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This is how Oxford men were trained to rule Britain

In a debate in the British House of Commons last fall, Tory members were criticized for not wearing mouth guards in parliament. The response from group leader and Brexit minister Jacob Rees Mogg was short, terse and arrogant: “On this side, we know each other.”

The answer was more telling than you might think. Large parts of the party’s inner circle not only know each other: they also have the same background. Many attended the private school Eton, and many attended Oxford University. When a new party leader for the Tories was due to be appointed in 2019, seven out of ten had an Oxford background, and in this year’s race for the party leadership, three candidates (Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and the already sacked Jeremy Hunt) come from there.

But that’s about it Not just about the place of education, but because many in the highest spheres of power are part of a long tradition of education leading the country, based on an impenetrable network of privileges and personal connections. The network includes the Oxford Union Society, chaired by both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and the male “Meal Society” Bullington Club.

Johnny Sweet and Christian Brassington in the TV drama David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

Johnny Sweet and Christian Brassington, David Cameron and Boris Johnson in the television drama “When Boris Met Dave” – ​​about youth in Oxford and membership of the Bullington Club.

Photo: Nicky Johnston / Alamy

Writer and journalist Simon Cuper, best known as a sportswriter with books like “Football Against the Rivals” and a columnist for The Guardian and The Financial Times, was not from that circle, but he studied at Oxford in the 80s. . Cooper took a close look at how influential this circle was, and how key figures within it not only had easy access to power, but felt they were predestined to climb it based on the education system that made it possible.

An important part of this The system was a recruitment process, with many shortcuts to people with the right connections and the right background, but even in teaching, it often prioritized rhetoric and personality over knowledge and objectivity. As a result, the stage was set for the likes of Johnson, Cove, Rees-Mogg (who was already known for his double-breasted suits and Victorian style during his studies) and Dominic Cummings – all of whom later held leading positions in government. of the country.

Is it about the Tories? No, Labor has its share of Oxford-educated politicians, but “they’re not good speakers”.

Cooper depicts with stylistic elegance and a sharp point how almost contempt for knowledge and science was in the university’s DNA. Ethics does not encourage hard work and evidence, but rhetoric, charm and the ability to get away with it. In Cooper’s words, it was a university built on “a British amateurism permeated with sexual harassment, carelessness and cherry”.

Arguing for any loose statement, knowing nothing about the matter, is what caused people like Boris Johnson – and contributed greatly to shaping him as a politician. Seriousness and expertise were undervalued, and the ability to destroy one’s opponent in a debate was of infinite importance in the Union.

By Simon Cuper

“Sums” by Simon Cooper.

It was here that Johnson learned that if you encounter an opponent whose arguments and facts are superior, you are best dealt with by ignoring them completely and instead winning over the audience with biting formulas, jokes, insults, and rhetorical skill.

The second foundation Nostalgia was what many of these politicians had built their careers on, particularly the vision of Britain and its position in the world. “It’s no coincidence that Oxford has produced so much timeless fantasy,” writes Cuper – from “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Tale of the Ring” and “Narnia” to Brexit.

Tory opposition to the idea of ​​Europe was shaped by Margaret Thatcher’s famous speech in Bruges in 1988, in which she denounced monetary union and a more federal Europe. The speech was a fundamental step in the building of the Brexit movement. But almost as important to the neonostalgic imperial dream, according to Cooper, the television series “A Lost World” contributed greatly to the self-image of a privileged elite with a predetermined mission to control the nation — and the empire.

The meeting between the TV series’ Sebastian Flight and the Thatcher of politics produced a generation of politicians who came to rule the country with decades of nostalgic narcissism as their ideology.

Traded it What about the Tories? No, Labor also has its share of Oxford-educated politicians, but “they’re not good speakers”. Does it still feel that way today? No, hardly. Education at Oxford was more radical and open to more people, although Cuper was not entirely convinced of the widespread nature of the change.

The Union and Bullington’s legacy still lives on in Parliament and the Cabinet. May be during the next prime minister’s tenure.

Read more books and TN book reviews by Martin Johnson

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