Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Brown on student politics

Gordon Brown, Prime Minister and ex-News Editor of the Student, comments on the futility of student politics

Pipes and promises have mixed uneasily this week with the realities of student power.
Despite the talk of food, failures and flats (did they promise 300,000 or 400,000?) and the usual diplomatically announced campaign meetings that never take place, today's climax to a week's electioneering will not belie the real victor. Apathy is streets ahead.
Who in fact wants to make himself a student politician? The wild-eyed idealist, the worried incompetent or the shaggy radical?
Beyond the facades of second-hand rosettes, lewd posters, non-candidates and even modesty (with in Churchill's phrase a lot to be modest about), two types of student politician can be detected: the politician who wants to see ideas put into action (and usually doesn't wait around very long if they aren't), and the politician who wants to see himself in action.
The ego trip is by far the most compelling explanation for the student politician. Either he is conscious of his own social inadequacies or he is dreaming up a career in real politics. But who ever makes it? Is the SRC debate - home of irrelevant debate and pissed-off members - really the breeding ground for our nation's leaders?
The most important thing about a student politician, however, is that he cannot do much. Once at the top of his greasy pole, he is supported, like a rope the person it hangs, by a diffuse, disorganised and apathetic student body whose interest does not even reach to the level of throwing flourbombs.
His mandate is a myth - only highly emotional issues like the South African shares [the University owning shares in companies in apartheid South Africa] give him power from below - and I know for sure that when the results are known, the University secretariat will be counting the vote, taking out their log tables and working out their percentages to prove how unrepresentative the new president is: "Ah, Mr Turberville - Drummond - Manley - McLean. I see 8.7 per cent of the students wanted you."
And at the other extreme our student politician is told he is below a University administration of professors and bureaucrats to whom power comes naturally.
He may attend sherry parties (and hopefully vomit) and sip tea with the powers that be but he himself is not a power. He and his funds are responsible in theory and in practice to someone else.
Sooner or later (and for most unfortunately it is later) our student politician will have to come face to face with the dreadful truth that the realities of power are that he doesn't have any.
What he is doing is manning the University's least popular committees and making up the numbers at formal occasions: propping up in fact an undemocratic and authoritarian system (which he doesn't believe in) without being able to change a thing.
So can a politician achieve anything? I believe he can - only by first realising the limits of the possible. That his actual power is minimal; and that his real power is as a propagandist - in providing ideas and policies for changing the whole of university government, and as an administrator - putting money to better uses.

This comment first appeared in the Student in 1971. It has been edited for clarity

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