The wisdom teeth are out in the newly uncompromising world of university politics. Government and the highest courts of the land are dancing a stubborn constitutional, or maybe un-constitutional, tango. Parliament is in a state of ruin, the building now, according to a UNESCO report, a “tale of decay, disrepair, and dilapidation”; and, while the Palace of Westminster may be standing on the brink of catastrophic failure, it is the happenings inside the Commons which are far more unedifying, to the British people, than the condition of the edifice itself. In March and April, it seemed that if you wanted an extension, you should have gone to Theresa May, not your module convenor. However, the pace has since quickened. The Brexit Party took 31.6 per cent of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections, confirming their place in the main-stream political discourse. It seemed only time before the group would break onto the St Andrews political scene. The Saint spoke to Josh Samuels, president of the newly formed, Brexit Party affiliated, University of St Andrews Brexit Society (herein after referred to as the Brexit Society).
We began with the why. Within the changing political climate Mr Samuels noted “a hideous underrepresentation of Brexit views at a university level.” He believes that “the majority, if not the entirety, of the Conservative Society (STAUCA) is pro-Brexit” but criticises their failure to “take seriously” the cause. Mr Samuels stated, “I don’t want to call it a fight because I don’t want to make it sound too dramatic, but I’m going to call it the fight of having those views heard.” He also felt STAUCA “thrived as a society as being a hated society.” Mr Samuels feels the Brexit Society remedies these failures, though he wants it to be a group “that doesn’t just say things” but “does things.”
While the group is the Brexit Society by name, excluding the word “Party”, and in spite of an article in The Tab denying any official link, Mr Samuels stated that he “can’t stress any more [that they] are affiliated” with the nationwide party. He has spoken to “someone who works with-in the Brexit Party, considerably high up” who said that a “university society works well in the structure he is establishing in Scotland.” However, the countrywide party has not been short of controversy, such as Ann Widdecombe comparing the process of leaving the EU to the emancipation of slavery. When responding to Nigel Farage’s inflammatory “Breaking Point” poster during the referendum, Mr Samuels claimed, “You can’t equate the Brexit Society/the Brexit Party Society with the Brexit Party. For the same reason, for example, you can’t call the Conservative Society Islamophobic because they have a problem with Islamophobia, you can’t call the Labour Society antisemitic because they’ve got a problem with anti-semitism.” Mr Samuels compared Mr Farage’s actions with “Boris Johnson calling Muslim women ‘letterboxes’ or Jeremy Corbyn being a supporter of the IRA” (this final claim is contentious with Mr Corbyn denying supporting violence). “On balance,” Mr Samuels said, “when it comes to the Brexit issue, we [the society and the Party] are on the same course.
When asked about the society’s plans, Mr Samuels was keen to bring the discussion towards his letter to the Principal. “That’s the first step we have to take, to say that we are not going to be tolerating people having these threatening messages towards us.” Mr Samuels, in his letter, claimed a post labelling the Brexit Society “racist scum,” suggesting they be “pelt[ed]” with “milkshake” was “an incitement of violence”. He stated, “to me it was not a case of whether there was any sincerity behind it.” He noted that, “It goes back to the thing of: if it was aimed at another minority, or society, or another marginalised member of society, it would not be accepted.” In his letter he also mentioned how fellow students “‘angry-reacted’ or ‘sad-reacted’” to his post on the Class of 2022 Facebook group; when pressed, Mr Samuels stated that he thought “people focussed on that element far too much,” and that he was “just using that as background information” to “give the Principal an idea of how [they] are being treated as a society and how the rest of the university has acted and how they feel towards [them] as a society.” He concluded his answer by asking, “Why should our existence make people sad or angry? We haven’t threatened to hurt anybody; we’re not in any way hostile towards anybody.”
Mr Samuels cited a Crown Prosecution Service definition of terrorism in his accusation and copied the Jo Cox Foundation into his email. The foundation was set up to advance the good causes championed by Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right sympathiser in the run up to the referendum. This has been criticised including in a letter by fellow student Manhattan Murphy-Brown, who felt the comparison of a post on a “just for fun” Facebook page (St Andrews Crushes V) to terrorism to be disrespectful to the victims of“large-scale violence”; moreover, he saw the copying of the letter to the Jo Cox foundation “troubling.” Mr Murphy-Brown also noted a Facebook post the Brexit Society made thanking The Saint for covering the letter. Part of the post read, “It’s great we have been able to use The Saint as an out-let to further promote the society”; when asked Mr Samuels denied that it was publicity and claimed the post was made because they were happy that the “wider society” knew they were “acting on the pledges made in the video,” the society posted upon formation. Mr Samuels dismissed the letter saying, “It was a ridiculous letter.” He continued, “He just basically said I’m angry at you for reasons that have nothing to do with the letter you wrote to the Principal.” He added that Mr Murphy-Brown may have used it for political gain stating, “there was a Crushes post that said he had run for a Union committee position so maybe he was using it to get some support for that.” Or finally, “perhaps to indulge his own ego, I don’t know. Because if you start attacking the most unpopular society at university, you’re going to get people to support you.”
