University is a time for idealism. Unfortunately, those involved in the latest series of scandals at Oxford's 189-year-old debating society show that the youthful idealism of some extends only as far as themselves and the position which they feel they ought to occupy in the world. Misogyny, blackmail and computer hacking have been freely employed in the society's latest elections, much of it in ways that are borderline illegal. The newly elected secretary resigned just three days after his election, and wrote an open letter to the student newspaper Cherwell in which he publicly admitted that "there has been wrongdoing and immaturity on all sides in this term's elections."
Now we might just say that this is nothing but a jolly jape at Boris Johnson's old haunt. In that imperishable phrase, often attributed to Kissinger: "university politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small". Whatever bruised egos and broken friendships follow the scandals, the participants will be able to dust themselves off and get on with their lives. In a few years, when they have started stressful careers and are trying to secure mortgages, marriages and pension plans, they will look back on the controversies with a nostalgic pang for the days when nothing really mattered except the game itself.
Only the game may cause them more problems than they think. When Dominic Grieve, the current Attorney General, was at Oxford, he was allegedly one of a gang of students responsible for throwing Damian Green into the river Cherwell. Green, now the Police Minister, was then President of the Oxford Union and bitterly opposed to the right-wing Tory faction of which Grieve was a part. The throwing incident was student politics at its most vicious and, given the shallowness of the river, potentially lethal. But no matter, both left Oxford and built successful public careers. Grieve rose to become the government's top lawyer, the record of his youthful indiscretions safely locked away in Cherwell's voluminous archives, and only coming to light earlier this year after some very extensive digging by a gaggle of enterprising student journalists.
Today's generation are not so fortunate, and certainly do not enjoy David Cameron's entitlement to a "past that remains private". One need only Google the names of the participants in the latest scandals to find material about them which amounts almost to character destruction.
The online environment is a perilous one for the ambitious youth. Firstly there are social networks. Latter-day David Camerons would have not merely one embarrassing picture to contend with but whole albums of material like this going online, probably with titles like "Buller on the Lash", "Buller Smash up Restaurant" and "Dave Smoking Something Suspicious". Pictures aside, there is always the drunken tweet to create problems. The travails of Paris Brown have been but the most recent and prominent case.
But latterly students have been getting wise to what they put online and the security settings they use to control who can see their pictures. The next frontier is the type seen in the union case, where scandals lead to a great deal of information appearing online about a student whether they want it to or not. Such cases are not restricted to student politicians, but can affect anyone. Earlier this year two Oxford students ill-advisedly appeared blacked-up at a College event and had their names published in the student paper. To ensure that their youthful stupidity did not lead to more serious consequences Cherwell chose not to publish their names in the online version for all the world, and future employers, to see. Not everyone will be so fortunate.
The internet and the growth of online media platforms have changed the game. Private pasts cannot be obliterated and university scandals erased. Those involved in the latest union controversy may find when they come to search for those stressful careers with a good pension plan and enough money for the mortgage, their future employers are not so keen to offer them jobs. The stakes in university politics are higher than they think.