Welcome to the “chumocracy”, in England a modern word but an ancient notion. Early in the 19th century the radical pamphleteer William Cobbett derided the complacent self-interest of Britain’s ruling caste – he called it The Thing. In Simon Kuper’s Chums meet the new Thing. Same as the old Thing.
“To understand power in today’s Britain,” Kuper writes, “requires travelling back in time to the streets of Oxford, somewhere between 1983 and 1993.” This is where the establishment operators of the 21st century were made: if public school doesn’t connect them, then the square mile of undergraduate Oxford will.
Kuper himself arrived at the university in 1988, and as a student journalist he first became aware of this line-up of usual suspects – Johnson, Cameron, Rees-Mogg, Gove, Cummings, but also the Milibands, Cooper, Balls, even Keir Starmer as a graduate – until the realisation dawns that Oxford joins most of the political dots. The index to Chums is astonishing and depressing, full of recognisable names both younger and older. Along with former prime ministers May and Blair and Thatcher, Chums has walk-on Oxford parts for Bill Clinton and Benazir Bhutto and Viktor Orbán.
They’re all here, and they were all there. Kuper plausibly claims that “it’s possible to tell the story of British politics in the last 25 years without reference to any other university”.
As a columnist at the Financial Times, Kuper admits to being a “corresponding member of the British establishment”, but in Chums he limits his personal reminiscences. Instead, he favours a reporter’s diligence with facts and footnotes as he traverses British public life by stepping from one Oxford graduate to another, rarely having to set foot on solid ground. From civil servants to broadcasters and editors and satirists, Oxford, it becomes clear, makes the news and narrates it too.
So who are these people?
“In truth,” writes Kuper, with an even-handedness surely acquired during his early schooling in the Netherlands, “almost everyone who gets into Oxford is a mixture of privilege and merit in varying proportions.” Though mostly privilege. At the start of the 21st century, private schools (which at the time educated about 7 per cent of the population) supplied around half of Oxford’s domestic student intake. Kuper quotes the former Labour minister Andrew Adonis: “The place felt like one huge public school to which a few others of us had been smuggled in by mistake.”
The Tory public schoolboys had the advantage of feeling at home (meaning boarding school) as they swaggered across quads into medieval buildings to hear grace in Latin. They felt comfortable behind high walls. In Kuper’s time, among the “largely southern English student body”, the university had six Afro-Caribbean undergraduates. That’s six people, not six per cent. About 30 per cent of Oxford students were women, and “in 1985, most colleges had either one or zero female fellows”. This was the social context in which today’s leaders first played at politics.
The public schoolboys didn’t have to adapt. That was the challenge facing “a few invitees from the middle orders” set on taking the Oxford track to the top. For anyone who’d missed out at school on arrogance, entitlement, debating skills, exceptionalism, bullshit and Latin, Oxford would do what it could.
The admissions interview set the tone – a test of quick-thinking and improvisation, possibly, but also a measure of that private-school ability to speak while uninformed. Any aptitude for a career in politics was then sharpened by a weekly tutorial that rewarded bold, counterintuitive arguments showing how conventional wisdom was wrong. This provocative style was ideal training for newspaper columnists, and for prime ministers looking to survive the weekly crisis of PMQs.
British political life, especially in the House of Commons, accommodates undergraduate facetiousness. Who at Oxford, then, was going to discourage the posturing and cartoon personal branding that slayed at the Oxford Union? The Union – a debating club “that enabled aspiring politicians, barristers and columnists to argue any case, whether they believed it or not” – had no actual power to make a difference to student lives. It was an elaborate game focused on hot-air debates where anyone well-informed risked the derisory heckle of: “Facts!”
At the Union, fiercely contested leadership elections allowed the likes of Johnson, Gove and Rees-Mogg to work on their “amateurish ruthlessness”, with Johnson expecting and receiving his customary second chance. He learned that no setback was terminal: play the game again, this time less sincerely. These childish intrigues would be laughable if in the past ten years similar strategies hadn’t decided Britain’s prime minister. Twice.
