Memes, dreams, and hacky teens: why the Union is Oxford’s greatest reality show

Comment University/Local Issues

Image Description: Former US Secretary of State Kerry delivers an address to the Oxford Union

Shhh! Can you hear it? The air is abuzz with a sound, a feeling, a vibe. Phones ding with messenger message requests, coffee shops hum with various forms of hackery, imperative verbs start clogging your Facebook feed – the Union elections are upon us. Cue collective groans from the Oxford populace, already burdened with prelims or finals, and now having to contend with replying to the hacks or suffering the social awkwardness of meeting a hack you’ve left on read for several days. But I’d like to argue that there is a positive to be gleaned from the much criticised union: entertainment value.

Many words have been written on the Union’s role as a breeding ground for future politicians, how a political elite being trained to view politics as a game explains the callous disregard for the consequences of their actions so many of our leaders show. But if others have tried to explain the tragedy of modern politics, few have tried to explain the farce. I was once told by a former member of Tony Blair’s team at an event, that working in modern politics is just like the TV show The Thick of It, except in the show they don’t say ‘it’s just like The Thick of It’. Based on the events of the Union this year it’s not hard to see why.

Just as a reality check to those who would claim this, a large part of the Oxford community sees the Union, frankly, as a meme.

Calls for impeachment, accusations of corruption, impossibly complex points of order based on Rule 456458, I’m-joking-but-really-I’m-not jabs at other hacks during union debates, and now, perhaps the greatest farce of them all, two treasurer candidates nominated for one slate. It’s enough to make Malcolm Tucker weep. The higher-ups at the Union would probably highlight how they have genuine aims and ambitions, the seriousness of their aims at reform, or the legitimate political attacks they have had to suffer whilst they were simply trying to do good. This may be true. But, just as a reality check to those who would claim this, a large part of the Oxford community sees the Union, frankly, as a meme. And why shouldn’t they? Surely this is the best those high up in the ivory towers of the union can hope for, lest mild amusement degenerate into annoyance and then anger of the sort expressed in the recent Boycott the Union campaign. Even those in the Union see the Union as a meme, hence the creation of a secret Union meme group.

I myself entered Oxford as a starry-eyed young fresher in Michaelmas, hearing stories of the corruption of the Union but believing that I could enter the system and infect it with decency and reform. I ran for Secretary’s Committee for about four days before dropping out and realising it wasn’t for me. But ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by the fantastical twists and turns of union politics each term. The heart of comedy is juxtaposition, and it’s this that makes political farce so entertaining, be it on the national stage or the Union floor. Many take themselves so seriously despite the fact that everyone around them only hears of them when the next scandal comes out and rocks the pages of the national or student newspapers, dutifully leaving a ‘ha-ha’ react. Perhaps politics currently has degenerated into such meme fodder precisely because our leaders never gained the sort of self-awareness so preciously lacking in an institution where people genuinely believe it matters whether you followed rule 33(a)(viii) of a student society constitution, and will get quite angry if you don’t.

Maybe I’m just a cynic. Maybe I should recognise the legitimate good the union can do. Or maybe I should continue laughing at whatever it is union candidates always find so funny when taking photos revealing their slate. Sometimes I like to imagine they themselves, in an absurd way, are laughing at the clearly forced image of the casual banter they’re trying to project. Whatever they’re laughing at, at least through the union elections I’ll have a smile on my face too.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of State