As a general rule, referenda are one of the highest expressions of democratic engagement of an electorate with a policy, a mechanism for bypassing the various layers of representatives and committees and ascertaining a resolution to a debate directly from the people. Therefore, a logical corollary of this is that the kinds of issues that are resolved with referenda are those which excite passions and the mass mobilisation of otherwise relatively uninterested voters. These are often those age-old, deeply divisive, questions of identity and autonomy which we saw manifest in the high-turnout referendum on Scottish independence and will no doubt see again whenever the UK electorate determines its future within the European Union. Referenda with low turnout, such as the far more technical proposition of mildly changing the UK’s voting system in 2011, are forever remembered as the damp squibs of attempted direct democracy.
These fundamental points render the recent and frankly embarrassing implosion of the scheduled referendum which would have determined our continued independence from the NUS mystifying. With a student body the majority of which is different from the one that participated in the last referendum on NUS membership, the timing of the one set to take place on the 19th and 20th November is not entirely puzzling. However, a largely new electorate is not a sufficient prompt: it should have coincided with a radically new perspective on and appetite for the NUS that was at least palpable within the current discourse amongst students and preferably demonstrated through some sort of expression of popular will, such as a petition. These criteria were categorically unfulfilled at the time that the SRC called for this recently-defunct referendum last April in an instance of what Pat Mathewson unequivocally described as “malpractice”. I certainly do not remember a single person at any point last spring self-righteously thumping their pint down and declaring “You know what this university needs? NUS membership!”. Quite what those on the SRC who voted for the fateful motion were thinking would happen between then and now is anybody’s guess.
The last referendum on this subject in 2012 appears to have generated substantial chatter amongst student politics aficionados and caused a great deal of spilt ink within the pages of The Saint, but, as with many elections, the great victor at the crucial moment of voting was apathy. The ‘No’ campaign may have claimed a fairly decisive 75% of the vote, but when this is put in the context of a turnout of 26% their triumph is somewhat diminished. Barely 1 in 5 students enrolled at St Andrews at the time cared enough about opposing NUS membership to actively vote against it. I need not say anything about the popularity of the ‘Yes’ vote. Fast-forward to 2015, and the situation remains unchanged. The almost microscopic levels of discussion generated by the proposed November referendum which I could detect voiced only weary disbelief that the matter had been raised yet again. Even the claims of implicit partiality and misconduct on the part of the SRC and wilful ignorance of the preliminary meetings of the campaign teams on the part of Union- accompanied by the resignation of both spokespeople for the ‘Yes’ campaign- did nothing to motivate more than one student to attend the ‘Yes’ EGM held to replace the vacated positions. The campaign was suspended, and then shut down without the slightest hint of contention from either within the SRC or student body as a whole.
What is it that makes St Andrews students so unresponsive to the idea of NUS membership? Firstly, student activism and politics beyond the annual SRC elections (with a heavy focus on the position of Association President) is practically unknown to our quaint cobbled streets. The ‘Yes Scotland’ tellers who faced me as I entered my polling station to vote in September 2014 were local residents, not students filled with the youthful idealism of a popular movement sweeping across the country. Even within the passionate throes of a general election, the sole expression of student political engagement were three tweed-clad young men with Tory rosettes and a Union Flag, trampling up and down South Street singing ‘Jerusalem’ in an act which I assume (or at least hope) was in part self-satirising. Purely as an observation, St Andreans are more content with their charity and creative events than with putting the world to rights and fighting the classic ‘student-y’ battles for equality and justice. You seriously think that the Kate Kennedy Club would not have had their procession picketed by some fiery left-leaning fringe group in a much more mobilised university such as Warwick or Sussex? For the most part, we would take a glass of port and a cosy presentation about poverty over a protest in the pouring rain outside Parliament any day. The NUS, with its speakers at TUC conferences and mass demonstrations against tuition fees, simply does not appeal to a group of people for whom the last great outrage was the queue for Christmas Ball tickets.
