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Alexander Rankine

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A Very Liberal Place

Posted: 11/02/2013 20:30

Last Tuesday Nicola Blackwood, the Oxford West and Abingdon MP, did not vote on the Gay marriage bill. This was not for want of trying by Oxford students. Indeed, given that she first stated that she was opposed to the bill, her decision to stay away from the vote counts as a small victory for those in favour of the proposal.

There is no denying the scale of interest in and support for what its proponents term 'equal marriage' at Oxford University. A student newspaper article lambasting her opposition as "local prejudice" swiftly received thousands of views and multiple Facebook likes. The amount of student interest was in marked contrast to other student newspaper fare. My own articles now look positively unloved by comparison. But the indignation did not stop with a single swell of online activity. Much Oxford politics is conducted through each college's junior and middle common rooms, for undergraduates and graduate students respectively. As knowledge of Ms Blackwood's opposition spread, the presidents of 38 of these common rooms signed a latter calling on the local MP to embrace the change: "We were appalled to hear of your intention to oppose legislation on equal marriage and believe it inadequately represents your constituency." Only a handful of Oxford colleges lie in Ms Blackwood's constituency, but most presidents wrote regardless, on the basis that many of the students they represent live out in areas she represents. Indignation also fired the willingness to write: "By restricting the LGBTQ community to civil partnerships, you undermine that group and their relationships. How can lesbian and gay communities hope to be seen as equal if the state condones such fundamental discrimination?" The letter stated.

Oxford is a politically diverse place. Those backing "the 99%" and radical changes to how society organises itself share common rooms and tutorials with libertarians deeply suspicious of any government involvement, as well as a handful of careerists unashamedly plotting to join the high-earning 1% if they possibly can. Of course, middle-class prejudices and conceptions abound and, as is normal in universities, most students fall broadly to the left of the centre ground. But there is little homogeneity in people's views, and lively debate and wholly opposed opinions are always close at hand.

Gay marriage has been an exception. Of course the left-wing people have been out in force, both of labour and liberal stripes (the latter a derisory force in universities today). I can think of no other issue which has so clogged my twitter feed with excited coverage, as university politicos commented on every development with #equalmarriage invariably appended. But you would struggle to find even right-wingers amongst the cloisters who are willing to oppose the change. Most on the right here identify themselves with libertarian positions, liberal in matters both social and economic. Social conservatism is a rare, and increasingly endangered breed. I am sure there are people here who oppose the move, often on religious grounds. Yet now that I think about it, I couldn't name anyone I know of who has openly voiced that view. In a place where open debate is normally held sacred, they would most likely be shouted down, and even accused of bigotry, as this piece from Oxbridge's other half attests.

What is notable about the debate then, is not only how many students subscribe to the liberal position, but also how forcefully, even intolerantly, those views are held. That homosexuals should have the same rights in the matter of marriage is so manifest to students, so unquestionably a good thing, that its opponents do not merely hold a different view, their opinions are evidence of 'bigotry', 'homophobia', and 'local prejudice'. It is interesting how socially liberal the Oxbridge milieu is today, the stomping ground as it is - no doubt - of more than a few future politicians. But these opinions are not just confined to these little bubbles of privilege. A YouGov poll says that 80% of 18- to 24-year-olds support gay marriage, far higher than for older age groups. For the over 60s support is just 31%. Given how many of the 20% of 18- to 24-year-olds who do not support gay marriage will be undecided rather than opposed, the question seems barely a matter for debate amongst my age group. Such consensus in the young will be felt most a few decades in the future. This is the stuff of social change. The social conservatism of the likes of Peter Bone, the fence-sitting uncertainty of Nicola Blackwood, these will have little place when this liberal generation takes the reins.

 

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