Lessons on Conservatism in Cambridge

On Friday, November 11, Armistice Day was commemorated in the United Kingdom to mark the armistice signed in 1918 between the Allied Powers and Germany for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I. In the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, Armistice Day has come to be known as Poppy Day due to the solemn tradition of wearing remembrance poppies in honor of fallen soldiers. 

On Poppy Day this year, I walked through the Old Court of Pembroke College, Cambridge, where I am studying abroad for the fall semester, and caught the end of a two-minute silence held near the college’s World War I Memorial. Commemorative wreaths were laid in front of the memorial, and most attendees sported poppies on their lapels. That understated, quintessentially Cambridgean ceremony typified Britain’s admirable appreciation for a monumental conflict that goes sadly unrecognized in American culture.

I have since learned that in the same way masks in the United States, whether appropriately or not, have come to be seen as markers of political affiliation, wearing a poppy in Cambridge is indicative of certain beliefs. This is an imperfect generalization, but, by and large, Cambridge students who wear poppies in November are more likely to be conservatives, monarchists, traditionalists, or associated with the Tory Party. As one might expect in a university town, there are disappointingly few poppies in sight. There are correspondingly few conservatives to be found, even within political clubs.

Every Thursday night, the Cambridge Union, which markets itself as the oldest debating society in the world and is the largest society at the University, hosts a weekly debate. The parliamentary style debates feature guest and student speakers arguing either in proposition or opposition to the given motion. I have attended Union debates on motions including This House “Has No Confidence In His Majesty’s Government,” “Has Had Enough of Experts,” and “Would Vote Blue No Matter Who.”

The state of student conservatism in Cambridge is so unenviable that many of the speakers who are charged with defending the ostensibly conservative position on the motion do so through left-wing arguments. For example, in between the speeches of the slated speakers, members of the audience are invited by the Union president to give floor speeches either in proposition, opposition, or abstention to the motion. 

Several students called upon to speak in favor of now-former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s Conservative government argued that they had more faith in His Majesty’s government than the Labour Party because Labour, before the Conservatives reclaimed power in 2010, had not kept its most left-wing promises with regards to energy and welfare spending and social policy. Floor speakers in favor of the motion that This House Has Had Enough of Experts took the view that experts could no longer be trusted because the expert class is not sufficiently racially diverse. 

During the debate over the American midterm elections, whose motion’s phrasing betrayed the political bias of the Union, a scheduled speaker for the opposition essentially argued that one should not Vote Blue No Matter Who because the Democratic Party has not proven itself sufficiently left-leaning. There was little mention, even arguendo, of any reasons an American might not vote blue because of conservative principles or in reaction to the incumbents’ performance. Instead, left-wing premises were taken for granted on every side of a motion being considered in what is supposed to be one of the world’s leading sites of academic freedom and open discourse.

Such biases have even seeped into the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA). CUCA hosts weekly debates conducted in the same manner as those run by the Union, except with three motions. I have attended CUCA debates, which are colloquially called “port and policy,” on motions such as “The European Union Is Authoritarian,” “Strikes Should Be Banned,” and “Trump Should be the Nominee In 2024.”

I have made many friends in CUCA, but as one economics student at Gonville & Caius College told me, the society is “so left-wing now.” CUCA is seemingly full of as many Labour activists and registered Democrats as it is conservatives. Progressive students are, of course, welcome to join CUCA and contribute immensely to open debate, but one would think that at the Conservative Association of all places, unashamed conservatism would be standard fare.

The Cambridge Union and CUCA are each full of brilliant orators and future parliamentarians, and I have made friends from both. Talented students of every ideological persuasion should involve themselves with all manner of political societies. However, just as progressive students believe that their joining CUCA heightens discourse, free speech at Cambridge, just like at other universities, would benefit from a larger conservative presence.

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About Chris Coffey

Chris Coffey is a junior studying history, philosophy, and public policy. Chris will be studying abroad this fall at Pembroke College, Cambridge. In his free time, Chris enjoys tennis, chess, and reading.