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'You're rewarded for being funny, not being right': How Oxford Tory 'chums' came to run the country

Oxford Union, parties, privilege and architecture are some of the contributing factors that characterise the UK's powerful politicians, says journalist and author Simon Kuper.

A young Boris Johnson with sister Rachel Johnson. Image: Steve Back/ANL/Shutterstock.

Households across the UK are feeling the tight squeeze of the rise in energy, fuel and food bills. Currently British politicians are being given pay rises, answering to offshore taxes (in Rishi Sunak’s case) and attempting to excuse parties during strict Covid lockdowns.

An overwhelming number of those politicians went to Oxford University, including Boris Johnson. So too did previous prime ministers Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron, as well as senior politicians Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.

The Big Issue spoke to Simon Kuper, a former Oxford student about his new book, Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK. The publication, which has since been optioned for a documentary series, sees Kuper draw from his own experience to analyse where the people who run the country have come from.

Quoting Napoleon, he says: “To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20.” 

Let’s start with an easy one. What inspired the book? 

The book really began for me on the night of the [Brexit] referendum. I’m watching TV horror struck, and I see these victorious Brexiteers troop across my TV screen. Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan (the mind behind Brexit), Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg , Dominic Cummings… and I think, ‘I know these people, I know exactly where they came from. I knew some of them as teenagers.’ 

They were all at Oxford, with me or just before me, and for the last few years that group has held power in the UK. And I thought – to understand why this is happening and who these people are – you have to go back 30 years to Oxford in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then you understand where this generation got it all from. 

Would you say the current political surroundings invites a type of person who is already accustomed to the political class?

I was in parliament yesterday, it’s a great big public school on the Thames. That’s exactly what it looks like. So these men were at a medieval boarding school, and then at medieval Oxford, then a few years later, in the medieval commons. That transition feels very smooth to them. A lot of people who aren’t from the upper class, or women, walk in and they think: “This is strange.” 

Rees-Mogg said last year, when asked why Tories are not wearing masks in the house, he said: “We on this side [of the house] know each other.” And I think that’s a very significant remark, they’ve known each other for decades, they’ve known each other since school, since Oxford. So parliament is designed to make them feel at home and make everybody else feel not at home. And if you recall, the image of Rees-Mogg lying on the benches in the Commons and people were complaining about that, that’s like a cat rolling on its back in a place that feels comfortable. 

They’ve been institutionalised. Home is a very vague concept, because often they left home at seven to go to boarding school, so home for them is an institution. 

“It’s a great big public school on the Thames” – Credit: Pexels

What role does attire and style play in creating a Tory politician?

These guys have had a very stable brand which then becomes more and more retro. One thing they symbolise in the way they dress, talk, and behave is an unchanging England, which is attractive to some people: ‘Make England old again.’

Everyone at the university knew Rees-Mogg from about the day he arrived, because he walked around in a double-breasted suit, with an umbrella; he dressed much as he does now at 52, as he did at 18. It was astonishing. There were punks at university, and people with all sorts of dress senses, but there was no reason to dress like that. 

They incarnate going back, because if you took a picture of Boris Johnson, or Jacob Rees-Mogg, and you said it’s 1922 – we would believe that. They would fit in perfectly. Johnson has ignited various English archetypes; one is Bertie Wooster and another is ‘The Bounder’ from the boarding school stories.  

In England, Eton connotes posh, the way he speaks connotes old, and Oxford is accepted by voters as connoting brainy. So ‘he’s not just a joker, he went to Oxford.’ That is the package that he’s offering. 

They were creating a very recognisable brand which they’ve perpetuated for 40 years. And it’s a great political asset to be a brand.

What do you think are the main conditions at Oxford University that foster this caste of politicians? 

To answer your question largely, they create this group-feeling through the Oxford Union which is a hugely significant nursery of the Commons. A number of people who are officers or presidents of the Oxford Union go on to become prime ministers like Harold Macmillan, William Ewart Gladstone, before Johnson. What you learn there is not to run things, because the union doesn’t run anything, it’s just a debating society to debate and perform.  

You can learn to debate in a forensic way like Gove can, he finds a hole in your arguments and problems with your facts, etc. But what was more essential, Gove has it and Johnson has it in spades, was the comic performance. At the union people were rewarded for being funny, much more than for being right.  

Performing is what they do, and performing is in the British political tradition. The Oxford Tories are not really wanting to be policymakers as such. They’re not very interested in policy. What they’re interested in is speeches, debates and being on stage. And to be an effective performer, you need an identity.

What would you like Oxford to look like in the future? 

In the last five years Oxford and Cambridge have massively upped the state school quota, I think to proportions never seen before, that well over 60 per cent now come from state schools, which is still massively disproportionate but it’s better than it was before. And things like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have put pressure on all these traditional institutions to become more diverse.

I don’t fully trust this because there is an ancient ruling class caste in Britain and it always succeeds in capturing the system, as it has again. I argue that Oxford should consider becoming a postgraduate university and what I would really like is an Oxbridge for all. So if you’re mid-20s/30s and you’re very bright, and you never went to university because you came from the wrong class, or your life was not in the right place at that time, Oxford would pick you out and say, ‘come to summer school, we will give you two months of studying something that really matters to you.’ 

They would give hundreds of thousands of people a chance to pass through Oxford, and to get an education from the brilliant staff – not all of them, but some of them – and raise the education of the whole population, rather than 18-year-old Etonians on their route to power.  

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK by Simon Kuper is out now.

@KuperSimon

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