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Editor’s Note: The kingdom is untied, Oxbridge and the public schools – and the horrors of roadkill

Boris Johnson’s insouciant style of debate was honed at Eton, and Keir Starmer must learn how to return fire.

By Jason Cowley

The election results confirmed what we already knew: no one political party speaks for Britain. The kingdom is untied. Labour is becoming hegemonic in Wales, and is strong among the younger, liberal Europhile graduate classes in London and other English cities, but weak nearly everywhere else – including in its former Brexit-voting heartlands. Labour was once a coalition of the organised working class and the Fabian intellectual. Today the coalition is more fragile than it has ever been before, and a class culture gap has opened up. Something is missing. The invisible chain linking the nation together is broken.

In Scotland the SNP remains a formidable election-winning machine, despite its patchy domestic record, and the unionist vote is split among the three opposition parties. Behind the SNP’s triumphalism the results reveal that around 55 per cent of Scots voted for unionist parties just as a similar majority voted against independence in 2014. Scotland is deadlocked on the independence question. Can anything break the impasse? This much we know: because of the rise of Sinn Féin two constituent parts of the UK (I’m reluctant to call the contested province of Northern Ireland a nation) will be controlled by secessionist parties that are also more than parties: they are movements.

What is to be done about our disunited kingdom? Are we moving towards the break-up of the UK or, at least, a fundamental constitutional reconfiguration that may result in a new federal settlement? Could this even lead to the creation of a Council of the Isles as long advocated by the Scottish writer Tom Nairn? 

I enjoyed Simon Kuper’s Chums, a tightly controlled polemic – more a long essay than a book – against a “caste” of 1980s Oxford Tories who dominate public life and were leading belligerents in the Brexit wars: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Daniel Hannan and other members of the chumocracy. As retold by Kuper, Brexit was an intra-elite conflict, with one faction of the 1980s caste of Oxford Tories (David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt et al) pitted against the other. Kuper – who studied at Oxford himself in the late 1980s – is insightful on how Johnson and his contemporaries have carried what they learned in public school and Oxford Union debates into public life.

Keir Starmer, a graduate student at Oxford but not a player at the Union, still doesn’t seem to know how to counter Johnson’s insouciant, rhetorical style, which combines detail-free, boosterish bluster with ad hominem attacks (“Corbynista in an Islington suit”, “Captain Hindsight”, and so on). Starmer is an accomplished prosecuting barrister but is not a fluent speaker, as Tony Blair was. Nor is he nimble or quick-witted. Why doesn’t he return fire when the preposterous Johnson ridicules him? Where are his witty retorts, his own memorable insults?

In the early 1980s only 13 per cent of young Britons went into full-time education (including the old polytechnics). It was not difficult to get into Oxford if you’d had a privileged education: the university admitted “two applicants out of five”, Kuper writes. “If you were from a public school and got rejected, you might still get in, because it was your school’s job to know which tutor to ring to lobby on your behalf.”

By the early Nineties, 49 per cent of Oxford students were from public schools and many others were from selective state grammar schools. If you went to the kind of provincial comprehensive that I did, applying to Oxbridge was never an option. Yet one boy from my school, a couple of years older, did miraculously end up at Oxford. He lived with his single mother and younger brother on a council estate that was later demolished, and I often think about how outstandingly academic he must have been and what became of him. What on Earth would he have made of Boris Johnson and his chums?

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Today champions of meritocracy complain that Oxford and Cambridge are biased against the public schools. In fact, what is happening is that contextual data is being used as part of the admissions process – as it should be. But that still didn’t stop 99 boys from the same year at Eton going to Oxford and Cambridge in 2014.

One recent morning as I was driving from Hertfordshire to Gloucestershire, via the M25 and M4, I was struck by something I hadn’t noticed before, perhaps because I don’t drive much: the sight of so many dead creatures lying in the central reservation. Roadkill. There were magnificent raptors and other birds, badgers, muntjac, fallow and roe deer, and foxes lying stricken, crushed or mutilated. This was distressing to see. It occurred to me that where there were once crash-barriers separating opposing traffic flows, under which animals could pass, there are now raised concrete “step barriers”. If an animal runs on to a motorway there is no chance of it crossing to the other side and so the bodies are piling up amid the debris of tyres, wheel hubs, plastic bottles and junk food cartons.

In his poem “Traveling through the Dark” (1962) William Stafford writes hauntingly of coming across a fallen deer on the edge of the Wilson River road. He stops his car and approaches the animal, which is warm and has only just been killed.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason —/her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,/alive, still, never to be born.

The headlights of an oncoming vehicle pierce the darkness and the poet responds by pushing the deer “over the edge into the river”, one more animal lost on the road.

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer