Attacks on British elitism usually talk about Oxbridge, but Simon Kuper argues that it is specifically Oxford that is the problem, which has provided 11 (out of 15) prime ministers since the war. So what’s the explanation? Kuper thinks it’s all the fault of the Oxford Union, which fosters chaps who are clever at debating without particularly caring which side they are on. As a result, they acquire enough rhetorical skills to enable them to beat opponents who rely on thoughtful, fact-based arguments. Such arguments are ‘boring’, and being boring in the Oxford Union is the worst crime you can commit.
This wouldn’t matter if it were confined to undergraduates but, Kuper argues, the Union is often the rehearsal for, and gateway to, a Westminster career. So you end up with politicians and top civil servants who are good at debate but have no deeply held beliefs and little or no experience of the real world. Their skill is bluffing their way through tutorials, not getting things done. They chatter brilliantly but they don’t deliver.
I find this argument convincing but also familiar. Dominic Cummings has been saying it for yonks. For instance, in 2014: ‘We should stop selecting leaders from a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree and a spell as a spin doctor.’ Of course Cummings went to Oxford too, so does that make him part of what Kuper calls ‘the Chumocracy’? I don’t think so. But Kuper seems to believe in some sort of conspiracy because Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Cameron, George Osborne and Jacob Rees-Mogg were all at Oxford in the 1980s.
As was he. He arrived on the same day as Rees-Mogg. But Kuper says he was never a Chum, because he was middle class and grew up mainly in the Netherlands. He read History and German rather than Classics or PPE, and only visited the Union as a Cherwell reporter. Nowadays he’s a brilliant Financial Times contributor and says: ‘I too learned at Oxford how to write and speak for a living without much knowledge.’
The Oxford he arrived at in 1988 was ‘still a very British and quite amateurish university, shot through with sexual harassment, dilettantism and sherry’. Everyone had watched Brideshead Revisited on telly and was keen to be Sebastian Flyte. There were only six Afro-Caribbean students in the entire university. And American Rhodes scholars such as Bill Clinton, who might have added some seriousness, were too busy still discussing the Vietnam war to pay attention to Oxford politics. They thought of Britain as a country in palpable decline.
Boris at Oxford was ‘king of all he surveyed’ and had a claque of devoted stooges, including Gove and Toby Young. When he left, he wrote disparagingly of the Union, that it was ‘nothing but a massage parlour for the egos of the assorted twits, twerps, toffs and misfits that inhabit it’. Nevertheless, he was downcast not to be elected president of the Union the first time he tried and very happy to succeed the second time, though as Kuper sharply observes: ‘Boris’s gift was for winning office, not doing anything with it.’
Cameron played no part in the Union, but then entered the Conservative Research Department with a recommendation from Buckingham Palace (I wish Kuper had said who from). Other Oxford Tories went into journalism – Gove to the Telegraph and then the Times, Johnson vice versa. When he was sacked from the Times for making up a quote, Boris was then ushered to the Telegraph leader writers’ desk. Osborne failed to get into journalism until much later (when Evgeny Lebedev made him editor of the Evening Standard), but joined Cameron at the Conservative Research Department. Kuper went to the FT, but soon developed the slacker’s habit of leaving his jacket on the back of his chair to suggest that he was in the building when he wasn’t: ‘I didn’t have much to prove. I was already a white Oxford male.’
The Oxford Tories belonged in journalism because ‘opinion writing was exactly what their education had prepared them for’. When Boris became editor of The Spectator in 1999, the Doughty Street office ‘became their clubhouse’. And journalism, Kuper sharply remarks, was a perfect prelude to a political career, because ex-journalists have the advantage of never having run anything, so they have no record that can be attacked.
Kuper remembers interviewing Cameron for the FT in 2005 when he was a candidate for the Tory leadership, and says
“they each clocked at a glance, as only Britons can, ‘He’s upper-class!’ ‘He’s middle-class!’ For almost all the 30-minute interview, Cameron dished up pre-cooked, content-free clichés. The fact that he was obviously intelligent only made it more insulting.
Yet he was elected leader, since ‘it turned out the Conservative party wasn’t looking for a leader with policies anyway’. Boris was irked, since Cameron had been below him at school and at Oxford, so he got himself chosen as Mayor of London instead. Kuper wrote in the FT that Cameron could never win a general election because ‘he is too blatantly posh’ and surrounded himself with other Etonians; but the electorate disagreed. And somehow this gang of Oxford Chums ended up producing Brexit.
Kuper says that Oxford has changed: it’s now more professional and money-driven, with many more foreign students. And undergraduates are expected to work an average of 40 hours a week, which was almost unheard of in his time. ‘Most tutors today don’t tolerate articulate bluffers’; one told him that ‘someone like Boris now just would not get into Oxford’.
Actually the section of the book I found most interesting had no particular relevance to its thesis. Kuper points out that all British prime ministers from 1940 to 1963 had served in combat, which gave them a seriousness of purpose that modern politicians lack. And war throws classes together, so, having been officers, they had some concept of looking after their men. They wanted to ameliorate, not exacerbate, the social divide. ‘Then Bertie Wooster rose from the dead.’
I’m still not sure what this book is about, unless it’s just Kuper asking himself how a bunch of people he dismissed as clowns at Oxford ended up running the country. In his closing chapter, he comes up with some suggestions for how Oxford could be reformed. He thinks one idea might be to stop teaching undergraduates and concentrate on ‘doing research, teaching grad students, spawning tech companies and making even more money from corporate conferences and executive education’. This sounds depressing. As does his final sentence: ‘Alternatively, we could preserve Oxford unchanged, and just accept elite self-perpetuation as the intended outcome of British life.’ So this sparkling firework of a book ends not with a bang but a whimper.