This apathy towards grassroots activism, and the NUS in particular, is a result of both the geographic credentials of our university and the composition of the international and domestic students. Out on a limb, in a small town bookended by the North Sea on one side and miles of farmland on the other, without a train station and with all of the basic amenities available at our doorstep, life in St Andrews can be famously insular and isolated from the rest of the country. It is not unheard of to never leave for weeks on end, inducing oneself into a comforting rhythm of library, class, grocery shopping, going out, library. The great emotive issues of social injustice that undoubtedly spur some of our metropolitan counterparts into action seem a world away, barely ever touching our corner of Fife. As a result, our distinctively large international contingent are never confronted with the potentially grim realities of life in much of the UK, and instead maintain their ethical sights on international and global problems, using the power of their voice to educate their peers in the lecture theatre than to petition a government which does not even allow them a vote on the streets. This is coupled with a predominantly conservative and Conservative domestic student body, for whom the current status quo both in terms of the affairs of the state and St Andrews’ independence from a notoriously partisan left-wing organisation such as the NUS is totally satisfactory. If you like the way things are then apathy is as good as opposition to change, especially when that change does not appear especially forthcoming. The NUS has neither the outlook nor the agenda that would gain any traction with the students of St Andrews and incite them into pleading for membership.
In addition to the St Andrean cultural milieu, there is history. St Andrews has been independent from the NUS since 1975, and in that time we have evolved from a relatively poor cousin of Oxbridge (a mature student once told me of the ridicule Dundee students used to pour on their contemporaries across the Tay during the 1980s, a curious inversion of circumstances to anyone au fait with our university’s Yik Yak feed) to a thriving institution with an academic record which precedes it across the world. We have one of the most consistently buoyant student satisfaction rates in the country and have maintained a sense of community and heritage which is unparalleled at other larger universities. No one is saying that everything is perfect, but if one were to adumbrate a general trend in St Andrews’ fortunes over the last four decades, then the line would certainly slope upwards. Whether or not these accomplishments are directly related to the fact that we have remained unaffiliated with the NUS is immaterial; the only point of importance is that we feel generally happy, successful and secure. In that sort of climate, there is little enthusiasm for altering what appears to be a winning formula unless there is an absolute guarantee that only more good will come from doing so. Moving the centre of political gravity away from the comforting proximity of St Mary’s Place and towards a more distant and vastly less accountable organisation does not provide that kind of guarantee.
If the general mentality and particulars of the average St Andrews student already work to the disadvantage of any pro-NUS campaign, the current events weaken their position even further. At a time when serious questions are being asked across the media and beyond regarding the tightened de facto parameters for freedom of expression within universities and perfectly respectable speakers such as Germaine Greer are being hounded out of these supposed centres for reasonable academic discussion, the NUS’ “No Platform” policy has fallen, quite justifiably, under a spotlight of considerable suspicion. It has already been responsible for unilaterally suppressing a debate about multiculturalism in Durham in 2010 and for playing a part in disrupting several other events hosted by the Oxford and Cambridge Unions. Quite frankly, who the Hell should have the right to decide to who speaks at a seat of learning and what they say aside from the law of the land and the hosts themselves? The prevarication of the NUS executive committee in passing a motion condemning ISIS last year is unlikely to cast the union in a better light following the tragic incidents that unfolded recently in Paris. Finally, the generally worsening opinion of several institutions concerning the NUS has seen the disaffiliation of Imperial College, Southampton and Durham as well as the membership of Oxford hang precariously in the balance. There is widespread tendency to approach the NUS with a certain degree of mistrust, especially regarding its recent dubious record in maintaining accountability befitting of an avowedly democratic organisation. If ever there were a time to join the NUS, then this does not seem to be it.
Apathy from most and ferocious opposition from some: these attitudes towards the NUS membership are the product of a university with a rich history of independence and internationalism and a detachment from the rest of the UK that has enhanced a global outlook. As the debating chambers of member universities find themselves besieged from protestors with radical and often censorious agendas and the organisation empowering them to do so faces criticism for questionable democratic practices and greater readiness to condemn UKIP over ISIS, there is scant likelihood of those attitudes ever changing. If I hadn’t made my position already clear throughout this article, I welcome the steadfast improbability that I’ll ever witness an SRC with an NUS officer. Perhaps that fact- that here in St Andrews is even a Jeremy Corbyn voter who wants nothing to do with the NUS- sufficiently illustrates just how thankfully slim the chances of affiliation are.