‘I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University,’ said William F. Buckley Jr, the American conservative writer. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party must be hoping British voters agree.
Under Corbyn, the Labour party — once the clever party — has had a brain transplant. It’s out with the Oxbridge and Harvard graduates with first-class degrees; in with the red-brick university graduates.
Or, in Corbyn’s case, a non-graduate. Corbyn got two Es at A-level at Adams’ Grammar School in Newport, Shropshire. He did a year of trade union studies at the North London Polytechnic before dropping out. Corbyn is the first Labour leader not to go to university since James Callaghan — and Callaghan only didn’t go because his family, unlike the prosperous Corbyns, couldn’t afford it.
Corbyn, perhaps because of his low-grade education, has largely replaced the Oxbridge elite — who ran the Labour party under Ed Miliband — with red-brick alumni. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, left school at 17 and was later a mature student at Brunel and Birkbeck universities. Tom Watson, the deputy leader, was at Hull University, as were Rosie Winterton, the shadow chief whip, and Jon Trickett, shadow minister for the cabinet office. Hilary Benn, shadow foreign secretary, was at Sussex, as were Owen Smith, shadow secretary for work and pensions, and Lord Bassam, the Labour chief whip in the Lords. Michael Dugher, shadow culture secretary, was at Nottingham University. And Gloria De Piero, shadow minister for young people, attended the University of Westminster.
Let’s not be snobbish. Those universities are good. But it isn’t snobbery to point out that they aren’t as good as Oxford or Cambridge — second and fourth respectively in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, published last week. Hull is 401st equal. Jeremy Corbyn’s alma mater, now London Metropolitan University, doesn’t make the 800-strong list.
Bill Buckley had a point. Eggheads are often not best equipped to run things. But do we want our top politicians to be drawn from the lower ranks of academia?
Labour was traditionally the intellectuals’ party. The late Denis Healey got a double first in Greats at Balliol, the brainiacs’ Oxford college. Harold Wilson got an outstanding first in PPE at Jesus College, Oxford, with alphas on every paper. Wilson became a lecturer at New College and a research fellow at University College.
The Tories were the dimmer lot, suspicious of planet-sized brains. In 1961, Lord Salisbury called Iain Macleod — the Tory chancellor and former Spectator editor — ‘too clever by half’. He attacked Macleod for nimbly outwitting his opponents, as he did at the bridge table: ‘The Colonial Secretary, when he abandoned the sphere of bridge for the sphere of politics, brought his bridge techniques with him.’
In 1963, Nigel Lawson accused Macleod again of being ‘too clever by half’ — when Macleod supported Alec Douglas-Home in the Tory leadership contest, hoping to triumph in the resulting deadlock. Douglas-Home got a third in history at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1925 — once an ideal degree for a Conservative politician. David Cameron is himself the first Tory prime minister with an Oxford first since Harold Macmillan. And Macmillan only got a first in Mods — the exam after the first five terms of Oxford’s 12-term classics course — at Balliol. He never finished his degree, which was interrupted by first world war service. Among recent leaders, neither John Major nor Iain Duncan Smith had a degree.
Until Corbyn’s arrival, British politics, in both major parties, had evolved into a game for elite graduates of elite universities. For more than 20 years, every Labour leader has had a first- or second-class degree from a leading university. Tony Blair got a second in jurisprudence from St John’s, Oxford. Gordon Brown took a first in history at Edinburgh. Ed Miliband got a 2.1 in PPE at Corpus Christi, Oxford, and became a Master of Science at LSE. The really clever Miliband is David — with a first in PPE at Corpus Christi followed by a Kennedy scholarship at MIT.
But now a generation of Labour Oxbridge graduates has left the shadow cabinet. Ed Balls got a first in PPE from Keble College, Oxford, and a Kennedy scholarship at Harvard. His wife, Yvette Cooper, took a first in PPE at Balliol, and also won a Kennedy scholarship to Harvard. Gone, too, is Tristram Hunt, with his doctorate at Trinity College, Cambridge, and his lectureship at Queen Mary University of London.
It isn’t just in Britain that red-brick universities are on the march. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, did economics at Essex and mathematical statistics at Birmingham. His replacement, Euclid Tsakalotos, studied at Oxford and Sussex, and taught at Kent University. Red-brick universities don’t have a monopoly on incubating left-wing thought. In the second volume of his Margaret Thatcher biography, Charles Moore writes that Oxford’s refusal to award her an honorary doctorate in 1985 hurt her more deeply than anything other than her fall from power. Still, a new line has been drawn in politics: between Oxbridge blue Conservatives and red-brick Labour.