Oxford’s young population vocally favours EU membership but a minority of undergraduates, such as Sam Slater (right) and Izzy Corbin (left) bucked the trend
By Alec Fullerton
Until the early hours of the EU referendum results, Brexit was a joke amongst the vast majority of students. In pubs you would hear people doing their best Farage impersonations, declaring their belief in a "strong, independent Britain", of course mocking camp leave's rhetoric. At parties and social events, in nightclub smoking areas and lecture halls, it was universally presumed that you were pro-remain.Alec Fullerton, an undergraduate at Trinity, has asked Brexit voters what the reaction has been for them around the University
This presumption amongst students was so solidly cemented that people didn't even ask each other their voting preferences. "You're voting remain, right?" was as far as it went. By default, any conversation related to Brexit was launched from a standard pro-EU angle. As a student with the referendum fast approaching, it was wildly apparent how pro-remain this section of the electorate was.
This should be coming as no surprise or revelation to anyone well versed in the post-Brexit media frenzy. There must be hundreds of articles, not to mention the plethora of Facebook statuses and Tweets, focusing on the mass disappointment and frustration of our country's student remainers.
However, what hasn't been examined in any great depth, is what it's like being on the winning side. What it's like being a student who voted leave, and won.
PPE undergraduate Izzy Corbin and many other Brexit voters felt that they should avoid the subject with their peers
It became clear very quickly after speaking to several students who voted leave, that many of them were concerned about expressing their views in such a heavily pro-remain environment. Izzy Corbin, a 2nd year PPE student said: "there was an atmosphere where if you said you were going to vote leave, everyone around you would immediately gang up on you and start questioning you about it. It got to the point where I just wanted to avoid all EU conversations because I just couldn't be bothered with the confrontation."
Similarly, Charlotte, a 2nd medical student at Oxford, felt that peer pressure actually played a very significant role in young peoples' voting preferences: "Well, I changed my vote in the last week, which I think says a lot. Leave arguments weren't really spoken about between students, only the remain votes, which meant that you kind of got swayed to believe you were voting wrong."
This evidently wasn't an isolated case, as I discovered whilst interviewing students for this piece. Unbelievably, the first three people I asked, who I'd previously considered to be staunch Brexiteers, confessed that they'd caved at the last minute and voted remain. One even described herself as a "reluctant remainer." Whilst many cases of 'Bregret' - regretful leave voters, have been documented in the media, this last minute conversion of leave voters has received very little coverage.
Despite a minority of Brexiteer students vocalising their feelings of surprise, joy and pride, immediately post-referendum, many more felt like they had to keep quiet. Edward Harris, (right) a second year medical student agreed: "it has been difficult as the overwhelming student opinion appeared to be to remain. I've felt like my reasoning for voting leave is being shouted down and I feel uncomfortable talking about it for fear of falling out with people."
Harris also worries that his reputation may have been damaged, as he is tarred with the same brush as other leave voters with less valid reasoning. He added: "I don't like the fact that I am being grouped together, by some, with those who voted leave due to the scaremongering attitude of the leave campaign or perhaps with 'racist' motives when I think I've given it considerable thought from many angles and come to a fair conclusion, even if many students disagree. This may have had an undue negative effect on my reputation amongst my peers."
Adam, a Mechanical Engineering student at Bath was keenly aware of this too: "sometimes I felt like I had to keep quiet in social situations. I didn't see a single young person post anything positive about leaving after we left and personally wouldn't have wanted to post anything myself as I think the leave campaign is generally misunderstood by lots of young people as racist." As a result, he felt "incredibly unrepresented."
Others are concerned about a more physical or real consequences for student leave voters post-Brexit, for example, Ben Coker (below), a first year PPEist at Oxford. He said: "Some of the other Brexiteers in Oxford said they were kicked off group chats, shouted at, one guy was apparently kicked at a ball."
Ben was also concerned about the worrying divisions in society, both exposed and intensified by this referendum. He added: "The division between those who go to university and those who don't has definitely been made worse by the referendum. Most students can't accept that some people have concerns about uncontrolled immigration and aren't racist. Some of them seem blind to issues outside the London-Oxbridge bubble. For example, I've heard loads of students who are angry that banks are cutting jobs, potentially threatening their future careers, when they didn't bat an eyelid when fishing communities were destroyed by the EU."
Leading the charge against Oxford's predominantly pro-remain campus was Sam Slater, Returning Officer for Oxford Students for Britain. As a "right-leaning student involved in politics", the second year PPEist said he was all too familiar with being in the minority: "Being involved in Oxford politics you get used to dealing with not only a completely opposing view- that's fine, but a group that sees you as some sort of existential threat to their ability to live and study in Oxford."
As one of the few students who supported the leave campaign, Slater said: "It wasn't until the days right after the referendum when it all started to feel very different." Despite having come up to Oxford from a Lancashire comprehensive, he reflected that he had never noticed any class differences before: "I never felt an aggressive class difference until the referendum and the few days that followed. The sheer contempt shown for uneducated or patriotic or working class people was honestly really disgusting."
Rory Fraser (above), managing editor of Versa, an online student newspaper in Oxford, was most struck by the absurdity of the situation. He said: "We were all so aware of the spin, no one wanted to seem to look as though they bought any of it. It was hilarious really. Basically you had 30,000 students pretending that they were above 'Out', but who saw through the scare-mongering of remain. However, they didn't want to be seen as supporting Out, but equally didn't want to seem to have fallen for remain's tactics."
So, perhaps why we have heard so little from those students who voted leave is because they're keeping their heads down, below the parapet, letting their remainer counterparts do the work for them. As Sam Slater puts its: "the more you let the remainers do, the more they're embarrassing themselves. They were showing themselves to be anti-democratic and really resentful to the common man."
Images © Izzy Corbin, Sam Slater, Rory Fraser, Ben Coker, Alec Fullerton