The film rights to Simon Kuper’s latest book, Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, have reportedly already been sold, such is Britain’s fascination not just with our current leaders, but their background at this country’s oldest, most peculiar educational institution.
I sat down with Simon Kuper to discuss his evisceration of Britain’s current political class, and the university which helped put them on the path to power. Having written on topics as wide as FC Barcelona and cold war spies in recent times, Kuper has returned to his formative years when, as a student of History and German, the future author and Financial Times columnist encountered many of today’s political and media elite. While the work is not a memoir, but rather a “group portrait” of a subset of posh Oxford students, his time at the University of Oxford shines through in his understanding of the university’s educational and cultural shortcomings at that time, some of which he provocatively argues endure to this day.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, Kuper’s focus is on current Conservative politicians such as Daniel Hannan, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Boris Johnson, who attended Oxford around the same time as Kuper himself and who have defined Brexit Britain. What ties these somewhat disparate characters together—Johnson an Old Etonian, Gove the adopted son of an Aberdeen fish-processing businessman—is a belief in the idea that “life is a game created for our benefit”, according to Kuper. Watching the Brexit referendum unfold in 2016, Kuper thought: “I know exactly where these people come from, I saw some of them as teenagers”, and from that germ comes this reflection on how the University of Oxford experience encouraged this rather detached approach to political life which has had such real effects on the country at large.
As to what exactly it is about Oxford, which has produced eleven post-war British Prime Ministers from Attlee to Johnson, that inculcated these attitudes in our present leader and his Brexiteer cabal, Kuper is scathing. He argues that at Oxford, the “ability to write an elegant essay, then discuss it elegantly for a tutor, can hide a multitude of sins”, particularly in arts subjects, which Kuper feels are overrepresented within the Oxford academe. Moreover, Kuper tells me that “three years of eight week terms is not enough for an education”, a problem exacerbated by the misguided feeling among graduates of his generation, Johnson and his allies among them, that this had constituted a “superb education”, when really it ought only to be the start of a lifetime of learning.
In Kuper’s estimation, Johnson is the epitome of the typical product of this late 1980s Oxford system. Johnson was reputedly part of an Oxford Union culture where “Facts!” was shouted at American debaters as an insult, transferring this dilettantish approach to learning from the tutorial room to the debating chamber while at Oxford. Beyond the headline-grabbing, grotesque reports of mock slave sales at the Union during Johnson’s time—Gove reportedly fetched £35—this generally relaxed attitude towards norms and propriety characterises what Kuper disdains about the Oxford experience’s impact on the politicians of the future.
What is perhaps even worse, is that Union success was seen to mean something, and helped the likes of Johnson to make connections which would eventually help catapult him into public view. “The Union was really crucial to his career; it is while Union president that he meets Charles Moore and Max Hastings who end up giving him jobs and were very impressed by him”, Kuper tells me. Johnson notoriously took the disregard for facts and details apparently honed at Oxford into journalism and politics, proving to be a model of ‘failing upwards’ as he was sacked from newspapers and shadow cabinets alike for lying, climbing the greasy pole nonetheless.
This ability for student politics, which even many within the Oxford bubble disregard as irrelevant, to transfer into the world of democratic politics is something I am keen to press Kuper further on. Kuper acknowledges that it is not just Oxford which shapes British politics, but the way in which the qualities Oxford has traditionally promoted are valued by the British public that has done so too. Kuper, who grew up in large part in the Netherlands, diagnoses in Britain a “national lack of seriousness… a general feeling of what could possibly go wrong?” This has made us vulnerable to “fun” politicians, of which Johnson was the “fun politician of his generation”. While Britain may have issues, Kuper highlighting widespread foodbank use as an example, our relative isolation has spared us the need to think about serious geopolitical issues as Germany did after World War Two or Poland does to this day given their proximity to Russia. This has contributed to a feeling that British politicians can “mess about”. And as for those suffering at the bottom of society – “well, no-one’s really thinking about them”, says Kuper ruefully.
On top of this, the deferential mystique around Oxford, which promotes the message that “he’s very smart too”, has led Britain to misplace its trust in the hands of toffs and chancers. Add to this the ability to debate, even without marshalling the facts of a given case, honed at public school and then Oxford, and Kuper comes up with a calculation which points to the production of the type of politician of which Boris Johnson is the archetype. Intonation and accent, not coherence and accuracy, have tended to dominate post-war British politics, Kuper’s work suggests. It seems we are not the better off for it, either.
Although Kuper is keen to stress that this book is not an in-depth survey of Oxford as it is today, observing that it “has got better” since his era, he does propose a rather serious overhaul of the institution to guard against the creation of another set of unserious British elites. Every student ought to be doing 40 hours of work per week, “and that for ten months of the year”; tutors ought to be much more “stringent” about work, with tutors openly telling students who don’t know their detail that “we can’t be bothered to teach you”. I’m sure some senior tutors might agree, but how realistic an expectation of students already complaining of chronic academic burnout this is is a rather challenging question for the would-be Oxford reformer.
Kuper’s book is an enormously engaging read, and makes a host of valid points about our current political class. Its focus on Tory “chums” seems more convincing than its criticisms of Oxford, however. Musa Okwonga has recently written a similar book, One of Them, about the “shamelessness” of Britain’s elite, bred into the upper classes throughout their upbringing. Oxford, here, is simply a staging post on a journey already well-underway by the time the likes of Kuper met these toffs as teenagers. Kuper does demonstrate that Oxford institutions like the Union can cement relationships between these chums, bringing the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove together, but again this seems to have more to do with the British class system than with Oxford as a university. Oxford is simply the venue par excellence for these meetings to take place, and enhanced academic rigour can only change this to an extent.
Only once Britain resolves its issues with class deference, which is certainly channelled through exaggerated obeisance to Oxbridge graduates, will this process finally be broken. Otherwise, it will simply continue elsewhere.
Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper is published in hardback by Profile Books.