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'A one-sided selective narrative': Toby Young reviews 'Chums'

A fundamental lack of seriousness? Then-mayor of London Boris Johnson with prime minister David Cameron, London 2012 | Alamy

6 min read

Is Oxford University’s 1980s generation of public schoolboys responsible for all Britain’s ills? While this highly readable book contains an occasional kernel of truth, Simon Kuper has nonetheless produced a one-dimensional portrait

It has become a commonplace of Islington dinner parties that the reason Britain is in such a mess is because of its wretched class system which has condemned us to being ruled by a bunch of incompetent Tory toffs. Not only are they lazy and amoral, believing the rules don’t apply to them, but for the most part they’re innumerate and scientifically illiterate, thanks to the humanities bias at Britain’s elite public schools and Oxford University. Little wonder, then, that they’ve made such a hash of governing the country, culminating in the disastrous decision to leave the European Union. 

This furious critique of our current political masters has been given its clearest expression yet by the Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper. In Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, he traces Brexit back to a group of straight, white, ex-public schoolboys at Oxford in the 1980s and blames it on their elite backgrounds, their gargantuan sense of entitlement and the cult of the gentleman amateur. 

“Ruling Britain was the prerogative of their caste,” he writes. “They didn’t want outsiders in Brussels muscling in.”

The dramatis personae of this story will be familiar to anyone interested in contemporary British politics and it is genuinely remarkable how many students who attended Oxford between 1983 and 1993 – that was the critical 10-year period, according to Kuper – now dominate public life. They not only include the architects of the Vote Leave campaign – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg – but also some of the main protagonists on the other side – David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Hugo Dixon, Rory Stewart, Nick Boles and Roland Rudd. Also at Oxford at the same time were many prominent Labour politicians, including Keir Starmer, David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper.

Just listing all those people points to a difficulty for Kuper. If being part of a privileged clique at Oxford from 1983-93 was instrumental in shaping the views of the politicians who masterminded our exit from the European Union, why did so many members of this club end up campaigning for Remain? And it seems a bit simplistic to reduce the Tory values of Johnson, Hannan and Rees-Mogg to a desire to perpetuate their class privilege when some of the most prominent Conservatives of this Oxford generation, such as Gove, came from modest backgrounds. Indeed, Boris wasn’t exactly to the manor born himself, being a scholarship boy at Eton. As Cummings once remarked on Twitter about this class-based analysis of the Brexit project: “If u think me Gove & Boris are posh you have literally no idea what posh is.”

Kuper struggles manfully to deal with these points (and to be fair I pinched that Cummings quote from his book). He says that the presence of Boris and Gove as prominent members of the Leave campaign doesn’t mean it wasn’t an elitist cause because they are precisely the sort of clever parvenus that the ruling class has always recruited to prop up its ranks.

I devoured Kuper’s book in one sitting and his descriptions of behind-the-scenes political shenanigans at the Oxford Union are spot on

“Johnson was an example of the coalition that makes up the British elite: the core of hereditaries is supplemented by upper-middle-class strivers and a few invitees from the lower orders,” he writes.

To get around the fact that David Cameron was just as prominent as Boris in the EU Referendum, but on the opposite side, Kuper tries to blame his failure to win on a fundamental lack of seriousness – on treating politics as a game to be played with your privileged peers – and in that way preserve his thesis that Oxford and its cult of the gentleman amateur is to blame for Brexit. This is the core of Kuper’s thesis: the Oxford students of 1983 to 1993 were a uniquely frivolous bunch, used to bluffing their way through debates and never bothering to master the tedious minutia of public policy. According to Kuper, that explains why Johnson and co made such a hash of the Withdrawal Agreement, saddling themselves with the Northern Ireland Protocol, and were at sixes and sevens at the beginning of the global pandemic before delegating the management of the crisis to their medical and scientific advisers.

There may be a kernel of truth in this, but it feels too one-sided. I should declare an interest: I have a walk-on part in Chums as a minor villain, one of several disreputable “wordsmiths” at Oxford in the 1980s who fanned out across the media to roll the pitch for Boris. Perhaps I am guilty of being a “votary of the Boris cult” but, as someone who’s known him on and off for nearly 40 years, I can confirm Dan Hannan’s account of his decision to back the Leave side (quoted in the book), which is that he genuinely “agonised” over it, weighing up the pros and cons and recognising that both Leave and Remain were sub-optimal. Not exactly the behaviour of a dilettante who treated the question as just another debating contest in the Oxford Union.

There’s also no acknowledgment of the efforts made by the Coalition government to drive up standards in state schools, something I also had a minor role in as a co-founder of a group of free schools. Trying to do something about the over-representation of a handful of private schools at Oxford and other Russell Group universities – which Kuper incessantly complains about – was not only a priority for Michael Gove as education secretary between 2010-14, but also for Cummings, who served as his special adviser, and Cameron. If all three of them were so determined to preserve the influence of their privileged caste, why make education reform such a central part of their political agenda?

I’m tempted to end this review with Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote about the man in the arena, but that would be a little unfair. As a member of this Oxford generation, I devoured Kuper’s book in one sitting and his descriptions of behind-the-scenes political shenanigans at the Oxford Union are spot on. But in my experience these “Oxford Tories” aren’t the one-dimensional flibbertigibbets he makes them out to be. Yes they’re flawed, occasionally dishonest and often vainglorious, as most politicians are. But they’re also patriots who care about the future of this country and campaigned for and against Brexit in good faith.

Toby Young is a journalist and commentator

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

Written by: Simon Kuper
Publisher: Profile Books



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