How the Union got it so wrong, and why it can’t be saved

Credit: NATO, Flickr

Facing impeachment, a President sizes up his options. The beacons of support flicker and then die, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in the court, treason. The weight of international condemnation makes him an albatross around the neck of his government, for though he did not commit the heinous offence it ultimately comes back to him. As the constitution is stretched to its limit, and the very soul of the Union is at stake, the feasible options narrow down to one: he must resign. Like a swarm of piranha devouring a catch there is a frenzied stabbing murder — and then silence.

This isn’t the USA in 1974, it’s Oxford in 2019 and yet the parallels are eerily similar. The disgraceful forced removal of Ebenezer Azamati at the No Confidence Debate was the crime, the refusal of the Union to offer any sort of apology or compensation until pressured to was the cover up. Like Nixon, Brendan McGrath was jettisoned by his peers when it became clear that the tradeoff of loyalty was political doom, not due to a newfound empathy — as one widely shared Facebook post put it, ‘people don’t jump sinking ships because they are morally opposed to sailing.’

What makes me think this? Well, firstly the actual incident itself. As has already been shared, members of the union committee were reported as sniggering as Azamati was manhandled out of the chamber. Rather than reflecting genuine contempt, though that is of course a possibility, I believe perhaps still disturbingly this was the sort of nervous laughter that occurs when people genuinely don’t know how to deal with a situation they don’t really understand. The plight of a blind black man struggling against a violent security guard was like an aberration bursting the bubble of glitz and glamour in the Union. The bystander effect was heightened when not only were there others around, but the implication was that the Union staff were to be trusted because they were the establishment, and Azamati was not part of that establishment. So it doesn’t surprise me when I was informed that a union committee member told another, ‘don’t worry,’ when they questioned what was happening to Azamati at the debate. It doesn’t surprise me when I was informed by a union committee member that in the weeks after the event barely anyone in the Union cared about what had happened, that no alarms had been raised. What does surprise me then, is the implication by many that they had vociferously opposed Azamati’s treatment from the start.

But then, of course they would say that. The Union is almost perfectly designed to create people whose only care is how high they can climb the greasy pole, saying and doing anything that aides them in that aim. Yes, the real politics of Westminster has its fair share of cynical opportunists, but at least the engines of government can actually affect people’s lives, incentivising politicians to have some semblance of morality. But in the Union, the main role is literally just to invite speakers, something that, after 196 years, I’m sure can’t really be improved that much. Thus, the chief aim of involvement is almost universally the prestige and contacts that high level participation brings, something that attracts the type of person unlikely to let things like truth impede their electoral ambitions.

Understood in that lens, the actions of two of the officers who served with McGrath, Mahi Joshi (Librarian) and Chengkai Xie (ex-Secretary) are more understandable. Both are running for President this term, with Xie doing so somewhat unexpectedly as he was originally meant to aide Joshi’s uncontested run for President, as the candidate for Treasurer on her slate. Both ended up calling for Mcgrath to resign publically, Xie taking the extra step of resigning as Secretary in protest. Joshi was a close Union ally of McGrath who the day before calling for his resignation reportedly backed him to stay. Xie took the opportunity of this scandal to attempt to distance himself from Joshi, claiming she was not sufficiently anti-Brendan and hence he would, graciously, run for President himself. Both made no public comment on the scandal until weeks after it occurred. These are the candidates for President who are meant to detoxify the Union in the future. Forgive me for being sceptical of their ability to do so.

And then there’s McGrath himself. Often forest managers burn a relatively small area of trees in order to avoid a destructive wildfire that burns the whole forest down. This is exactly what has happened within the Union: McGrath’s role has been overblown in order to prevent the destruction of so many others who are extremely culpable. A very important fact is that the callous complaint lodged against Azamati, accusing him of violent conduct and bringing the Union into disrepute, essentially blaming him for his own trauma, was brought by the staff, including the very security guard who manhandled Azamati in the first place. It’s unclear whether McGrath is genuinely mandated by the Union’s constitution to uphold this complaint, but he was advised that that was the case partially due to precedent and, logically, this version of events makes sense. Why would McGrath have put forward this complaint unless he felt he had to given, evidently, it really wasn’t in his best interest to do so and would cause unnecessary hassle for him?

Once this complaint was put forward, it then went to the Union Intermediate Disciplinary Committee, made up of former officers of the Union (i.e. President, Librarian, Treasurer, Secretary) and former returning officers of the Union (basically people who interpret the rules of the Constitution). These are the people who actually passed the complaint which led to Azamati’s membership being suspended, people who quite plausibly are still studying at this university. I don’t know who all of them are, which is exactly the problem, as despite literally being the people who passed this complaint against Azamati, rather than McGrath, few know their names. The only possible exception is the chair of the Committee, Harry Samuels, a noted friend of McGrath who was accused of failing to disclose his attendance at a dinner with the former President before the debate where Azamati was mistreated.

In my view the staff of the Union should be absolutely excoriated for their role in the appalling response to the treatment of Azamati, yet like mafia mobsters letting their former friends take the fall, they remained conspicuously silent as McGrath was torn apart across international media. Scrutiny of the Union must start with those who, rather than being elected for a term or two, have been in the Union for years, and make up the swamp which clearly doesn’t seem capable of accommodating the interests of marginalised people.

This is not to say McGrath without fault. His lack of any apology or public statement condemning what had happened to Azamati clearly compounded the suffering, he could’ve done more to resist the accusations of the staff against Azamati, and the lack of institutional knowledge in the Union on how to accommodate those with disability needs, whilst a long-standing problem, is also his responsibility. Perhaps most egregious is his failure to respond to the repeated requests of Azamati’s lawyer, Helen Mountfield, to discuss the situation for some time. But I do believe McGrath has been the sacrificial lamb for something that went far deeper, and that the international condemnation heaped on him was disproportionate.

The effect of social media and the internet was both crucial to any justice being given to Azamati but also enabled the simplification of the story into a tool used for electoral gain. Without the rapid spread of the story and condemnation by news outlets, notable politicians, and celebrities on social media, it’s unlikely the Union higher ups would’ve cared at all to change their approach and consider properly condemning the incident. Yet at the same time, in search of an easy story the focus of news outlets and those on Twitter was put on the role of McGrath and calls for him to resign. This masked the role of others, and gave some of those in the union the incentive to stab him in the back in a desperate attempt to remove the stain of responsibility on themselves.

If I’m honest I think the Union will improve in its understanding of how to accommodate those with disabilities; after such an extraordinary media scandal as this, it would be incredible if it didn’t. However, that doesn’t fix the unsolvable problem at the heart of this scandal, the offshoots of which have caused pretty much every scandal in the Union’s history. That problem is that the Union is, fundamentally, a place that drives people to do only that which bolsters their chance of ever further prestige, recognition and relevance within and outside the institution. This is why nobody cared about redressing Azamati until public pressure mounted, this is why the Union invites far-right speakers to generate controversy and this is why those who call for the lowering of the Union membership fee are missing the point. The prestige is the point: the fancy suits and dresses, the nepotistic dinners beforehand, the faux politics that bandies around terms like ‘impeachment’, ‘tribunal’ and ‘constitution’ — to remove elitism from the Union is to remove its soul. The treatment of Azamati and subsequent response is just a symptom of a condition that, for the Union, doesn’t seem to have a cure.