The University of St Andrews Conservative Association has had to apologise for burning an effigy of Barack Obama on a bonfire last Friday. Remarkably, they even had to issue a denial that they wrapped the effigy in an EU flag before setting it alight. Clearly they thought that was crossing a line. Sometimes it makes me shudder to think about the mental processes that right-wingers go through when they make these kinds of calculations. Still, the suggestion lingers that there was a flag involved in the incineration. Perhaps it was an American flag that they torched, in scenes more associated with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and extremists on the streets of Tehran.
The Obama-toasting incident took place on Friday on the East Sands, with local bloggers picking up on the story quickly. Late yesterday the story went national after the BBC ran with it, quoting Matthew Marshall, the president of the University of St Andrews Conservative Association, as saying, ‘It was a stupid thing to do and we apologise for any offence caused.’ Today the story was picked up by national political bloggers. Political Scrapbook and Liberal Conspiracy focussed on the past activities of the group. They have previously burnt effigies of Nelson Mandela and Gordon Brown and regularly toasted apartheid.
But what was going on in the heads of these young right-wing activists? Are they really so out of touch that they couldn’t see the double faux pas here? Most disturbingly the racial undertones of the act. Burning an effigy of the first black US president isn’t a million miles from donning the white sheets and burning crosses. But to have young Tories attacking the leader of the UK’s closest ally in the world must be deeply embarrassing for the leadership of the party. But then, perhaps the leadership is partly to blame. Maybe, as I suggested on Friday, Tory students are influenced by the behaviour of the party leadership when they were students.
It should be easy enough for a party leader to condemn an act such as this. But because of his own past David Cameron is once again neutralised as someone who can speak out with authority or any sort of moral voice. Indeed, this is becoming a feature of his time in office. The News International hacking scandal is one example. Cameron couldn’t lead the attack there because he was too close to Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Further back, in the case of the expenses scandal, he couldn’t say much as he had to pay money back himself, having wrongly claimed it for cleaning Wisteria out of his chimney.
But if David Cameron won’t comment then where will the story go next? Suggestions that Barack Obama is planning a drone strike on the University of St Andrews Conservative Association’s next meeting are as yet unconfirmed. As are rumours that Matthew Marshall is about to be taken out by a Navy SEAL team. Certainly the University of St Andrews must be investigating this society as a matter of urgency, given the damage that is being caused to its public image. The Conservative Party should also be launching an inquiry. Although if they were to look at Tory student groups more widely I suspect that it would open a can of worms.