Time Capsule: Liz Truss vs the BNP

Spotting now-famous faces during their undergraduate days in the hallowed pages of the OxStu has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my recent explorations of the paper’s 33-year history. Over the past year or so I have had the pleasure of reading the juvenilia of some truly extraordinary individuals, whether through angry letters to the editor of the day, an article of their own, or even an emotive poetic composition. One person I was incredibly excited to encounter in my travels, planted in a chair in the Bodleian, was Merton College alumna Mary Elizabeth Truss, street name Liz.

Having only been founded in 1991, the OxStu is sadly too young to have caught many of Britain’s Prime Ministers when they were mere PPE students. Our two most recent heads of government, however, are a welcome exception. While Rishi Sunak seems to have kept his head down for the most part during his time at Lincoln, Liz Truss was not afraid to make a big splash in student politics, as this article from the OxStu archive illustrates.

Truss matriculated in 1993 and it took her less than a month to make her first appearance in The Oxford Student – not as the subject of an article, but as the author of one. In a special ‘Anti-Racism’ section of the paper which, as far as I can tell, only appeared in this issue, Liz (then going by Elizabeth) discussed her experience campaigning for the Liberal Democrats in a council by-election in Millwall, a ward in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. The by-election became infamous for being the first ever electoral success by the far-right British National Party (BNP), with Derek Beackon becoming the party’s first elected politician. Truss’ Lib Dem candidate finished in third place.

Her account of the campaign is a hyperbolic one, stating that “normal election rules did not apply” as BNP members, whom she describes as “thugs looking for a good time”, patrolled the streets and guarded polling stations to prevent the ward’s Bangladeshi population from voting. She and the other Lib Dems had been expecting to be spending their time mired in front-door showdowns with Labour supporters, but she recalls that Labour campaigners “rushed towards [them] with cries of ‘Finally! A friendly face!'”

Truss’ theory for the BNP’s success in the by-election is that the party’s supporters made the Bangladeshi population into a scapegoat for the ward’s problems, particularly a lack of housing. The Lib Dems, who controlled the borough council at the time, were blamed for this which undoubtedly hurt the chances of Truss’ candidate, even though Millwall ward itself was represented by Labour.

In the article she vehemently disagrees with any black-and-white view of racial politics in Millwall. She opposes Beackon and the BNP for defending the rights of white people over people of colour, but she also opposes those who vilify the ward’s white population. “As black youths have been knifed by white, so have whites by black”, she writes to justify her position. Her words as an 18-year-old fresher are not dissimilar from those of her premiership, where she spoke repeatedly of her dislike of identity politics. The party these words are meant to bolster now, though, is notably different.

Much can be said of how this article, written so early in Truss’ political career, mirrors or does not mirror her later attitudes, but I will leave you to ponder this rather ironic condemnation of the political scene of the early ’90s for yourselves: “We live in an odd political environment where nobody knows what anybody stands for, where slanging matches win elections and where councils have so little power nobody gives a damn anyway.”

You’ll remember, of course, that Truss only ascended to the top job in British politics by slinging mud at her fellow Tories, though such people were not her ‘fellows’ when she was at Merton. As this article, dated 21st October 1993, suggests, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same. No mention of any troubles with lettuce during her student days though.

Watch this space for our next time capsule adventure, where you can get a taste of Truss’ time as an elected SU official – specifically, how much she hated the concept of a women’s officer.

Image credits: Charlie Bowden (1) and Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street via a United Kingdom Open Government License v3.0 (2)

Image descriptions: A photograph of an article titled ‘Where Black and White leave no grey areas’ in a 1993 edition of The Oxford Student (1) and Liz Truss’ official portrait as Prime Minister (2)