Reflections on a Trinity of Referenda

27/05/2015 15:35 BST | Updated 24/05/2016 10:59 BST

With the 'Trinity of Referenda' now over in Oxford, it is worth considering what the two campaigns, and the results, ultimately showed about the Oxford student politics.

Dealing firstly with the referendum that appeared little more than an afterthought, nobody appeared to know why we were having a referendum on moving our annual elections forward one term. In such an atmosphere, it is not hard to guess why this referendum suffered from an abstention rate of more than 50%, compared with an abstention rate of less than 1% for both of the other two. Perhaps because of the referendum's status as an inexplicable afterthought, campaigning on both sides was very limited; in fact, I could find no Facebook page for the Yes campaign for this referendum at all, and the No page hardly posted until election day. Little more needs said on this issue, with the apathy can speak for itself.

Moving on to the two remaining referenda, which were in practice dovetailed together, and the first thing to remark is that despite its successes, the Yes campaign for subfusc was not without its flaws. One was an occasional attitude of apologism vis-à-vis the claims being made on the other side; instead of making arguments such as 'subfusc can be opted out of when needed' in answer to attempts to make the referendum one on mental health, it would have been more helpful to ask for arguments supporting the extreme idea of outright abolition of subfusc as opposed to other, less extreme measures to accommodate mental health needs within the system. Another problem (at least in the teething period) was focusing on arguments about uniform which - while important - pale in comparison to arguments of pride and tradition, although the consistent publishing by the campaign of diverse supporting messages more than made up for this by the end of the referendum.

The same cannot, in my opinion, be said of the No campaign. Perhaps it was because I was already on the other side of the fence, but the argumentation of the No campaign - if anything - only cemented my position against it. The most disingenuous was, of course, that the referendum was just about making subfusc optional, an argument that missed the point entirely since to make a dress code optional is to abolish it, and moreover post-referendum there would doubtless be considerable social pressure on future students not to keep wearing a rejected uniform. Another disingenuous argument was the that it was our job to send tokenistic messages to the media about 'taking access seriously' - when Oxford already has the most generous access schemes in the country - rather than attacking that problem at the root, namely that the (very strong) messages that Oxford sends out about access are wilfully ignored by a media that has a clear interest in promoting anti-Oxford stories to sell papers by fuelling confirmation biases.

The making of disingenuous arguments is nothing compared to the increasing marriage of the No campaign to radical left politics in Oxford as the referendum itself progressed. With this in mind, the obsession of some activists for the No campaign with portraying the subfusc debate as one about combating elitism was perhaps to be expected, with state school voices readily appropriated by the No campaign, which some activists openly portrayed as being about whether we cared about those poor, feeble state schoolers who couldn't stand the sight of it and one going as far as to effectively argue that Robert Nozick's utility monster must be fed. To their credit, the Yes campaign effectively countered this by publishing the thoughts of those people who were anything but members of an elite but who nevertheless supported subfusc, and the wealth of submitted messages, as well as the overall result, should be telling as to whether appropriating the voices of disadvantaged students into the No campaign had any moral legitimacy.


These attempts to marry the No campaign to radical leftism reached their most offensive at the end of the campaign, with the final Facebook post by the campaign openly trying to argue that the award of scholar's gowns was racist (without any evidence) and invoking homelessness and foodbanks, despite the two being unrelated to subfusc, in what appeared to be shameless emotional blackmail. On the 'point' about scholar's gowns in the post, beyond the disgusting belittling of my achievements by suggesting that the only reason I received a First in my Prelims was because I was white (as opposed to all the hard work I put in), it must be remembered that gowns were the subject of a separate question entirely and, amusingly, received a larger endorsement than subfusc itself. The coup de grace, beyond the open questioning (with little in the way of answers) to the assumptions behind it, was surely the final message of support published by the Yes campaign (pictured below). Dishearteningly, however, this did not even go away after the referendum; I was told it was apparently 'interesting' that the only three people I named in my thank-yous were also white men (the obvious first reply being that most published messages were anonymous), as if firstly our ethnicities were in any way relevant, and secondly as if such a resounding endorsement could really be reduced to 'white men versus the world' (Hint: it couldn't).


Going forward, my first hope is that the result of this referendum - with the largest turnout ever seen in an English SU Referendum - coupled with the previous landslide endorsement of subfusc in 2006 means that the result of the referendum is respected for a bit longer than last time; the frequency of the referenda suggest that there is a degree of neverendum tactics in play supposing that if we are asked the question enough times, we'll say No to prevent yet another. Secondly, I would hope that these endorsements also persuade any examiners that do think the tradition is simply "a general pain" that they should stop trying to enforce their personal preference for ending a tradition in the face of consistent, overwhelming support for its continuation and value. Thirdly, if we must have another, I would hope that a future No campaign does not simply marry itself to the radical left and its jaundiced view of politics and tradition at large and comes up with better arguments, assuming such arguments exist; as one friend put it: the only robust argument for complete abolition seems to be 'I don't like it', and we should not take this as compelling just because we see monsters in the shadows.