Whatever happened to the St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Society?

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Marcus Buist & Ian Donnell. Photo: Lorelei Pfeiffer
Photo: Michael Green, The society committee that was elected at the AGM
Photo: Michael Green. The society committee that was elected at the AGM in April

Both Ian Donnell, the chairman of the St Andrews Conservative Society and President of Conservative Future Scotland, and Marcus Buist, the candidate who was defeated in the fraudulent Annual General Meeting (AGM) that took place earlier this year, have spoken to The Saint following the official disaffiliation of the Conservative Society from Students’ Association.

Explaining in more depth why the society chose to disaffiliate with the Students Association, Mr Donnell said, “Well we released our statement last week – explaining what was happening regarding the Students’ Association selling our membership. We had a few major gripes with that, the first was that we weren’t being told who membership was being sold to, and as they seemed to judge us as the legitimate interim committee, we didn’t think that was right.

Going on, Mr Donnell added, “Also, because membership of our society is also membership of the Conservative Party, the Union was not aware of the mechanisms by which that was done, so to us that was wholly inappropriate.

Mr Donnell also objected to how the Conservative Society and its committee was treated by the Students’ Association, “Well as far as we were concerned there was no precedent, I  couldn’t have gone to the desk that day and asked to buy membership of the Tunnock’s Tea Cake Appreciation Society.

“We had explained in our statement, that we were perfectly open to sell membership to anyone that wanted, we were outside St Mary’s Place every day at Freshers’ week as well as being at the Freshers’ Fair. We’ve had three events publicised on social media that were open to absolutely everybody, no matter who’d have come they’d have been sold membership at that stage.”

Mr Donnell also told The Saint why the committee felt so strongly that certain former members should not be allowed back into the society, that they had to disaffiliate, saying that “While we had all these events that anyone was welcome to come to, it was noticed to us that there were a few members from last year who didn’t come to sign up, but that to us was no surprise.

“There were a few members who were behaving in such a way, and saying things to some of our members that were threatening and making them feel uncomfortable. Our party believes in the right to equal opportunity and that everyone has an equal shot at life and giving people the best possible opportunities and these people were voicing openly opinions which were in contradiction to this. As far as we were concerned as a committee [these past members] jeopardised the aim of our society.”

Mr Donnell also explained why the committee had chosen to disaffiliate rather than pursue arbitration per Students’ Association rules, “We expressed interest with the Students’ Association in being able to appeal memberships of certain students because of what’s been going on, and we weren’t provided with any clear mechanism to do so.

“In the absence of that we were left with no other option but to disaffiliate. It was of primary importance to us that our society remained open and inclusive to people that valued its aims and quite frankly for the safety and security of our members it was quite crucial that we disaffiliated.”

Mr Donnell also said that the society intended to continue on, essentially as normal “I think we’re going to continue in much the same vein. For us it’s always been about focusing on three key strands: our policy, campaigns and social activities.

“So far we’ve had a really good couple of socials and we’ll be starting to campaign in the run up to the local elections in May. All our events this year from week 1 to now have been very, very successful, which I’ve been delighted with.”

Continuing, Mr Donnell added, “Since we have begun the process of disaffiliation we’ve had a large in take of very enthusiastic freshers’ and post grads, as well as students coming forward from other years now keen to join the association as they felt that destructive elements who had discouraged them joining before have now gone. This has been a promising sign for us, and underscores the reasoning behind our decision.

The defeated candidate Marcus Buist told The Saint that, “It’s very sad that, in truth, the society chose to be disaffiliated.

“Despite the fact that the constitution binds the committee to respect the standing orders of the Union, despite the fact that the current constitution binds them not to be discriminatory and to accept all members properly signed up, including members signed up through the union.

“They chose not to accept certain members, sometimes on personal grounds. In truth, they recognised that in a free and fair election that they wouldn’t have the [support of] membership with them. They chose to take this action, which they are not entitled to take without consulting the membership. The Union was obviously probably quite content to disassociate itself from the society being as it is in current state.

Mr Buist also dismissed accusations that the committee had wanted to fairly exclude members who were making others feel uncomfortable, saying, “Undoubtedly in my mind it was to make excuses. Now I’m sure some of them genuinely believe some of the things that have been said, I think that those things are largely ungrounded.

“Obviously I reject certain accusations accusations that have been made anonymously by certain people. Many of the people they chose to reject were members of the Conservative Party or in any case were members last year. Obviously they’re not allowed to do that according to Union rules, and I think that’s where the focus should be, on the fact that they refused to abide by fair Union rules because they thought that it would lose them an election.

Mr Buist also spoke of his hope that there might be some form of Conservative society restored to affiliation with the Students’ Association at some point, “There are a large number of members, Conservative supporters, people interested in politics, who want to see a more honest and a more fun student politics which cuts out all of this political infighting and all that nonsense, and who want to have a connection with the Union, at the moment there is no society for them which is a significant shame.

“The current committee of the disaffiliated society should think very carefully about what they’ve done to deny those people a chance to connect their politics or political interest with their studies and membership of the union.

“The society grew from having less than 10 regular members at the start of last year to having an official membership of just under 80 people, when we sung together we sung with one voice. We debated ideas together and I want it to go back to that, and with some people that’s not going to be possible because they’ve allowed it to get tied up with their own personal views.

“But I believe that we can have a future, but that it must be based around a society that remembers that we’re all students and that it should be for students, that maybe puts egos to one side for a little bit, including my own.”

The full statement by the Students’ Association on the decision by the Conservative Society to disaffiliate can be found here.

From start to finish: a timeline

18 April – Fraudulent AGM held.

19 MayThe Saint article detailing allegations of election foul play is published; Students’ Association launch investigation into the AGM.

15 September – Confirmation of election fraud and other details of the investigation disclosed to The Saint.

19 September – Conservative Society committee informed of results of investigation following a press enquiry from The Saint.

20 September – Meeting between committee and Students’ Association officials to “rectify lack of communication.”

20 September – The Conservative Society was issued a notice to cure [a formal request to rectify the situation], with the understanding that the Societies Committee would oversee the upcoming election.

23 September – Several people attempt to purchase membership through the Union, claiming to be members from last year. The Students’ Association authorises this under Standing Order 7.3.1 which states that, “Should any person dispute their membership in a society prior to a general meeting of the society, the Societies Committee shall have exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate membership status.”

23 September – Students’ Association attempts to contact Conservative Society to discuss the option of selling membership through the Cash Office, but receive no reply

23 September – The Conservative Society issued “a notice to cure” that asked them to release the location of the AGM publicly in a timely manner so that all who wanted to attend would have equal access. Disaffiliation was threatened by the Students’ Association by Monday 26 September – 12PM if the society did not respond to this request.

26 September – St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Society voluntarily chooses to disaffiliate from the Students’ Association.

Marcus Buist & Ian Donnell. Photo: Lorelei Pfeiffer
Marcus Buist & Ian Donnell. Photo: Lorelei Pfeffer

Student perspectives

The Saint asked several students around town for their perspectives on the St Andrews Conservative society election rigging scandal.

Isabella Duffy, a second year student studying Modern History said, “Speaking as a Conservative myself, I am disappointed that a student group that shares the same political ideologies as me has decided to break away from the students association, making the society more exclusive than it need be.

“I feel that it hinders current and prospective students from getting involved in Conservative politics in an environment that should be encouraging students to develop their political knowledge.”

However, Eliot Jordan, a first year studying History disagreed, when speaking about the terms of the split from the Association he said: “It’s evidence of just how anti-conservative and politically biased the Union, The Saint, and the University community is.”

Reily Tift, a second year studying International Relations in the William & Mary programme said: “My first thought is that they better be financially stable because I’m sure the Union gives them a fair bit of money. It might lose some prestige as they’ll have to book non-Union affiliated venues for events”

Casper Sanderson, a second year, studying in Arabic, Persian and Russian said: “I thought it was extremely dishonest to rig elections like that, especially when the committee is one concerned with politics – an area where fair vote representation is very important.”

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