The Reading Room

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK

Simon Kuper

Published: Published: 2022, Profile Books

Simon Kuper is a journalist with the Financial Times who has also written a few books. Most notably these include “Football against the enemy” which won the William Hill Sports Book of the year in 1994 and Soccernomics, which he co-authored with Stefan Szymansk in 2009. Kuper was born in Uganda of South African parents, and he was educated at Oxford and latterly at Harvard as a Kennedy scholar.

Chums was published earlier this year and in it he moves away from the football themes and instead writes about the extent to which incestuous Oxford networks have dominated British politics going back many years, referring to it as the “Oxocracy”. So much so that twelve of this county’s post war Prime Ministers were Oxford educated, (out of a total of 16 and including the recent anointment of Rishi), whilst none have come from Cambridge. This concentration of political talent from one establishment representing just 0.5% of the “age cohort”, underlines the rarefied nature of this genius pool. For the sake of completeness neither Churchill, Callaghan nor Major went to university, whilst Brown was educated at Edinburgh.

The extent to which Oxford has been at the centre of current politics surprised and shocked me, as it will others. On the right it includes (to name a few), Johnson, Cameron, Osborne, May (and her husband Phillip), Sunak, Truss, Rory Stewart, Rees Mogg, Gove, Cummings and Hannan. From the left it includes Starmer, Yvette Cooper and hubby Ed Balls (former shadow Chancellor), and the Milliband brothers. From the media the BBC’s Nick Robinson attended Oxford at the same time as many of these characters, along with the former editors of both the Sunday Times and the Economist, whilst Simon Stevens (Head of NHS England) chaired the Oxford Union in the same period.

Kuper starts by offering some explanation for how Oxford has been able to achieve this virtual monopoly. He highlights the importance of the tutorial system (where students learn to deliver academic arguments fluently in front of their belligerent peers). He then goes onto describe the importance of the university debating society, and its role in preparing the ground for countless aspiring politicians plotting their journey to Westminster. The existence of the debating chamber at Oxford (and at Eton, crucially) strikes me as being the main reason why Oxford wins over other educational establishments, though Kuper fails to mention this, somewhat disingenuously perhaps. Amusingly he highlights that up until very recently undergraduates with few exceptions rarely did any serious work whilst there, quoting a wide range of academics to support this. Steven Hawking explains;

“The prevailing attitude was very anti work. You were supposed either to be brilliant without effort or accept your limitations and get a 4th class degree”

The lack of academic effort generally put in by Oxford undergraduates is an important theme running through the book. It links this work-shy attitude to the centuries’ old dominance of Oxford by the top English public schools spawning “top tory toffs with a born to rule attitude” in the manner of the gentleman/amateur strolling into Oxford as a birth right. This is Kuper’s link to the current brigade of mostly Eton educated Oxford Tories (led by Cameron and particularly Johnson) and where the author’s anger is directed. Although Kuper clarifies that the book is not a personal revenge on his time at Oxford nor another rant against Brexit, I am not so sure he is being honest with himself about the latter. Using this quotation from Napoleon Bonaparte that “to understand the man you have to know what was happening when he was twenty”, Kuper argues that whilst many of these “latter day Woosters” were at Oxford, Margaret Thatcher was warning of “a European superstate exercising new dominance”. This suggests Kuper was the trigger that sowed the seeds of Brexit which were spawned at Oxford thirty years ago by a tiny elite who, angered by the risk of Europe’s dominance over their “sceptred isle”, hit on Brexit as a means of re-establishing their own superiority. “Ruling Britain was the prerogative of their caste, and they didn’t want outsiders in Brussels muscling in”. Brexit would come to give Oxford Tory politicians a “chance to live in interesting times, as their ancestors had. It would raise the tediously low stakes of British politics. It would be a glorious romantic act, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, only with less personal risk”. He goes onto reinforce this argument by referring to the Oxford debating chamber. Here he explains victory was won based on quality of the articulation rather than the importance of the policy being debated. The aim was “to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments”. No doubt this is true since the Oxford debating chamber has never been in a position to set public policy or be judged by its success or failure. Quality of the debate is the only means of judging success.

I don’t deny that as far as Boris is concerned there is a whiff of truth about this. And particularly so given the subsequent slogans used during the Brexit debate (about the NHS) which were so wildly misleading and everything else we now know. But Kuper does not mention the fact that many Tories who voted for Brexit were not cut from this cloth or the fact that the majority in the UK (and not just a tiny elite) voted to leave the EU. The book loses further credibility by drawing a parallel between the Tory Brexiteers (Rees Mogg et al) and the Cambridge spies of the 1930’s. He claims that “both groups “betrayed Britain’s interests in the service of Moscow, only the Brexiteers did it by mistake.” Do you really expect your reader to believe that this is not about the author’s Brexit anguish?

Chums is a short, sharp, and fascinating read full of amusing, interesting and surprising anecdotes, and lots of detail. Kuper is right to stress the inequality of the Oxbridge entry system that for so long favoured the few, but he fails to mention the huge progress that has been made in the last five years (65% of Oxbridge entrants come from state schools), nor the extent to which the Conservative party has diversified by race, gender and creed since Cameron was elected. Chums concludes with some proposals on how to improve the Oxbridge entry system. One proposal of Kuper’s suggests removing undergraduates altogether. This makes no sense at all given the progress that has (and is) being made in terms of admissions and the damage it would do to the chances of those students rightly deserving of a place. Whether Johnson and others cooked up Brexit for the reasons he implies or because they genuinely believed it was in the best interests of the country, we shall never know. For the stats on the Oxford monopoly alone however, this is a fun book to read.

David Cornell

December 2022

The information contained above and in other entries in the Ocean Dial Book Review Series is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only, and should not be relied upon in making, or refraining from making, any investment decisions. No information provided herein should or can be taken to constitute any form of advice or recommendation as to the merits of any investment decision. You should take independent advice from a suitably qualified investment adviser before making any investment decisions.

What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars

Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan

Published: 2013, Columbia Business School Publishing

Jim Paul’s meteoric rise took him from a small town to governor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, yet he lost it all in one fatal attack of excessive economic hubris. In this honest, frank analysis, Paul and Moynihan revisit the events and examine the psychological factors behind bad financial practices in several economic sectors.

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The Outsiders

William M. Thorndike Jr

Published: 2012, Harvard Business Review Press

The Outsiders chronicles the unconventional techniques that led eight CEOs to outperform the S&P 500 by an astounding twenty times.

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Shackleton’s Boat Journey

F.A. Worsley

Published: 1933, Philip Allan & Co. Ltd

On August 1, 1914, on the eve of World War I, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his hand-picked crew embarked in HMS Endurance from London’s West India Dock, for an expedition to the Antarctic. It was to turn into one of the most breathtaking survival stories of all time.

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