CUCA in full swingSarah Sheard

When the possibility of examining CUCA came up at our start of term meeting, I turned immediately to Facebook – there had been a social advertised for that following weekend. I couldn’t remember the exact details, but it definitely had either ‘champagne’ or ‘cava’ in the title.

In stereotypical Conservative style, I pencilled the event entitled ‘Cava and Cake’ into my diary, and a few days later walked, Iron Lady style, into a room full of CUCA members and the aforementioned sparkling wine.

CUCA, otherwise known as the Cambridge University Conservative Association, has enjoyed a long, intriguing and controversial history in Cambridge since 1921.
Its website boasts that it has “nurtured the talents of a great many men and women who have gone on to become leading figures in Conservative politics”; sure enough, CUCA proudly lists 22 former chairmen who were elected to Parliament since 1950, and since the 1970s four have gone on to become MPs.

Alumni like Kenneth Clarke (former Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice) and Andrew Mitchell (star of the 2012 ‘Plebgate’ scandal) help establish CUCA as the birthplace of the modern Conservative party.

In 1992 The Economist famously quipped that “competition to rise to the top of CUCA is good preparation for a political career in the Conservative Party... Ideology counts for nothing. What matters is knowing how to make friends and when to stab them in the back. If you cut your political teeth at CUCA, you are liable to end up sporting a sharp set of fangs.”

Yet how far is CUCA still the definitive finishing school for those who are ‘young, bright and on the right’? Does CUCA still have its fangs? In an attempt to find out (and risk seriously being barred from returning to my home town of Liverpool), I went along to their first social.

Within the first ten minutes I had been greeted by the sight of over 20 bottles of vintage cava, heard the phrase “champagne for all”, and been invited for a “strawberries and champagne night-time punting party”. The 2009 controversy, in which CUCA printed a freshers’ guide with the headline “Save Water: Drink Champagne”, suddenly sprung to mind.

Cava in hand, I approached a group of chatting friends who turned out to be graduates, now City boys, who had popped back for the event. To them, CUCA was a social opportunity more than anything else.

One of the City boys, dressed down in a t-shirt and jeans, even observed that CUCA could be a “hindrance” to any budding young politicians because of how the media could “dredge up” unsavoury quotes and facts about a former chairman’s university life. Perhaps he was thinking of the 2011 controversy, in which outgoing chairman Callum Wood was accused of making homophobic comments after claiming that “those with homosexual tendencies have a very burdensome cross to bear” and describing gay sex as “lustful and unchaste sexual behaviour… without moral justification”.

Whilst Callum Wood is far too recent a graduate to fully ascertain his parliamentary potential, it’s difficult to see him going far without this particular shadow of his CUCA days hanging over him.

CUCA’s position as a social, rather than political, space seemed confirmed by the lack of much else to do. When asked about current campaigns, even the chairman of CUCA, Callum Campbell, admitted that there was some general election campaigning in the works, but that it was at a minimum compared to other societies such as the Cambridge University Labour Club. The reason for this seemed to be a desire to keep CUCA as ‘something for everyone’, rather than a society active enough to polarise members; instead, CUCA’s calendar seems to comprise a schedule of talks by Conservative politicians, the odd trip down to Parliament and social events.

Other people also seemed to be moving in to take full advantage of these social occasions – an economist from the Adam Smith Institute was hovering around, making polite small talk and fetching drinks for people. One member conceded to me that he thought more than a little recruiting was going on, and the economist certainly seemed to lose interest when he found out I was a Classicist with absolutely no grasp of maths.

Undaunted, I felt some context was needed as to what a political society in Cambridge actually is – or should be – these days, so I sent intrepid reporter Daniel Hepworth off to the Cambridge Marxist Discussion Group, whilst I attended CUCA’s ‘Port and Policy’ evening (an apt counter point to CULC’s ‘pint and policy’ nights). This event, I was assured at the social, was definitely more politically-minded – for the serious student Conservative. After all, now only half the title was dedicated to light refreshment.

