurring to my left. “But that’s surely bollocks, isn’t it?” a self-confident young gentleman parries the suggestion of a UN report that it was a sensible time to withdraw from Afghanistan. Later, he balks at a Gallup poll, but the details are vague: the rum was meandering and Students for Liberty change tack a lot.
The conversation revolves centres on whether military intervention can ever be justified by human rights abuses, and specifically whether the UK should invade China. Mini-arguments about the state of the Middle East, and how many Catholics voted Labour in 2006 kept cropping up. Secretary Jack tried to settle the eager mutiny: “That’s a debate we’re having later on in term.” But he soon gave up and let the debate slide wherever it would. The emphasis was on fair speech: no more than one person spoke at any one time and everybody sat down. There were a couple of “oooooooo’s” at outright libertarian blasphemy – at the declaration that “we should just go in and colonise everything” and the inspired re-imagining of Marie Antoinette’s classic line: “It’s ok, we got cake and shit.” But mostly participants contained their reactions to a violent headshake or incredibly grumpy face.
I have painted a picture of an evening of casual swearing on random disjointed topics, but it was so much more than that. The debates were intellectual, but also accessible to the student too lazy to educate themselves on current international politics (that would be me). Rob, a veteran member, explained that debaters formulate their arguments from a little light reading of The Economist. That’s a claim I would take with a trading bloc of salt. But it was helpful to be told have the basics of international aid theory: “It’s like if my mum comes to me and gives me some money for clothes, then I am more likely to let her have a say in what kind of clothes I buy, but if she comes to me with trousers and says ‘wear these’, I would say no.”
Despite lofty arguments and theorising about the true definition of “freedom” – a ten-minute trip we take around 10pm – this society is nothing if not welcoming and explanatory, even if the wheedling catchphrase beloved of debating societies: “I’m going to play devil’s advocate here” was rather a lot in evidence.
All in all, it was a great gossip session about current political events, to a backdrop of chilled libertarianism. Even those apathetic about international relations might learn something.