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Tory Party: Is St Andrews a Conservative Cornucopia?

Anybody who has spent some time in our little Scottish seaside town knows that St Andrews is a unique environment.

Golf and tourism play their own roles, of course. More distinctly, the town has a lively political scene that sets it apart from other universities in the United Kingdom.

At the university level in the U.K., the Labour Party appears to hold a near monopoly on the student vote with upwards of 62% support, far above the next-largest party, the Conservatives, at roughly 12%.

Prior to my arrival in St Andrews, I believed that the town had a reputation for being more right-wing than other universities in the U.K.. I thought it might have a more diverse political environment.

Despite such an impossible zeitgeist to strictly quantify, I have endeavoured to see whether the political societies around town share this same unsubstantiated belief about the right-wing nature of St Andrews and, furthermore, the reasons behind such a divergence.

While I have occasionally been called monomaniacal about this issue, one must address the elephant in the room — private education.

While only 7% of the United Kingdom attended a private school, that number swells to roughly 40% at the St Andrews student body. I have a sneaking suspicion that these figures exclude international students.

Given the number of people at this university who benefited from a fee-paying education, one can assume that they may take on a more right-wing mindset.

Allow me to preemptively answer your pleas of, “but Joseph, what about bursaries?” According to the Private Education Policy Forum, only 1% of the privately educated receive a full bursary, with another 7% receiving a partial bursary. Nonetheless, if you ask around, everybody you ask in town appears to have been supported by a bursary when they went to their private schools.

To investigate the stances of St Andrews’s political societies on this perception of the town’s uniquely right-wing predilection, I contacted them directly.

Unfortunately, the Convenor of the Nationalist Society (STAUSFI) declined to comment, but I sat down with the Chairman of the St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association, (and coincidentally the editor of this paper), Alex Beckett.

Beckett shared my theories and indeed believed that, based on his knowledge of St Andrews’s reputation, “I would expect the Conservative Association’s membership to be larger than it is. In the past, it has been proportionally much, much larger within the student body.”

The natural conservatism of St Andrews to which Beckett refers has come into conflict with perhaps a more insidious force — apathy. Beckett believes that political engagement at university has declined across all parties and societies. He argues that, whatever the cause, these factors need to be identified and combated with “moderate urgency”.

Beckett’s commentary was largely positive. A Northern Ireland native, Beckett commended the internationally diverse makeup of the student body and how it ensures that varied and lively debate percolates through the university experience at large and into STAUCA events.

Reduced engagement across the board notwithstanding, Beckett was pleased that (disregarding an intransigent core of closed minds) the majority of people that he has met here via political discourse are less dogmatic than those from Ulster. They are more willing to discuss the issues without recourse to strict labels.

On the other side of the political spectrum, I also got in touch with the Labour Society.

The St Andrews Labourites have recently taken a more leftwards turn, partially fusing with the Socialist Society.

Kevin Lee, the society treasurer, agreed with the assessment of St Andrews as a fundamentally right-wing environment, rife with privilege and ridden with secret societies (as examined by The Saint just a month ago).

Compared to Beckett, Lee was confident that the numbers of the Labour Society were “right around where we would expect them”, largely because of the belief that the society’s recent radicalisation has attracted more progressive students.

Previously, such students perhaps did not feel included by “small c conservative” Labour committees who sang the praises of New Labour as self-titled “moderates”.

With the leadership of the national Labour Party shifting much more rightwards than it was under Jeremy Corbyn, Lee believes that, in tandem with Beckett, a lack of enthusiasm is the real problem.

According to Lee, the “sense that Labour will inevitably take No. 10 at the next general election” has presented a nagging issue with Labour’s membership in town. Distaste for the Conservative Party presents a confidence in victory, more so than any dissemination of left-wing ideals throughout St Andrews.

After finally agreeing on something with the Conservative Association, Lee was nonetheless at pains to assert that — in addition to the University’s great diversity due to its international population — “St Andrews is also a profoundly unequal place, apropos of wealth”.

Having educated multiple members of multiple royal families, some working-class students reported feeling that they do not register on the university’s radar.

As a veteran of many picket lines and student demonstrations, Lee believes that “the university has demonstrated that it is uninterested in the well-being of its working-class members, perhaps as a result of said wealth disparities”. This combination of international diversity and wealth inequality makes St Andrews a particularly right-wing environment compared to the average British university.

As evidenced in Beckett and Lee’s testimony, and in the many conversations I’ve had with people (both on record and off), St Andrew's natural conservatism is actually taken for granted.

Very few people would venture it up as part of a political discussion, but it exists in the background. I think you’ll find that, when pressed, many people in town would agree.

There exists a confluence of reasons, the first being the great wealth concentration in a town that exists only a stone’s throw from some of the most deprived postcodes in the U.K. This works in tandem with the internationally diverse student body that provides many students from the upper echelons of the global elites and the entrenched British private school community. When coupled, both reasons contribute to a political environment nonetheless still similar to many universities in the country, but with a right-wing stratum that makes St Andrews the unique environment that we all know it to be.

Illustration: Darcey Bateson

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