‘Port and Policy’ was an uncomfortable affair for three reasons. The first was that I was the only woman in attendance, except for CUCA’s loyal events manager Victoria Brown, creating the impression that I had slipped in somewhere that, as a woman, I shouldn’t.

Secondly, it was a Saturday and I was wearing jeans, a hoodie and a Sherlock t-shirt; but upon stepping into the Green Room at Caius, I entered a sea of plaid, collared shirts and tweed jackets. Despite the fact that the chairman, Callum Campbell, was also wearing a hoodie, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a self-conscious choice of wardrobe to emulate the Boden-clad Conservative cabinet. More generally, however, I was struck by how sparse numbers were in comparison to the social; just 18 (including myself and a sympathetic socialist, who came along for moral support), as opposed to over 70 for the latter.

The third reason for my discomfort was that the discussion was centred on reforming the NHS. At this point I will happily pin my liberal colours to the wall and say that, with an NHS pathologist for a father and a medical historian for a mother, the NHS is a sensitive topic for me. To CUCA’s credit, it was a lively and active debate, but I couldn’t understand the random pulling-of-numbers from the air (apparently 90 per cent of prescriptions are given out for free – despite the official stats on this being 60 per cent), and the constant comparisons to more privatised healthcare in France and Germany. The population’s general affection for the NHS as a national institution was something incomprehensible to CUCA, whose inability to understand the majority of the population was, in turn, incomprehensible to me. Phrases like “we’d never pass any of these reforms publicly…” and much swilling of ruby port in accompaniment did not help dispel this out-of-touch image.

In terms of running a political discussion group, however, CUCA has something in common with the Marxists; as Daniel reported, their term card features the quote from Lenin that “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”. This seemed to sum up the society quite nicely. Their meetings, held at Kings College, consist of an hour dedicated to the speaker on a chosen topic – last week, Marxist economics.

After the main speech, discussion was opened to the floor. Debate was fixed between obvious Marxist supporters and a seemingly lone historian whose interest was purely academic. It was obvious that most in the room were regular attendees and contributors to the meetings, and two of them ended the evening by selling copies of socialist newspapers.

So far, so similar; both CUCA and the Marxists feature discussion-based events, as would probably be expected of a university political society. But the crucial difference is that the Marxists, despite officially acting only as a ‘discussion group’, seem much more active than CUCA. They have often taken motions forward to CUSU and ran students for CUSU positions – most notably ‘Marxist Mo’ Paechter who ran for CUSU’s NUS delegate last year, proposing free accommodation and scrapping tuition fees for all.

The Marxists are also quick to point out that they campaigned alongside Cambridge Mexico Solidarity for the release of 43 students and will shortly elect delegates to attend the Marxist Student Federation conference to represent Cambridge. The group is not a unique, single entity, but part of a nationwide group of student Marxists.

Whilst CUCA vainly court new recruits with glitzy drinks events, whose attendance never quite translates into membership, the Marxists are far from a closed group, actively recruiting with success, if their weekly discussions of Marxist literature are any indication.

On the other hand, when I asked when ‘Port and Policy’ would next be running, I was told possibly next month – if, and only if, there was enough interest.
It would seem that CUCA has perhaps lost its political fangs, orientating itself more around a social sphere anchored by expensive drinks events than a significant political goal.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this impression; former Conservative MP and gay rights campaigner Matthew Parris described CUCA in his 2002 autobiography as “a dreadful shower, strutting careerists of distinctly mixed calibre, forever infighting, networking and elbowing their way through a scene which appeared more social than political.” Upon leaving their ‘Cava and Cake’ event, over a week ago now, Parris’ quote rang in my ears.

I had enjoyed my first evening with CUCA more than I had ever intended – possibly because, if I hadn’t known it to be a CUCA event, I would have considered it only a gathering of sparkling wine enthusiasts.

If they ever do decide to scrap ‘Port and Policy’, I might even end up a member.