Chums – But Not Mine
You can write your own version of some jokes, editing the key words to fit whichever person or group you want to tease. For example: ‘How do you know if someone you meet went to Oxford? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you soon enough.’ I have heard this joke applied to all sorts of groups, from vegans to communists and, of course, Cambridge graduates, but since I went to Oxford – whoops, didn’t take long, did it? – this is my preferred version.
I was there at the same time as Boris Johnson in the mid-1980s and his name was certainly one that got people talking even then. The centre of the universe for people like him was the debating society that was the Oxford Union. I went once, I think, and it all left me rather nonplussed, mainly because my universe was a parallel one where the only thing that mattered to me was playing football as often as I could.
For my birthday last summer, my wife bought me a copy of ‘Chums’ by Simon Kuper. In doing so, she was taking something of a risk, because I am sure she must have anticipated that it would be a book that would increase my blood pressure and result in regular disturbances to the tranquillity of the circle of deckchairs where our family spends its holiday afternoons reading in the garden. The usual ambient silence seemed likely to be regularly broken, either by a tirade of expletives as I was reminded of how ghastly I found such people, or by a desire to read passages out loud to reinforce my world view. And so it came to pass.
It was clear from the outset that Kuper and I were likely to be fellow travellers, or Sputniks as the Russians term it, when he started with a quotation from Napoleon: ‘To understand a man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty’, and when he quickly followed up with the observation that the working-class boy Dennis Potter had feared that Oxford in the 1950s would be full of intellectual giants, but found it was full of ‘sick pygmies’. I would not go quite as far as Potter in my observations, but I do remember feeling underwhelmed for most of the time I was there by the shallowness of the conversations.
Perhaps with Michael Gove’s comment in mind that we no longer need experts, Kuper highlights how science was not taken seriously at the Oxford of the 1980s. He says that Britain does indeed have world-class scientists, engineers and ‘quants’, but they are too often stuck in the engine room while the rhetoricians drive the train. Modern Oxford has specialised in producing the politicians and civil servants who administrate the British state, the lawyers and accountants who service the economy, and the pundits who narrate the show. These people typically dropped science and maths at school aged sixteen and acquired only a smattering of economics. Apparently, in parliament in 2016, MPs who had studied politics at university outnumbered those who had studied engineering nearly sevenfold.
This is important because it means that those making the key decisions do not have the skills they need to make them. Kuper gives the example that numbers have historically been a challenge for Britain’s ruling class. Alec Douglas-Home as prime minister apparently admitted to using matchsticks to work out the consequences of the budget, and later British leaders struggled to judge scientific advice on nuclear energy, climate change and Covid-19. In 2010, George Osborne became chancellor with no formal post-school education in economics or business beyond whatever he had picked up in his Oxford history degree. By the late 2010s, Oxford's most oversubscribed undergraduate degree was economics and management, but during Osborne’s student days in the early 1990s it did not yet exist.
The author goes on to explain that since the referendum of 2016, it has become commonplace to associate Brexit with Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE – but nothing to do with Covid protective equipment). He highlights Ivan Rogers, for instance, a grammar-school boy who read history at Oxford, and the UK’s permanent representative to the EU until he resigned in 2017, who discerned in Brexit what he called ‘a very British establishment sort of revolution – no plan and little planning, oodles of PPE tutorial-level plausible waffle and supreme self-confidence that we understand others’ interests better than they do…’. But, Kuper tells us, this is a misdiagnosis. In fact, in the 2016 referendum, ninety-five per cent of MPs who had studied PPE voted Remain. By contrast, all the leading Oxford Tory Brexiteers studied classics, history, ancient and modern history or English.
After reading about it in several different books, most of which decry its impact on politicians and the national psyche, I have recently added ‘Our Island Story’ by H. E. Marshall (Henrietta Elizabeth, perhaps somewhat surprisingly) to my Amazon wish list because I feel the need to see for myself how potentially damaging it might be. I will endeavour to review it properly in due course, but in essence I think it is a one-sided narrative that portrays all things English as superior to all things foreign, thereby helping to create the sense of our nation’s exceptionalism among so many that seems to me to be so very dangerous.
Kuper picks up the theme when he says that perhaps no other country than Britain has as happy a relationship with its own history, and he adds that the self-appointed guardian of this positive relationship is the Conservative Party, with Tory public school boys growing up as ancestor-worshippers, and understandably so: for anyone able to gloss over the brutality of empire, the achievements of their tiny caste were breathtaking.
He continues that between 1860 and 1960, British men who had attended either independent schools or Oxbridge or both had invented, ruled and written much of the modern world. They had governed a quarter of the planet and overseen victory in two world wars. They created Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, Winnie the Pooh, Bertie Wooster, James Bond, the Jungle Book and Nineteen Eighty-Four. They had split the atom and discovered evolution, television, penicillin and the structure of DNA. They helped invent the computer and the nuclear bomb. They gave the world Keynesianism and most modern sports.
But the trouble is that politics became too easy and undemanding. Kuper quotes Anthony Sampson, in ‘The Changing Anatomy of Britain’, who wrote, ‘The classic British route to fame and fortune, from public school to university to the Bar to the House of Commons, has involved moving through ancient institutions without ever having to hire, fire or manage other people... The time-honoured Oxbridge structures – on top of the foundations of mediaeval schools – can easily encourage their inhabitants towards the most conventional kind of ambition, to climb up existing trees rather than plant new ones...’
Unlike their American and European counterparts, Kuper highlights that the Oxford Tories did not bother with graduate school. As per public school tradition, they seemed to feel that Oxford had completed their formal education. As straight white men, they were, in the unmatched phrase of the writer John Scalzi, playing the game called ‘The Real World’ with the difficulty setting on ‘Easy’. They thought they could march into adulthood and do whatever they liked. The trouble is, of course, that this arrogance has consequences, and few of them are good for most people in our island story – as you might have noticed in, say, the last twelve years.