Of Boris and Brexit and Broken Systems
If you think our present government is doing an excellent job, our politicians are above reproach, and the British political system can’t possibly be improved, then you probably won’t enjoy reading Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, and you can also skip the rest of this blog post.
On the other hand, if you’re still miffed about Brexit, you might enjoy it. By “enjoy”, I mean you will be made to splutter with indignation and impotent fury (well, I was), and the UK’s epic own goal may make marginally more sense.
Even if you think Brexit was a fine idea, you may still enjoy the book. It depends on whether you feel comfortable with the UK’s future being a pawn in a power game played by a privileged elite.
The Eton-Oxford Fast Track
The book sets out how an exclusive caste of British men — those who attended Eton College, went to Oxford and became members of the Oxford Union (and, in many cases, the infamous, all-male Bullingdon Club) — naturally graduated to the House of Commons, having been educated since boyhood on how to win a debate through sheer force of wit and articulacy, but extremely little about morality, ethics, or the lives of less privileged members of society.
David Cameron, who called the Brexit referendum, and Boris Johnson, whose Brexit campaign won, are two such men.
I found it a strange experience reading the book. I overlapped at Oxford with Cameron and Johnson (Johnson graduated in 1987, Cameron in 1988, I in 1989) but the Oxford described is not the one that I knew. Here’s a little comparison.
Any or all of these factors meant that we were on parallel lines through the Oxosphere, but supremely unlikely to ever cross paths. While our future politicians (also including Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg) were learning the ancient art of political back-stabbing at the Union, I was more usually to be found on the river, in the college beer cellar, or asleep on a book of case law in the law library. While they were at the Union Ball, I was probably at the India Garden.
But I hope this isn’t just me having a chip on my shoulder about social class. Being a daughter of clergy somewhat places me to the side of the British class structure. I’m not even against privilege, per se (even as I recognise my own privilege). For me, it’s not about whether you’re privileged or not, but what you do with the privilege you have.
So How Did This Lead To Brexit?
There is clearly an enormous advantage in going to a school like Eton that nurtures the qualities of self-assurance, agility of thought, swiftness of wit, and ruthlessness in debates that is a perfect grounding for later success at Westminster. The House of Commons is reassuringly familiar to those familiar with the debating chambers at Eton and Oxford, and consequent ascent to the highest political post in the land seems almost like a natural progression. Even some people who don’t particularly rate Boris see a kind of inevitability about his rise.
The book implies that to Boris, Brexit was a rhetorical sparring match to see which side of the campaign could outwit (out-twit?) the other, just like in the jolly old days at the Union. Maybe he was peeved that the younger Cameron had beaten him to Number Ten, and taking the opposite side on the Brexit issue was payback time. Maybe he resented the European Union’s encroachment on British sovereignty, when clearly this was the prerogative of the British ruling classes.
To be fair, I’m equally vexed with David Cameron, who it seems hadn’t done his homework on which way the referendum was likely to go, and then despite saying he would stay on in office regardless of which way it went, promptly quit. Both men were playing with the future of our country as if the consequences would be no more serious than a bruised ego on one side or the other.
But as the eminently foreseeable consequences of Brexit play out — delays of imports and people at borders, additional bureaucracy, departing corporate HQs, and so on — buyers’ remorse may be setting in. As of May 2022, 47% of people in Great Britain thought that it was wrong to leave the European Union, compared with 39% who thought it was the right decision. And given the age group differential, the balance is likely to shift further towards Remain — according to the BBC in 2018, 82% of 18 to 24-year-olds would vote Remain in a second referendum, compared with the two-thirds of those aged 65 and over who would vote Leave.
Still, that ship has sailed, and to mix my metaphors, no point crying over spilled milk.
So, What Can We Learn?
At the conclusion of the book, the Simon Kuper suggests that Oxford confers an unfair advantage, and should be stripped of its power to distort British politics by turning it into a purely postgraduate institution. That’s not the way I would go. It was a tremendous honour to go to Oxford, and to deny that to all future undergraduates would be disproportionate and a shame. I wouldn’t want Eton to be less Eton, or Oxford to be less Oxford. The skillsets that they foster are valuable in the real world, so rather than making the top institutions less, why not make other institutions more?
Equalise the playing field at the highest common denominator, not the lowest.
It’s natural that the scions of the wealthier classes have a greater degree of self-assurance (or arrogance) that serves them well as they move through the world, but what if other schools were better funded and teaching was a well-respected and well-paid profession?
Couldn’t ordinary kids also be supported to become the best they can be, and encouraged to actively participate in our democracy?
Ah, democracy… I’ve written before about the shortcomings of democracy in its current form. Most pertinent here is that we elect individuals who are good at winning elections, not people who are going to be good at running the country. So maybe we’re overdue for electoral reform.
Humans being as we are, we are impressed by humour, eloquence, and self-confidence. If someone believes in themselves as a leader, we tend to believe that too, and it’s easy to be won over by superficial likeability rather than sound policies or good character. This is always going to be a failing of human judgement, so might it be possible to create a system of political representation, like a People’s Parliament, that draws on a diverse cross-section of the population? Truly government for the people, by the people?
But here we run into the old conundrum: that those in power are supremely unlikely to replace the system that put them into power.
As Frederick Douglass said in his West India Emancipation speech:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”
What are we willing to quietly submit to? And what are we willing to stand up for? Discuss.
(If you’re interested to read more, there’s a good introduction to the book by its author, Simon Kuper, in the Financial Times.)