The Debatable Land #19: Was Brexit made in Oxford?
A new book pins the blame for Brexit on Oxford University.
Brexit was not supposed to happen. Since it did, six years later political anthropologists are still seeking explanations for how this calamity - it is taken as read it must be a calamity - could possibly have occurred. Hitherto, intrepid newspaper reporters have donned their pith helmets and ventured deep into post-industrial England to explore the natives and their peculiar prejudices. The “Red Wall” has been fertile territory for such expeditions and it is considered unhelpful to note that more attention has been paid to Sunderland than to, say, Sevenoaks or Slough.
That being so, Simon Kuper’s new polemic “Chums: How A Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK” at least has the virtue of novelty. For Kuper, an Oxford man himself, pins the blame for Brexit squarely upon his alma mater and, within it, specifically on the Oxford Union. This offers the prospect of some entertainment for, frankly, almost everyone enjoys giving Oxford a shoeing.
And the university’s graduates really do dominate the upper echelons of British - or at least English - politics to a quite remarkable extent. Gordon Brown is the only post-war prime minister who attended university but did not go to Oxford. The current cabinet, like its predecessor and the one before that, really is dominated by Oxford graduates. Seven of the ten candidates for the Tory leadership in 2019 were Oxonians.
Kuper’s book has generally been positively received. The connections made at Oxford (and other elite universities) really do last for life. Members of the club look fondly upon other members. They are, in one sense, bound together. But then this is true of any institution for young people; it must always be alien to those who were never submerged in it.
But Oxford in the 1980s was, Kuper says, a profoundly unserious place. He means it was unserious for those reading humanities or immersing themselves in the Union or student politics; the Two Cultures argument is never more plain than here. Margaret Thatcher - a chemist from, god help us, Lincolnshire is, as ever, sui generis. As a number of reviewers have noted, this is not altogether novel: one Dominic Cummings has also railed against the number of PPE - the bullshitter’s degree - graduates in the upper echelons of British public life. It was, he says, still a very amateur kind of university; a place where fluency and plausibility in tutorials was more highly rewarded than rigour.
And while university days must always contain some frivolity, 1980s Oxford men - for they were mostly men - were rootless and lost; they looked at the Great Men who were there before them and recognised they were inadequate by comparison. Unlike so many, they had endured no war. They needed a cause.
Some of them - such as Daniel Hannan - found it in Brexit (though leaving the European Union was not then known as such). Brexit would be a post-imperial adventure that at least paid some tribute to these men’s ideas for how Britain might recapture at least a facsimile of what it once had been and might, with luck, have been again.
Or, as Kuper puts it, “The timeless paradise of Oxford inspired its inhabitants to produce timeless fantasies like Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, Narnia, and, incubating from the late 1980s, Brexit”. A good line once again, but also a suspiciously neat one.
Not least because Kuper has two criticisms of Oxford. On the one hand - Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg - it is a place for bluffers who learned that style was more rewarding (and easier) than substance. You din’t actually need to believe in anything and, indeed, doing so was the mark of a boring rube. But on the other, it was also the breeding ground for the true believers (Hannan, Michael Gove).
But if Oxford in general, and the Oxford Union in particular, is home to dilettantes of no fixed intellectual abode and to rock-headed ideologues then I am not sure any kind of sustainable argument - even at a generalised level - may be made from this, let alone any sweeping conclusions based upon a given group of peoples’ contemporaneous attendance at the same university.
Cameron is not part of this but only because, although he’s Oxford, his being Eton is the more important part of his foundation. According to Kuper, “It’s not simply that Cameron felt comfortable with Etonians, it’s also that he felt uncomfortable with most other Britons.” This is the kind of line it feels better to write than read because, look, if this were true it is hard to imagine how Cameron could have become leader of the Conservative party, let alone prime minister. It fails a sense-test.
This is polemic, of course, not history and just as well because history cannot meet the standards of tidyness polemic requires.
Still, there are some delicious moments. “I too learned at Oxford how to write and speak for a living without much knowledge”. This is knowing but also boastful (Kuper asks to be credited for his self-awareness, even though it is also not entirely true: he does know quite a bit about quite a number of things). In any case - how can I put this gently? - you can learn these skills - minor skills, you may say, but skills anyway - in plenty of places other than Oxford. There is nothing special about the Oxonian version of this save the Oxford Man’s belief there must be.
Still, the Oxford Union - a debating society - really does offer an entry into public life. Not because Oxford Union types are especially brilliant but because many of them are ambitious and, more importantly, gain access to people in power through the Union. Politicians, and other influential types, in turn accept invitations to address the Union because they were once Oxford chaps themselves or because they know this is the sort of thing people like them are supposed to do. It really isn’t what you know but who you meet. (This is hardly unique to Oxford: many an Irish career has been lubricated by connections first made at University College Dublin’s Literary & Historical Society, for instance.)
And it is also true, as Kuper says, that undergraduate debating is not about conviction. The skill lies in being able to argue either side of any given debate (this is why it is attractive to so many people who aspire to being advocates or barristers). If this may be done with some style and wit then so much the better; it is part of the entertainment business and, yes, being boring is a terrible sin.
[Very Important Aside: Oxford Men (and Oxford Women), however, aren’t actually very good at it. The Observer/John Smith Memorial Mac was for more than half a century the British & Irish championship and Oxford only won it on three occasions. Granted, I have heard it said the list of winners is, ahem, uneven.]
Anyway, limiting ourselves to a discussion of those who became president of the Oxford Union (a less impressive title than it seems, given there are three presidents each year) we may see that Roland Rudd, the PR man and ardent Remainer, was elected president of the Union the year before Johnson, and Simon Stevens, formerly chief executive of the NHS in England, served the year after Johnson. A small sample, of course, but sufficient to demonstrate that if Brexit was made in Oxford, so was Remain, and that being president of the Union was for some a ticket to dubious careers (journalism, politics) it was for others a staging post en route to jobs of some seriousness.
But then university is in some respects a game; a fancy dress party in which any number of costumes may be worn, the better to determine which of them suit or allow a full and tolerably truthful expression of personality. The criticism of some of these Oxford Men is they forgot such poses are supposed to be left behind.
The depressing reality is that we pay far too much attention to Oxford (and Cambridge) and not nearly enough to anywhere else. All countries have elite institutions; it would be healthier to have more than two (I know: there are others in Britain but no others are treated like Oxbridge.) The distinction awarded to Oxbridge graduates is disproportionate to their ability. You could replace 75 percent of undergraduates with unsuccessful (but equally qualified) applicants without in any serious sense diluting these universities’ intellectual capacity. This is one reason why entry by lottery would be fairer; it would also impress upon students - and eventually society - the significance of luck. They earned their place, but they enjoyed good fortune too. That might, just perhaps, impose a certain modesty on the whole Oxbridge racket too. Eventually, and if this were a different country, I concede.
Wood, Trees and the Missing Thereof
Media reaction to Northern Ireland’s elections has quite predictably focused on precisely the wrong thing. There is no excuse for this even if it is not a surprise that the prospect of, for the first time, a Sinn Fein first minister at Stormont has received the most attention. But, come on, you do not need to look at the results for very long, let alone very deeply, to appreciate that the real story - the proper news here - lies elsewhere. Behold:
Sinn Fein held serve, the DUP and (alas) the SDLP lost theirs and the transformational - and also most encouraging - results came courtesy of the Alliance party. Remarkably, this has been interpreted as meaning that a border poll on Irish unity is now some kind of “inevitability”.
Folks, this is Northern Ireland. Inevitability is a dangerous term.
In the first place, there is no obvious enthusiasm for a referendum of this sort. In the second, only a minority of voters endorse pro-unity parties and, thirdly, those voters who do not vote in Stormont or Westminster elections but could reasonably be expected to participate in a unification referendum tend, on the whole, to be pro-UK voters.
And, anyway, in the fourth place, even Sinn Fein has hitherto declined to make any kind of argument for a United Ireland that does not rest upon the question-begging presumption unity is the natural state of affairs. There is no attempt to persuade sceptics that this kind of new Ireland is in their interests too. Northern Ireland should never have existed; therefore it should not exist now, or in the future, either.
Reality is a tiny bit more complicated than this. The province and its realities cannot be wished away and assuming it can be has long been one of Irish nationalism’s great weaknesses. And, again, while there have been some stirrings of thinking in Dublin about what a United Ireland might look like, almost none of this work, this elementary thinking, has been done by Sinn Fein. Without it, a referendum - let alone a United Ireland - is impossible. (To pick one question from hundreds: if you assume Irish unity, what is the school curriculum going to be in Ulster? Good luck answering that sensitively and persuasively.)
It is also the case that you should not, in my view, have a referendum on this kind of major issue unless or until such time as it is obvious what the result of that plebiscite will be. Referendums on important questions should be used to confirm - and legitimise - preferences, not determine what they might be. (The provision for a Border poll in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is cutely done in this regard: the threshold for such a thing is that it must “appear” to the Secretary of State that a majority would vote for unification. This supposes a Secretary of State who keeps their eyes open; regardless we are a long way from there being any such appearance.)
So, to return to the beginning, the Alliance party’s results here are more significant than either Sinn Fein’s consistency or the DUP’s self-inflicted, largely-deserved, decline. For Northern Ireland is - and would be even in the event of unification - Irish and British and Northern Irish all at the same time. It cannot escape any of its identities.
But it is the emergence of Northern Irishness which is interesting. The Alliance party is easily dismissed as a middle-class pretence binary positions may be avoided. But even if you accept that Alliance is Northern Ireland’s party for Centrist Dads (and Centrist Mums) the more interesting points are that a) Centrism is a plausible alternative and reaction to doubled-extremism and b) the Alliance surge is an indication that Ulster’s often-missing middle-class is returning to the fray. And not, you might think, before time.
Beyond Nationalism and Unionism (to say nothing of Republicanism): that is the essential promise made by Alliance. It is the idea that Northern Ireland could aspire to being Northern Ireland without having to fall back to, or depend upon, its other identities on each and every question. A different prism, if you will, that is needed precisely because the alternatives are not just irreconcilable but, importantly, exhausting.
And the thing is that this kind of consciousness - sceptical but nuanced - is going to be required regardless of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. If this is the case - and plainly I think it is - Sinn Fein is not the future of Northern Ireland, the Alliance party is. Or, at any rate, it offers a glimpse of a potential future that might be better than both the immediate past and any alternative plausible future too.
Because, ultimately, the one thing Northern Ireland cannot escape is being Northern Ireland. That means it is many things concurrently, but one of them must be being Northern Ireland and if this may be accepted, the next question becomes one of making it work.
The Union and The Godfather
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the realm, here’s a cabinet minister explaining to The Times that the Conservative party cannot be trusted to act as a Unionist party.
One cabinet minister expressed hope that the prospect of a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP would scare Tory voters back to the fold, in a reprise of David Cameron’s successful 2015 strategy. “I think people will think long and hard before letting the SNP tail wag a weak centre-left coalition in England,” the minister said. “I am confident when we focus people’s minds they will come back to us.”
Does it need to be said this is precisely what the SNP wish to hear from the Tories? Yes, I am afraid it does. A Unionism which implicitly - and sometimes explicitly - pits Scotland against England is not only an intellectually moribund Unionism, it is a Unionism which cannot endure.
There are plenty of reasons for thinking Britain needs a different government - chief among them that the Tories have been in power for a dozen years now and that is long enough - but this is another, and for some of us, a compelling one.
It is obtuse on what you might call a spiritual level and it is also flatly untrue on a political one. Labour has no need to call upon the SNP for anything and no need to rely upon SNP votes either. Keir Starmer’s offer to the nationalists should be the Michael Corleone one: nothing.
Since nobody is going to do any deal with the Conservatives, Labour’s road to victory at the next election is actually much shorter than many people think. It need only be capable of mustering more votes in the Commons than the Conservatives. A hung parliament most likely means a Labour prime minister. An arrangement with the Liberal Democrats will be reached easily enough and even that might not require a formal coalition. The SNP can be ignored.
Because where can the nationalists go? Of course they could choose to bring down a minority Labour government but the price of that is, in all likelihood, an election which might then return the Conservatives to power. That is not, on the whole, an attractive prospect in Scotland. Nor could it be used to leverage another independence referendum. Sure, Scotland might object to another Tory government for which it had not voted in any great numbers but that government would only exist because the SNP helped put it into power. That’s not a grievance which can be exploited.
I fear, however, that we shall endure endless guff from plenty of people - including some who should be expected to know a little better - about a Labour-SNP deal that won’t happen because it can’t happen and can’t happen because it would be a betrayal of what the Labour party actually believes in. There is nothing, no matter what the SNP says, wrong about taking the principled position the UK is a good thing whose continued existence benefits all its constituent parts.
Politics cannot withstand too much reality
It has become commonplace to argue that Britain in general - and Brexiteers in particular - are in thrall to the golden memory of imperial delusion. Anyone wishing to prosecute this argument will certainly find plenty of evidence to support it even if, as is so often the case, the evidence is often shallower than those making the case are prepared to admit.
There are other areas in which nostalgia works its corruption too, however. Seeing things as they really are is the necessary first step towards improving them. Realism is difficult which is also why perspective is considered disloyal to the point at which it becomes disreputable. Myths are for cherishing, not confronting.
And none is quite so potent as the tenaciously-held idea the National Health Service is the envy of the world. The importance of the health service’s foundational creed - free, or mostly free, at the point of use - long since washed away any reasonable analysis of its actual performance.
This may be just as well since, on the whole, confronting NHS reality - as opposed to the idealised version of it - would force any number of uncomfortable conversations. Because, look, you cannot have people such as Civitas producing unhelpful reports such as this:
A major new comparison of global health systems places the UK second to bottom across a series of major health care outcomes, including life expectancy and survival rates from cancer, strokes and heart attacks.
This comparative study ranks the performance of the UK health care system with that of 18 comparable countries since 2000 or the earliest year for which data is available. It covers the level of health spending, overall life expectancy, the health care outcomes of the major diseases and the outcomes for treatable mortality and childbirth.
The choice of comparator countries and the diseases studied follows the methodology used in a 2018 report published jointly by the Health Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the King’s Fund and the Nuffield Trust.
Data is derived from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Heath Statistics database.
Across 16 major health care outcomes the UK comes bottom of the league four times – more than any other country – and is in the bottom three for 8 out of 16 measures. No other comparable country has such a poor record.
Here’s a chart:
Now you may object that the difference in outcomes between the best performing countries and the least is not so very great. All have just-about-good-enough outcomes. But however charitable you may wish to be there is no avoiding the conclusion that the UK spends an average amount of money (by OECD standards) in return for below-average outcomes. Of course it is because this cannot be avoided that it must be avoided.
Vibe shift: Orson Welles would have been great - which is also to say insufferable - on Twitter:
Department of Now You Know:
This is almost certainly meaningless except in as much as it suggests that Nintendo is a good stock to have in your pension/ISA. If a company can survive and adapt over 130 years it seems reasonably to think it can probably continue to do so for some time yet.
“Karl von Habsburg has entered the Zoom” - Helen Lewis explores the strange demi-monde of Europe’s lost and exiled Royals. Great fun. [The Atlantic]
What’s eating Spotify? Ted Gioia makes a pretty strong case that, as a business, the streamer is doomed to disappoint. [The Honest Broker]
Lie detectors are thoroughly unreliable (which is why evidence gleaned from polygraphs is impermissible in court in this country), so why are the police in England and Wales using polygraphs for a range of interrogations? And why are they doing so increasingly frequently? Stuart Ritchie asks these and other good questions and then explains just why lie detectors are, basically, junk. [Science Fictions]
“It would be better for the world if Thucydides’ fearlessly self-scrutinising history were also to be the most popular form of its literature. Unhappily, this is not the case and perhaps never has been. It is bad, cheerleading history that stirs the blood, makes the pulse race and fogs the brain with sentimental consolations. That bad history sells books and, as politicians wanting to ride the populist wave well know, has the rally crowds upstanding in hooting delirium. Why ditch it merely because it’s cheaply tendentious or even transparently untrue?” Characteristically sweeping essay by Simon Schama on the use and abuse of history, prompted by Vladimir Putin’s own turgid essay on Russia and Ukraine. [FT]
Wagatha Christie is back! I love everything about the amazing Coleen Rooney-Rebekah Vardy shenanigans and the good news it’s coming to court next week. Popcorn for everyone. [Sunday Times]
Twitter is good, actually. Terrific Ian Leslie piece on the social media platform hated by its users (though this hating has become a performance, largely devoid of meaning in my view because if you really hated it you’d quit, wouldn’t you?) [The Ruffian]
Jacqueline du Pré plays Elgar’s cello concerto.
That’s all for this time, folks. Apologies for the slightly erratic posting frequency in recent weeks; more regular bulletins will be a feature of the coming months. As always thanks for being here and, doubly so, to those of you who have upgraded to paid subscriptions. See you soon.
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