Among the left-leaning undergraduates, David Miliband chaired an accommodation committee, while Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls negotiated student rent reviews. They involved themselves with organisations that could and did make a difference, but the university’s Tory faction could bypass what Daniel Hannan (future MEP and now Baron Hannon of Kingsclere) could mock from inside the Conservative Association as “excruciatingly relevant issues”. Hannan himself, and so many others, could skip the bit of a political apprenticeship that involved caring about the rest of the country. Tory chums only had to flourish at Oxford, inhabiting a fantasy Britain that ran on historical fumes.
Chums has its inevitable chapter on the antics of Boris Johnson and David Cameron at the “Buller”, a cosplay England of mustard-coloured waistcoats and social condescension. Those were the days. Beyond the panelled debating chambers and honey-stoned colleges, modernity and change could feel like decline. Progress could feel like decline. Little wonder, then, that Kuper identifies Oxford as the incubator of Brexit.
He tells the story of early alliances between awkward young men with a specialist interest in Mrs Thatcher and the Maastricht treaty. Again, the zealotry of Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg and the future Ukip MP Mark Reckless becomes significant only because their obsessions will have consequences: this is the “Oxocracy”, as exposed in Chums, where the top jobs in British public life get shared out disproportionately to a pool of 3,000 undergraduates a year. And among this 0.5 per cent of each British age cohort, in the 1980s there lurked a flippancy of public schoolboys nurturing “ambition without a cause” and a nagging suspicion of Brussels. Their sense of personal entitlement told them it was simply wrong for the European Union to tell the British people what to do. That was their job.
Kuper convincingly sets out the cause and effect connection between Oxford student politics and Brexit: “An anti-elitist revolt led by an elite: a coup by one set of Oxford public schoolboys against another, backed by an Australian Oxford public schoolboy media magnate masquerading as an anti-elitist.” Oh yes, him too.
The anti-European Oxford faction persuaded enough of the electorate to endorse their sense of self-importance, mainly because being persuasive was the trick they’d honed in tutorials and at the Union. All their lives they’d inhabited a rhetorical neverland, productive of smart sentences but little else, so that when Theresa May gave the leading Brexiteers the job of delivering Brexit, this “was like asking the winners of a debating competition to engineer a spaceship”.
In retrospect, surveying the damage of his labours, a former Master of Balliol College questions the value of an Oxford education: “What had we done for Boris? Had we taught him truthfulness? No. Had we taught him wisdom? No.”
What did Oxford teach him, and his 21st-century chums? Mostly, it turns out, the humanities. “Classics for Johnson, history for Rees-Mogg and Hannan, and ancient and modern history for Cummings. Gove’s degree was English, which mostly meant the canon.” The Brexit hardliners majored in the glorious past, while Kuper with his reliable sense of fairness points out that maligned PPE students (from left and right) mostly backed Remain. They too now find themselves excluded from the narrowing swirl of chums as the government goes down the drain of botched Covid contracts and illegal lockdown parties.
As for the future, Kuper is optimistic about the university’s attempts to change, with private school entrance down to 32 per cent in 2021 (though as recently as 2017 this included more successful applicants from Westminster School than black students). Kuper’s solution is European: “These countries mostly just have lots of good universities, none of which confers a life-changing advantage,” but a bold counterintuitive argument, made in a hurry, without sufficient reading, can comfortably deny that Europe is ever the answer.
This incisive, insightful and timely book compellingly attributes recent British upheavals to rivalries within a tiny Oxford tribe. By the end of Chums, it seems reasonable to fear that only Oxford Tories will ever wield the necessary power to end the self-serving, self-satisfied rule of other Oxford Tories. See? The fun stuff they keep to themselves.
Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK
Profile, 240pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma