Simon Kuper (Photo Courtesy: Joan Cortadellas)
LAST SUNDAY, THE city of Oxford—often synonymous with the University of Oxford since the campus is spread across the town of around 1,50,000 residents—was abuzz with the fanfare of the annual graduation ceremony. Composed young men and women of all nationalities dressed in graduation gowns and hats posed proudly in front of their colleges holding bouquets as quietly beaming moms and dads looked on. The designer suits, handbags and the occasional silk sari on display spoke eloquently of the tribe that lay claim to these 900-year-old hallowed estates of academia.
Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, (Profile; 209 pages; `619 (Kindle)) says Simon Kuper, is the book that, among all the ones he has written, has found maximum resonance in Britain. The book is a no-holds-barred attack on what the author terms as “Oxford flaws”, which include “appreciation for being able to talk elegantly without any knowledge”. Kuper starts off with the premise that if Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Jacob Rees-Mogg, all conservative politicos, had received rejection letters from Oxford in the 1980s, we would probably never have had Brexit—the withdrawal of UK from the European Union, which came into effect in January 2020.
Among the Oxford flaws that shaped these future Tory politicians is a sense of solidarity typical to an upper-most caste that does everything to ensure they remain on top. As opposed to class, whose priority is economic interests, for this bunch of people, most of whom were long exposed to privilege, nothing is more alluring than the scent of power.
Kuper, himself an undergrad at Oxford starting 1988, writes that it dawned on him that Brexit and the ruling class of Britain who campaigned for it began their pursuit long ago, in the late 1980s at the University of Oxford. The official declaration came a few years later. “In 1990, the future OUCA (Oxford Union Conservative Association) president Dan Hannan founded the Oxford Campaign for an
Independent Britain at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House on the High Street. With hindsight, some see this as the start of the campaign for Brexit,” writes 52-year-old Kuper, a widely read Financial Times columnist and one of the most renowned football writers.
This caste is just a small subset of Oxford, but it matters, he argues, because it is omnipresent in modern British political history. “The Tory Brexiteer subgroup … ended up making Brexit and remaking the UK. To understand power in today’s Britain requires travelling back in time to the streets of Oxford, somewhere between 1983 and 1993,” writes Kuper whose other books include Soccernomics, Football Against the Enemy, The Football Men etc.
Oxford is simply the most important educational institution in British politics and the university that has had maximum impact on a country’s politics. Sample this: of 15 prime ministers since the war, 11 went to Oxford—Churchill, James Callaghan and John Major didn’t attend university and Gordon Brown went to Edinburgh. Three consecutive Oxford-educated prime ministers have ruled the UK from 2010 to 2022. The two contenders vying to replace Johnson whose fate will be decided in less than a month went to Oxford: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. In 2019, when Johnson won by a landslide, Kuper recalls, six of the seven men who survived the first round of the Tory leadership contest earlier studied at Oxford. “The final two remaining candidates, Johnson and Hunt, were contemporaries along with Gove in the late 1980s,” writes the Uganda-born British writer who grew up in the UK and Holland and now lives in Paris.
Oxford promotes a kind of verbal facility. You speak well, you write well, you sound elegant, or you can be funny when you need to be. You use words to disguise your lack of knowledge
Oxford, according to Kuper as well as many others, isn’t a place known for political correctness and instead weighs grossly in favour of the elite from private schools. It is therefore a pity that they tend to dominate Britain even as it passes through global events like the pandemic in which the poor suffered the most; the cost-of-living crisis in which the poor, again, find themselves in distress; the war in Ukraine; and the revival of old Thatcherite slogans that favour the affluent class. The problem with them is obvious: they tend to skim through the surface without identifying the problems primarily because they are trained to retain power and not to govern and ensure people’s welfare. This training is remarkable in the traits that are celebrated at Oxford, especially in its coveted PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) course that aspiring politicians opt for.
Kuper writes in his book: “Bluffing your way through tutorials was considered an art. Cherwell [an Oxford student newspaper] once praised Simon Stevens [who went on to run the NHS from 2014 to 2021] as ‘Oxford’s most talented off-the-cuff tutorial faker’. Recently, Simes (Simon Stevens) read out almost half of an essay to his tutor before his partner revealed that he was ‘reading’ from a blank piece of paper.”
The question that certainly comes up is: is Brexit a bad proposition, an outcome of empty, elegant talk? In an interview with Open, Kuper invokes the economist Jonathan Portes, a professor at the School of Politics & Economics of King’s College. “He has said that Brexit is more like a slow puncture in the British economy and in British life. So, queue longer when you travel to Europe and you find it harder to get a job in Europe, and trade relations will slow down and sour…. So, nobody has been able to identify any positives so far. It is hard to reverse it because as soon as you raise the issue, it becomes very divisive.”
Kuper also hits out against the typical, done-to-death logic floated by Brexiters that the hardworking people of the UK, including legal immigrants, do not want to share jobs with Europeans in the UK. “It is kind of an unspecific, broad-bush argument. It is not clear how Britons are sharing benefits with Italians when both are benefiting from the same policy. I don’t understand this argument. It is also a very sensitive issue. Brexiters are very sensitive to criticism and they don’t have many defences to explain why it is good. Talking about it makes them anxious. Talking about it is also a good way to lose friends,” Kuper notes.
Some of the other traits he highlights in the book as Oxford-like are “effortless superiority”, which tends to undermine hard work. Being deliberately offensive, which includes body shaming and humiliating fellow students over their race, wasn’t frowned upon, rather sanctioned through silence. Kuper picks Toby Young as someone who epitomises that quality. Young, a journalist and social commentator, is the founder of the Free Speech Union. Kuper elaborates on the success of people who communicate well, “Oxford promotes a kind of verbal facility. You speak well, you write well, you sound elegant, or you can be funny when you need to be. You use words to disguise your lack of knowledge. You can disguise the fact that you didn’t read the dossier. So, you kind of scrape through the situation whether it is the tutorial or meeting other G-7 leaders although you don’t know your stuff. That is what Oxford tends to encourage.” The problem gets inflamed because of what Kuper terms “Oxocracy” and “Chumocracy”, disproportionate and overwhelming influence that the university tends to have on European politics.
Boris Johnson exemplifies the flaws of the Oxford caste to a ridiculous extreme. Their kind of not doing the homework, being a verbal performer, treating politics as just a game—he represented all that and more
Then Kuper goes on to expand views in the book on former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who has been forced to quit under pressure from his own party leaders: “He didn’t get all the traits for which he became famous from Oxford, he got them from his entitled upbringing—this wasn’t particularly about policy differences. It is amazing that he won 80 seats two-and-a-half-years ago—but had he been half efficient he could have ruled and won the next election. He fell because he is perennially dishonest, he is incompetent, he is not good with governance and he cares only about winning elections, which he is good at.”
Kuper points out that conservatives would have been happy to live with Johnson being premier despite his perpetual lies and dishonesty—as he has displayed while partying in violation of Covid restrictions and over sexual indiscretions of a colleague among others— if they knew he could still fetch votes. “Then there are headwinds that make things difficult. He entirely mishandled difficult situations. And his personal dishonesty was the main breaking point. The conservatives realised that voters would not stand with them anymore with him at the helm. Conservatives got rid of him because they understood he couldn’t win elections for them anymore,” the author adds.
The book offers interesting takes on several of Johnson’s contemporaries at Oxford who were his elite buddies. Here is one such mention: “You couldn’t miss Jacob Rees-Mogg, seemingly the only undergraduate who always wore a suit, or the early Europhobe Dan Hannan. Both became ideological fathers of Brexit.”
As regards the political capabilities of Tory contenders to Johnson’s post, he quips, “Everyone is more competent and honest than Johnson. Not so sure about honesty from Liz Truss. She was a very eloquent Remainer (who opted to be with the European Union) and now she is pretending to be a hard Brexiter, hard rightist. She is kind of a zombie Margaret Thatcher, an impersonator. So, I don’t think she is in any way presenting what she actually is.”
Kuper thinks that Rishi Sunak is more authentic, more competent and honest. The author emphasises, “But I would never vote for them. Sunak is an old Thatcherite who believes that spoils should go to the victors—people like him who in his view work hard and deserve it and are creative entrepreneurs. And then if you lose, the state shouldn’t have to look after you—I think that is very much a kind of Thatcherism.”
Asked whether he had expected Johnson to fall when he began writing the book, Kuper says that as prime minister, Johnson has been in a perennial crisis. “He exemplifies the flaws of the Oxford caste to a ridiculous extreme. Their kind of not doing the homework, being a verbal performer, treating politics as just a game—he represented all that and more. So, I am grateful to him for being out there for the past several months advertising my book,” the author says with a smile.
Kuper dwells on the tension between the political leadership and the civil services in the UK. He says that although the top brass of Westminster and Whitehall, metonymy for bureaucracy in the UK, both come out of Oxbridge and often out of private schools, their styles are different. “And Whitehall is more about reading the dossier, doing hard work. Tories, like most right-wing parties, are suspicious of the government or the civil services. So, when things go wrong, they target the civil services and accuse them of sabotaging their policies. Civil services are the useful scapegoat,” Kuper notes.
More than anything else, the book highlights the power of privilege in modern democracy. The young graduates and their families at Oxford have a reason to smile self-assuredly: the odds are already tipped in their favour.