Two weeks ago, Tychy swore on the seat of John Knox’s breeches to never again write about Edinburgh University student politics. I left the University years ago (albeit to become a University employee) and when returning to student politics I cannot help feeling like Gulliver fraternising with the Lilliputians. In my last article on EUSA the few facts which were not under a press embargo turned out to be largely wrong. Far worse, I was unnerved by the spectre of grammatical impurity. Throughout my article I had referred to “EUSA,” but in the Guardian the journalist David Banks would aloofly describe the student association as “the EUSA.” You can imagine how distressed I was. I consulted with numerous authorities and came to the uneasy conclusion that EUSA is like Batman and not the Batman.
Unfortunately, as far as scandals go, the EUSA one is at least an identifiable scandal. Yesterday’s news cycles were dominated by the story that a virtually unknown backroom politician had come on to a woman in a bar (this is the Lord Rennard “scandal” if you don’t recognise it from the description). This follows from the Secretary of State for Energy being jailed for perjury over a speeding offence, and the Chief Whip being sacked for cycling on the pavement (or something). The Westminster Village occasionally seems to forget that the rest of us have to listen to this rubbish, but perhaps organisations such as EUSA can provide scandals of a greater calibre and magnitude.
To recap: in January EUSA applied for an interim interdict to suppress a story in the Student newspaper which concerned one of its elected officials, the deliciously named Max Crema. Since the Student had already gone to print, an entire edition had to be censored, earning opprobrium from a wide array of commentators (including Tychy). Over the last two weeks, Crema has issued a “clarification” about an incident in which he was suspended from office and the Guido Fawkes blog has got the big interdict-squashing scoop: a letter detailing the outcome of a (later and unrelated) “grievance hearing” into Crema’s behaviour. This was appended by the leaking of a Written Statement to the hearing on the Solo Ninja blog.
It seems that Crema was suspended in July, ostensibly for making “ageist comments” on Twitter, but really because figures within EUSA saw him as a troublemaker and they wanted him out of the picture during the busiest commercial period of the year, the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe. In August, Crema returned from beyond the grave with a whistle-blowing guest article on his personal blog (“Why We Spit in Your Drinks”), which implied amongst other things that sexual harassment was tolerated within EUSA venues. The result was what the WS refers to as an “outpouring of anger and denial from the vast majority [of] EUSA’s staff whom the blog claims to speak for.” Crema caved in, conceding that he “made no attempt to verify… the content and veracity of the blog.”
This has such mileage as a scandal because it rests upon the question of what EUSA is and who is in charge of it. Is EUSA a democratic organisation in which policy is debated freely, with all of the messiness of unrestricted public debate? Or is it a corporate machine which remains intolerant of people going off message? The answer appears to be that EUSA is both and neither. Crema was not sacked for publishing the article, but he was nevertheless disciplined behind closed doors rather than being held to account by the voters in the accustomed democratic manner.
To this day we are unable to tell whether Crema’s original blog post was fact or fiction. The blogger Perfidious Edina dismisses it as “bullshit” whilst Solo Ninja insists that “over a hundred” bar staff were mobilised in opposition. Yet the allegations have been simply deleted rather than being publicly disproven. Crema has wobbled on the question, at one point commenting that, “To be clear, I wasn’t whistleblowing EUSA does not condone sexual harassment.” The article today on his own blog could be construed as squealing to save his neck from a looming no-confidence vote, but he essentially withdraws his previous apologies. The original blog post is now justified by “the minority who have contacted me to express their gratitude.”
It is hard to judge what is more unimpressive: Crema’s apparent belief that EUSA bar staff are so pathetic that they need a paternalistic sabbatical officer to defend their rights; or the other side’s picture of “hundreds” of seasonal bar workers being unable to cope with their employer getting a bit of flak on a student blog. I doubt that many voters would think that “ageist” tweets merited a ten week dismissal, but it remains the case that the decision should have been down to the voters. By the time that we get to the unleashing of the interdict, Crema himself claims that the vetoed article “violated the privacy of a large number of EUSA staff.” There is little democracy to this logic: EUSA staff should be able to get an elected official sacked in privacy.
Such is the democratic deficit at EUSA that Crema strikes a lonely figure throughout this controversy, without any discernible support base amongst the students. And over the course of the scandal a number of slippery characters have emerged. A blog/Facebook group called “Are You Happy with EUSA?” is trying to get Crema removed from office, asking the voters to retrospectively approve the anti-democratic disciplinary action undertaken by EUSA on their behalf. Out of over 30000 students, 480 currently “like” its manifestation on Facebook, and yet it is still making waves in the campus press. The spooky thirteenth Note in its No-Confidence Motion is perhaps the most chilling:
That Crema wrote in The Journal “When a sabbatical officer’s political ideals conflict with the strict requirements forced upon them by charity law, employment law and a market economy… do you remain true to your principles,” demonstrating that he is unaware of the duties expected of him in his role.
Voters are here asked to endorse ideals-free candidates with disposable principles. The WS which was leaked to the Solo Ninja is similarly dismissive of democracy:
Unfortunately this whole thing demonstrates (yet again) how dangerous it is to have totally inexperienced and almost unaccountable people in positions of responsibility and authority in an organisation that has a turnover of over £9million (including several million of public money) and employs at points in the year several hundred members of staff.
The Ninja complains that “an external recommendation that Crema be removed from his position was ignored for months.” Perfidious Edina is outraged that Crema “hid behind his role as a democratically elected official to argue that he should and could not be ‘sacked’ like any other EUSA employee.”
I am no longer a student at this university and I am not inclined to defend a hapless tyro politician who has rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. But there is more to EUSA than Max Crema. Throughout this scandal, democracy and freedom of speech have been persistently regarded as destabilising influences, or as inputs with unmanageable consequences. Students have not been trusted to make up their own minds about questions of policy, often on the spurious pretext that employees’ rights or “privacy” might be threatened. The truth is that whenever elected officials make fools of themselves, EUSA staff should be seen and not heard. If EUSA really was a democracy, they would be the civil servants.
If students do not mind some kindly advice from an armchair general, let me suggest that Crema may be an embarrassment, but he is your embarrassment. You elected him and any attack upon your right to remove him is an attack upon all of you.
Tomorrow: Tychy looks at whether the entire Liberal Democrat party should commit hara-kiri because Lord Rennard’s hand “rested lightly” upon a woman’s arm.
Update: Crema came out fighting on Fresh Air this afternoon.