By Rhys Tanner
At the last DSU Assembly, our Student Officers attempted to propose that the assembly vote to endorse the ‘Stronger In Europe’ campaign for the upcoming EU referendum. Once it was established that this move would be largely un-mandated (pesky democracy!) the assembly resolved to take the unprecedented step to hold a referendum on the issue. Yes, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation of having a referendum on the upcoming EU referendum. We will soon be asked whether we wish the DSU should endorse the ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ campaigns, or take no position at all.
I was naturally disappointed upon learning of the DSU’s decision, as somebody actively campaigning for ‘Vote Leave’. I loathe to be defeatist, but there’s such thing as an uphill battle, and then there’s the Everest of traditional Europhilic sentiment among student populations. It doesn’t take an oracle to predict which way this is probably going to go. This means that my own Students’ Union will be actively campaigning against me, and many other Eurosceptic students, in a matter of weeks, using resources which we financially contribute to via tuition fees. For a student body which claims to represent a broad diversity of people and views, they will hypocritically try to shut down the view which myself and many students passionately hold (albeit a likely minority). The tyranny of the majority will try to silence one viewpoint instead of fostering debate between the two opposing sides. It would seem the DSU’s constitutional objective of ‘providing opportunities for the expression of student opinion’ only applies to favoured thinking.
Whatever your politics on the EU referendum, the DSU getting involved is bad news. I sincerely hope that the student body will endorse the ‘neutral’ choice, despite intensely wanting Britain to leave the EU, myself. Whenever there has been a national referendum such as AV in 2011, the Scottish Independence vote in 2015, or even general elections in the past, the DSU has rightly remained neutral in order to foster debate among students with panel discussions and the like. This has had a strong educative function for students, has facilitated broader political engagement, and has maintained the DSU’s commitment to defending diversity. So why is this going out the window now?
When ordinary people mock Students’ Unions, it’s often because they act high-mindedly and try to pass motions like prohibiting certain newspapers, banning soft drinks with alleged tenuous links to the arms trade, or censuring a middle-eastern country. Sanctimonious, self-aggrandising, radical activist student representatives who see themselves as the campus’ answer to Arthur Scargill become a burgeoning source of satirists’ material. The DSU runs a real risk of following this embarrassing trend. But what is much more severe than the image of the DSU is the fact that they will be diverting energy, time, and resources into fighting a national campaign, which is already in full swing among rival university groups, instead of focusing on the student specific issues that matter. You know, the actual functions of a Students’ Union: fighting astronomical accommodation fees and tackling rogue landlords, to name a couple. They must realise that they have as much influence on international relations as the housekeeper who puts a chocolate on Angela Merkel’s hotel room pillow at EU summits.
It’s no secret the Durham Students’ Union are gunning to back ‘remain’, but the damage will be done whichever side they funnel our resources into. So it is for these reasons that I will be voting for the DSU to remain neutral. The role of a Students’ Union is to provide a forum for debate on political issues, not to stamp out the minority view.
Photograph: Tom Page