The Sunday Long Read
Many people on the left, and many remainers, believe that the people who have been running the Conservative Party since the economic crash of 2008 have a clever plan, designed to serve their own interests at the expense of the rest of society. This may be true of some. Certainly, none of them had any plan to weaken those interests, or to give up power. But in Chums: how a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK, Simon Kuper, himself a product of the institutions which made this Tory elite, sheds a fascinating light on how they were formed and what drives them. Perhaps there never was a plan.
Raised to rule: Eton and Oxford
Kuper traces, with forensic detail and remarkable access, the background and careers of the key players – Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Johnson, Hunt, Hannan, Cummings and Mogg. None was a scientist, most had no real experience of running anything, or of life as lived by most of their fellow citizens. All had been shaped by one, or both, of the two institutions which have created the ruling class for a century or more: Eton and Oxford.
In this, they were not unusual: thirteen of the seventeen post-war prime ministers were Oxford graduates. Fourteen were white men (the first Conservative BAME minister was not appointed until 2012). Most had come from upper- and upper-middle-class families via Eton, and Oxford consolidated the bonds which channelled them into positions of power. They studied the Philosophy, Politics and Economics programme (PPE) designed as a training ground for those embarking on a life in government.
However, this cohort, going up to Oxford in the 1980s, were different from their predecessors in one critical respect. Between Oxford and political life, almost all their predecessors had had a brutal encounter with reality. Until 1979, every Conservative prime minister had experience of wartime military service. As junior officers they had had to organise and make things happen, working closely with people of all social classes. Macmillan was wounded twice in the trenches of 1914–18, and Heath was mentioned in dispatches on D Day. All had learned the hard way that life is serious, and had seen their decisions impact on other people’s lives.
This experience continued to influence thinking even after Margaret Thatcher came to power (her experience of Oxford, and of war, was very different). Most of her senior ministers had distinguished war records before entering politics, and a strong sense of responsibility. A key example is Lord Carrington, a distinguished tank commander in the second world war and foreign secretary to Margaret Thatcher. He chose to resign from that office because he had failed to anticipate the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands.
The cohort who passed through Oxford together in the 1980s were different. They modelled themselves on Sabastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (then being serialised on TV). They studied (when they did) PPE, History or Classics: all subjects where the ability to shape an elegant, and usually provocative, argument mattered more than hard evidence or practicality. The supreme skills were writing and speaking, not changing things. In its essence it was still the system designed to prepare people to rule an empire. The world was something you spoke and wrote about, and ultimately would rule.
Kuper looks at how Eton and Oxford shaped these men (sic) and their values, and how, for them, government was an extension of a game they learned at school and Oxford. It was an education which valued, above all, the skills of the debating society, honed in the Oxford Union, itself modelled on the House of Commons, and where national and international figures regularly spoke. What mattered there was winning an argument and defeating an opponent, whatever the issue. When Johnson famously wrote two contradictory views of Brexit, he was doing what he had often done there: choosing the side where he could best show off his skills and become the winner.
Kuper shows how the rivalries and competition for status within this tiny group shaped their personalities and politics. Their world was one of white male privilege, where hard work and facts were things for lesser people. None were stupid, and some were intellectually distinguished, but effortless achievement was the goal, it might need last minute cramming for exams, but if you could get away with bluffing, that was also fine.
But within the group were fierce tensions. Cameron had royal connections to distinguish himself, while Gove and Mogg created caricature personas to conceal their middle class origins, and Johnson used humour and rhetoric to deflect attention and criticism (and to avoid work). When Gove abandoned support for Johnson’s bid to lead the Conservative party, he was playing a treacherous game which they had both mastered in the politics of the Oxford Union.
Cameron famously, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister, said he thought he would be rather good at it. Johnson said he wanted to be “world king”. Their upbringing had taught both of them that they would eventually have power, but with no vision of what they wanted to do with it.
A chance to be great
Of course, this fits quite well with traditional conservatism, whose motto might well be “if it ain’t broke (and it isn’t really) don’t fix it”. Cameron felt secure in his position. He had never seriously lost a debate, nor had much contact with ordinary people in his life. For him, a referendum on the EU didn’t look like a serious threat. it was obvious that outsiders like Farage would be defeated in a referendum, since in his experience people like that always lose.
However, some of his peers had a model of a different kind of leadership: the radical, and in many ways very un-conversative, revolution of Margaret Thatcher. And suddenly, Brexit opened the door to another revolution. For them, Brexit offered two attractions. One was the chance to defeat their rivals (including Cameron) in the debating game they had been playing together since Eton. The second was a big memorable cause – defending British sovereignty against foreigners and dull little people. It would place whoever won in the Tory pantheon alongside Churchill and Thatcher. For them, the economic and social implications were marginal, if they understood them at all. They were not interested in the issues, and indeed Johnson barely understood them. Fame and the game was what mattered.
Has anything changed?
After Brexit, the Johnson government of 2019 broke the tradition. To settle old scores, and consolidate his personal position, he set out to exclude the people who had previously challenged him. A third of his cabinet were women, and six came from ethnic minorities. Their educational background was much more varied and they had more experience of the “real world”. However, his leadership remained, disastrously, that of the gentleman amateur, and one might suggest that by elevating people who would always have been excluded from his inner circle, he was asserting dominance, rather than seeking diversity.
The political chaos which followed the referendum upended much of the world which Kuper describes. The dominance of Eton and Oxford has declined. The Oxford Union is mounting a campaign to raise £5 million for essential maintenance of its buildings so that it can “continue to fulfil its time-honoured role as the ‘last bastion of free speech”. Thirty-two percent of the current cabinet are Oxford graduates, compared with 41% of the Cameron one. The proportion who studied PPE has fallen from 30% to 18%.
Although there are no longer any old Etonians in the cabinet, the role of independent schools in the Conservative party remains evident. Two-thirds of the Conservative cabinet attended private schools, whereas a similar proportion of the shadow cabinet attended state schools. The proportion of privately educated ministers has actually increased since 2010.
The dominance of Oxford and Cambridge remains much more powerful for Conservatives. Those two universities account for 61% of the cabinet (unchanged since 2010) but only 36% of the shadow cabinet. In the 1980s, Keir Starmer, as a postgraduate law student of 23, will have experienced a very different Oxford from the 18-year-old undergraduates Kuper describes in the same university at the same time.
A game we all lost
Kuper quotes a range of foreign politicians expressing astonishment at the power which a tiny minority can exert in our political system. He makes a plausible case that the disaster of Brexit was the result of less than a dozen privileged young white men, playing out childish games among themselves, with reckless lack of concern for the lives of their fellow citizens.
It was not a plan, it was a game which even the players lost.
More from East Anglia Bylines
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