The Oxford Union has long been a battleground for freedom of speech debates. And in the best Union tradition, these range from the exciting to the mundane to the interminable. The termly elections for the Union’s officers are famously revolting affairs, with candidates’ past histories (political and otherwise) dredged up in the fierce battle to determine who will ascend to the lofty position held by so many of our future leaders.
For the first time, the path from Frewin Court to Westminster has been reversed: a former special adviser has been elected Union President
The Union’s alumni have gone on to hold positions of power, and countless political heavyweights learnt the tricks of their trade in the Union’s debate chambers and scheming corridors. But this year, for the first time, the path from Frewin Court to Westminster has been reversed: a 28-year-old former special adviser in the House of Lords has been elected Union President, despite graduating seven years ago.
James Price, former adviser to Leader of the House of Lords Baroness Evans, was able to dust off his mortarboard and toss it into the ring due to a recent coronavirus-inspired rule change, which, for the first time, allowed people living outside of Oxford to be elected.
But how did Price (Worcester, 2010) manage to defeat all of his Gen Z rivals (Oxford, the present day) to hold one of the most prominent student positions in the country?
James Price, who currently works for Hanover Communications, ran his campaign on the lofty and inspiring premise: ‘I think it’s funny, and also, I would be better than anyone else.’
In fact, Price views his advanced years as a strategic advantage: ‘I have already stood for Parliament, so won’t feel the need to act like most union hacks tiresomely do,’ his manifesto declared. ‘I’ve handled real budgets and managed teams of actual grownups in multiple jobs in the real world. I know how to run events and will be able to personally invite lots of interesting speakers, as well as the less interesting ones. After the omnishambles you’ve recently had, you could do worse. The Price is right.’
Union hopefuls normally split into two camps: reformers promising no-platforming, and knightly defenders of the ye olde bastion of free speech
“Omnishambles” is an accurate descriptor of this chaotic election season. Oxford and Cambridge Union scandals normally descend a familiar route: an announcement that a controversial figure will take part in a Union debate. This is predictably followed by social media posts from incensed undergraduates, protests outside the Union’s doors, and, inevitably, column inches in national broadsheets defending or condemning the decision to invite the offending speaker. Union hopefuls normally split into two camps: reformers promising no-platforming and the right not to be offended, and knightly defenders of the ye olde bastion of free speech. This repetitive outrage mill, will, of course, continue until we decide that the actions of students at two British universities are not issues of national importance. But that seems unlikely, as this commission demonstrates.
In the meantime, the Union’s endless war reached a new ugly zenith in the recent election for roles which will be taken up in the spring term – known in Oxford as Hilary – of next year. The ballot, held online for the first time, was tarnished by accusations of hacking (of the technological, as well as Johnsonian kind), and racial insensitivity.
Candidates formed two slates, with The Apprentice-style titles “Hope” and “Elevate”. Elevate fell from grace quickly, however, as a candidate from the slate sent a “disturbing” pre-election message to Union members which invoked the protests over George Floyd’s death in order to urge them to register to vote.
After widespread outcry, the four “Elevate” candidates for officer positions – President, Librarian, Treasurer, and Secretary – dropped out of the race.
But the “Hope” team also had their expectations dashed. Although their presidential candidate Jack Solomon stood uncontested, Union members voted to re-open nominations for President rather than elect him after he was accused of having made past racist comments by then-Secretary Cansu Uyguroglu.
Enter James Price. Along with three other new candidates, all of them current students, he announced his candidacy for President.
But when the votes were counted after the second election, it emerged that a database of registered voters had been hacked, and more than 500 votes – which, according to The Oxford Student newspaper, were all for Price – were cast illegitimately. There is no suggestion that James Price had anything to do with this.
When the Union held a recount, using only the “unsullied” votes from the second election, Price was declared the winner, with 431 votes. He defeated Jeremy Bararia, who received 375, Amy Gregg with 225, and Joseph Mochhoury on 30 votes.
Amy Gregg was a postgraduate Oxford student who had previously been President of the Cambridge Union and was seeking to uniquely “do the double” and win both titles. This stunt was previously attempted by Norman St John-Stevas – later a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet – in the 1950s, who came close, becoming Union Secretary after losing to Robin Day.
Price is the first person to win the Presidency after leaving Oxford. His campaign was helped by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan and journalists Matt Ridley, James Delingpole, and Madeleine Grant, who encouraged anyone with Oxford Union membership – which costs nearly £300 and lasts for a lifetime – to vote for Price.
‘I think it’s a bit tragic, but also fairly harmless,’ one former Union President said. ‘He could be good, or he might treat it as a big joke.’
This is not Price’s first attempt at Oxford Union success. While an Archaeology and Anthropology student at Worcester College, he made it to the Standing Committee, but lost a subsequent election to the post of Secretary. He also, as he noted, has wider campaigning experience – standing unsuccessfully as Conservative Party candidate for Swansea West in the 2019 General Election. Price currently works full-time at Hanover Communications in London, a role he is set to continue in while President.
What Price’s Presidency will look like is yet unclear, but he has pledged to take the role seriously and ensure that the society is “inclusive, accessible and diverse”. Speaking to the Telegraph, he said: ‘I look forward to helping the Union, perhaps too often introspective and prone to navel-gazing, to return to its founding principles.’
While age is no indication of political wisdom, at least Price seems to have a sense of humour, a virtue for undergraduates and graduates alike, wherever it is the latter go on to. Even if it is sometimes to come back.
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