My good friend Adam Ramsay had a piece in the Guardian the other day about student activism, putting forward his view that the main job of students is to save the world and have fun. Despite what many people think the two are not mutually exclusive.
I credit my time at university, and the people I met in that period of my life, with shaping my politics quite substantially. The groundwork may have been laid earlier – by compassionate parents and dinner table discussions – but uni was the time when I became more able to articulate what I believe in, and why.
People always think I’m joking when I say that I left school still believing that Karl Marx was a member of the Marx brothers comedy act, but sadly it’s true. (Quite how I managed an A in Higher Economics without knowing who wrote The Communist Manifesto, I don’t know, but there you go…)
By the time I graduated four years later, I had learnt so much more – not just about Art History and English Literature – but about the big wide world beyond the campus. Lecture theatres were all well and good, but it was in pubs and student flats, over black coffees and cheap beers where I learned the really important stuff.
The people I met at uni – people like Adam, who now works full time for the campaigning organisation People and Planet – were the ones who introduced me to debates around the Nestlé boycott, the Middle East, climate change, US politics, Fair Trade, trade unions, Scottish Independence and numerous other issues. And when you’re surrounded by people who spend their spare time shimmying up lampposts with campaign placards, or going door-to-door gathering petition signatures, it’s hard not to feel inspired by that. Their enthusiasm and passion were infectious; what a joy it was to be in the company of intelligent people who believed the world could be a fairer and better place, and were prepared to work hard to make that happen.
After graduating I was lucky enough to spend a year as the elected President of my Student Union. It was the hardest I’ve worked in my entire life, but it was also incredible fun. The work I did in that year – representing Edinburgh’s 22,000 students to the university, in the local community, to external bodies like the Scottish Parliament, and in the press – was probably not world-changing stuff, but it was important in its own wee way. We campaigned on issues that were immediately relevant to students in the city – like the cost of travel, accommodation and tuition fees. But we also campaigned on issues that were more about global citizenship; twinning our own union with one in the West Bank, lobbying the University to revoke Robert Mugabe’s honorary degree, and persuading other universities and unions to become Fairtrade.
Adam’s point about making campaigning enjoyable is an important one. No matter how serious the issue is that you’re working on, if you can’t bring some element of joy to the campaign around it, you’re never going to win. Whether that’s something as simple as bringing cake to meetings, heading to the pub after a long debate, or using humour in your tactical approach (one of my favourite campaign stunts involved sending a pair of flipflops to every Lib Dem member of the Scottish Parliament, emblazoned with a picture of their leader’s face, when they kept changing their mind about which side they were on in a crucial tuition fee vote), if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s an attitude that I think is easy to lose, as you get older, and the pressures on your time become more plentiful. Campaigning for or against anything starts to feel like a bit of a drag, just another item to squeeze onto the to-do list. It becomes a lot easier to turn to online activism – signing an e-petition, forwarding a campaign email, or writing a blog post. I am as guilty of it as anyone. But does that kind of slacktivism really achieve much?
Adam’s post has given me a bit of a kick. It has reminded me that campaigning is about building a sense of community, solidarity, and shared purpose. It has reminded me that campaigning is supposed to be fun. It has reminded me that although technology is a wonderful thing, there are a lot of things that can’t be done sitting behind a computer.
So I’m off to bake a cake. Find a meeting of likeminded people. Save the world.
I might even start a conversation about Karl Marx, now that I know who he is.
Who’s with me?