Privileged mediocrities

Mike Phipps reviews Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK, by Simon Kuper, published by Profile

Eleven of the post-war prime ministers went to Oxford University. In recent times, David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Hannan and Dominic Cummings did.

But Chums is not just about the smallness of Britain’s privileged elite or the early advantages it enjoys. Simon Kuper goes further: had the latter five names not gone to Oxford, “We would probably never had Brexit.”

Of course, it’s not just a Tory elite. Tony Blair, Yvette Cooper, Keir Starmer and the Miliband brothers all attended. It’s a media elite too: the editors of the Sunday Times, Economist, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail all passed through 1980s Oxford.

This is significant, not just because Oxford helped create distinct castes – this could be said of many private schools too – but because Oxford was invariably traditionalist – particularly in what it taught. It was also socially misogynist, racist and homophobic. It offered quite a shallow education that prioritised communication skills over rigorous study.

Kuper focuses on the Tory Brexiteer Oxford elite “because it won”. But it’s not entirely clear how large a role old Oxford networks played in this. David Hannan founded the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain, which had close ties with the Conservatives’ Bruges Group. But the case for an ‘Oxford plot’ is not effectively made.

Kuper emphasises the importance of the Oxford Union and the brilliant rhetorical skills of Johnson, Gove et al in order to critique a system that attaches more importance to winning debates than shaping policy. That’s clear from their performance in ‘adult’ politics today.

But it’s equally clear that Johnson, Rees-Mogg and many of that coterie are actually political mediocrities, clever with a quick phrase, but little more. They occupy a void.

It should also be remembered that there have been times when the Oxford Union was a political irrelevance, because even at elitist Oxford, real change was being effected elsewhere – through occupations for a students’ union and college rent strikes. If the Oxford Union was remotely important at this time, it was because it was the centre of attempts by less elitist students to deny a platform to far right speakers the Union invited.

The more Kuper focuses on the debating skills Johnson’s chums honed at the Oxford Union, the more he moves away from the Brexiteer elite to privileged Tories in general. The cavalier way that David Cameron called the Brexit referendum in 2016 may have something to do with shallow Oxford amateurism, but it owes more to his self-assured class superiority which was formed far earlier.

Under Theresa May, leading Brexiteers were given the job of implementing Brexit. “This was like asking the winners of a debating competition to engineer a spaceship,” says Kuper. “Most of these people were talkers not doers.”

So careless of detail were Johnson and co that they accepted the Brussels backstop on the Irish border before spending the next few years fighting their own decision. Dominic Cummings claimed Johnson had no idea what the deal he signed in 2019 actually meant.

If politics, when dealing with something as serious as Brexit, was just a game to Johnson’s chums, it was about to get deadly serious. Prioritising by instinct ‘personal freedom’ over public safety, the prime minister delayed imposing a lockdown to deal with the Covid pandemic – which he and his own staff blatantly and repeatedly flouted when it was introduced.

One member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies estimated that locking down a week earlier could have reduced Britain’s death toll by “at least half”. “That would make Johnson’s delay possibly the deadliest decision in post-war British history,” notes Kuper. He is supported by a report of two House of Commons Committees which called the government’s strategy “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced.”

The distribution of jobs and PPE contracts to well-connected individuals was also classic chumocracy behaviour. Much of the equipment was unusable, but the contractors still got paid.

Kuper’s closing chapter offers some solutions, primarily focused on the need to reform universities like Oxford. But the bigger question, not addressed, is what we are going to do about our political system that is so corrupted by privilege, personality and money?

More immediately, Boris Johnson’s career may be over, but he, Gove, Rees-Mogg and the rest should be held to account for their self-advancement at the expense of the public good.  They need to face justice.

Mike Phipps’ new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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