When asked about why he thought the Brexit Society received such an acrimonious welcome onto the St Andrews political scene, he expressed,“I think it’s fashionable socially to hate people that support Brexit. It’s quite fashionable to dislike DonaldTrump. So, I think people quite enjoyed jumping on that bandwagon.”
Mr Samuels stressed the open nature of the society, saying, “It’s about Brexit but, by the same token, it’s also about a wider issue of equality on every level, and not just the level that people see fit.” He says the group is “very inclusive” and noted how they have “introduced an inclusivity representative” and that they have “at no point said to anybody they aren’t allowed to join.” They intend to co-host a debate with the Remain group Our Future Our Choice (OFOC) and are“opening up their society to a broad set of other views. We are allowing our views to be scrutinised.”
Mr Samuels summed up his aim for a constructive and inclusive discourse saying, “It’s about generating a positive debate around Brexit.” However, much of the society’s Facebook activity has revolved around posting right-wing memes. Other political society Facebook pages are used to disseminate event details and party news. When asked whether this was in fact polarising and not conducive to debate, he contested that “I don’t think you necessarily use a Facebook page as a beacon of political discourse. I don’t think anyone is going onto our Facebook page to read 3,000-word journalistic articles about Brexit. ”One post labels “lefty[s]”, another depicts Conservative rebels as snakes, while one lists the rebels as a “wall of shame.” When pushed about the post “When a lefty has called you every name under the sun but now has to make an actual argument”, followed by Ian Beale from EastEnders saying,“I’ve got nothing left”, Mr Samuels responded, “I discussed that with my social media manager, and to the best of my knowledge there has been a neutral, less left-and-right stance.” He also stated that he believed “it was taken off,” but at the time of publishing it has yet to be. However, since that post a further one depicting a crying baby captioned “Leftism is the ideology of emotion over rationality” was posted, as well as one describing a remain MP as a “Remoaner”. Such a feed in that of other St Andrews’ mainstream political societies is unique to the Brexit Society. This is despite Mr Samuels claiming to “respect other views” and him being a proponent of “positive debate.”
The shape of Brexit remains unclear amid the current political turmoil. However, the finer details of each possible outcome are becoming crystallised. During the 2016 referendum, the Vote Leave campaign bus stated, “We send the EU £350m a week, let’s fund our NHS instead”,despite the £100m rebate the country receives and Mr Farage later disowning the notion of this Brexit dividend. Liam Fox also claimed a free trade deal with the EU would be the “easiest thing in human history.” When asked whether this misinformation tarnished the legitimacy of the initial referendum, Mr Samuels responded that there was “misinformation on both sides” with some suggesting “financial Armageddon immediately after the Brexit result.” He asked,“Surely they cancel each other out?”
The next logical step for Mr Johnson is to make another attempt at calling a General Election; this is due to the feebleness of leading with a minority government. Mr Samuels claims that “essentially, it would be a proxy second referendum.” He feels that “the problem is that people who lost the first-time round wouldn’t accept losing a second time round. ”Moreover, Mr Samuels believes that “what’s more anti-democratic than Prorogation is trying to deny the will of the people.” However, when pressed on whether the actions of Parliament were to prevent a harmful no deal, he asked, “How many people that don’t want a no deal voted remain? I bet you most of them.”
Finally, we explored what is next for this newly emergent party. The European Parliamentary elections demonstrated discontent towards the Conservative and Labour parties.According to Mr Samuels, “There is strength behind the alternative vote for Brexit. People weren’t believing inthe Theresa May Conservative Party.” He felt “the Brexit Party was the only one that’s actually outrightly saying we’re going to fight for the pure Brexit.” Nevertheless, over history we have seen single issue parties diminish in popularity. Mr Samuels agreed:“now Boris Johnson’s PM, I admit that I think that the honeymoon period has dwindled not slightly, but quite a bit.”