I am now officially a university student (indeed, the last time I went into a shop, all I bought was chocolate biscuits), and I love it. Politics at A-level was fantastic, but being able to study ideas and then apply them across the globe on my international relations courses is both intellectually stimulating and incredibly useful to the aspiring young journalist. Part of the fun of being a social science student is learning what other people think and coming to understand how they see the world. As we are often told, there is no right answer to questions like “what is power?” or “who should have nuclear weapons, if anyone?” The point is to listen, debate, and form your own opinion in a reasoned way.
This is in stark contrast to what we see in the realm of general political debate—where The Sun is still the most read paper, despite (or maybe because of?) the horror that is Page 3. The media’s attention is not on the Conservative concept of human nature nor Labour’s leftward shift, but instead on the “granny tax” and the net migration figure. You have to look extremely carefully at the broadsheets’ op-ed pages, or purchase a specialist magazine, to find the interesting, thought-provoking stuff.
This, I think, is a shame, not least because it lets politicians off the hook. The cabinet and its shadow are allowed to behave like insult-slinging schoolboys because that provides the tabloid press with the headlines they want. Nothing exemplifies this more than the rise of Ukip, which styles itself as the party of “everyman” (if not every woman). Its leader, Nigel Farage, is a tabloid darling whose hand appears to be permanently welded to a pint-glass. He is, perhaps, the only British politician who could get away with declaring Belgium a “non-country” when talking to the Belgian president of the European Union.
I’m not saying that ignorance is the sole—or even the most important—cause in Ukip’s rise. Throughout history, populism has gone hand in hand with dissatisfaction and, since the beginning of the financial crisis, a lot of people have become dissatisfied. The two main parties no longer appear to have things covered; the centre-ground is an area of weakness where once it stood for common sense. But, in voting for something different, people are not finding answers. They are merely creating more problems. Most importantly, these right-wing parties hold what are, at least to me, unsavoury views on social issues—their firm opposition to gay marriage springs to mind as an example. At the end of the day, people are willing to accept that immigrants are “bad” or a male-dominated culture is “good” when they are also told that they will get their jobs back and pay less tax on higher earnings. No questions asked.
As we were told upon our arrival as nervous undergraduates, desperate to think the right thing: think what you want. In a democracy, that is your most fundamental right. But if society is to progress, people need to be informed. So we should be asking those questions and demanding that we get proper answers, not just sound-bites. If I have learnt anything from six weeks at university it is to know why you believe something—and always be able to back it up. If Ukip could do that, well they still wouldn’t be for me, but I’d give them the time of day.
In the meantime, I shall remain comforted by the complete lack of support for Ukip among my fellow politics students, be they right- or left-wing. Maybe the moment for populists will pass, and we can all enjoy the excitement of a true political debate.