Chums By Simon Kuper – How A Tiny Caste Of Oxford Tories Took Over The UK

In early 1983, as a diffident grammar school boy, I sat in a centuries old sitting room, beside a burbling open fire, enduring an interview for a place to study English at Oriel College, Oxford. I was muttering something about Shakespeare.

“You talk of Anthony and Cleopatra in a detached manner, Mr Jones,” said the languid interviewer. “Tell me, would you die for love?”

I didn’t get in.

At this point my fate diverged from that of the people who populate the pages of Chums, young men and women, mostly men, who attended Oxford in the 1980s and then went on to top jobs in government. Author, Simon Kuper, who was an Oxford undergraduate at that time, describes the background of these people, and how their university years influenced later careers.

The picture portrayed is not a pretty one. In many ways what happened to those youngsters during the 1980s haunts us now in the 2020s.

First, there’s the interesting historical background of the time, which tended to push forward entitled youths from a privileged background. The 1980s marked a reversal of the general trend to a more egalitarian society, which had been gathering pace from the 1940s to the 1970s. In 1979, British income inequality reached its lowest point ever recorded. Then Margaret Thatcher came along. Following the economic privations of the 70s, inequality widened again, the upper classes regained confidence, and started indulging in romantic fantasies about a lost Britain. Fittingly, a 1981 television production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was very popular. Young Jacob Rees Mogg, who was to enter Oxford’s Trinity College in the late 80s, even took to dressing up as an Edwardian gentleman.

This was the atmosphere into which Etonian Boris Johnson arrived at Oxford in 1983, the same year I was there for my interview. After getting accepted, Johnson and others like him spent their university years honing peculiarly British political skills, which involved treating politics as a game. The Oxford Union debating society is set up like the House of Commons chamber, though Union debates never result in real policies with real consequences. When not fantasy debating, the youngsters would have fun trying to get themselves elected to the few administrative positions on offer at the Union.

Many then took the idea of politics as a game into their subsequent parliamentary careers. Some commentators, like the academic George Steiner for example, feel that historically, a traditional lack of political seriousness has acted in a positive way, as a protection against extremism in Britain. On the other hand a lack of seriousness, and often basic administrative competence, can have disastrous consequences when something like a pandemic comes along. Then it is people who learnt their trade many years before amongst jolly japes of the Oxford Union, who have to coordinate a complex, society-wide response.

And that’s the overriding feeling of Chums – of people who have led protected lives, bringing about very painful and real consequences through their carelessness.

From a personal point of view, I think back to that interview and that rejection. The young men and women who got through tended to see themselves as chosen. Ironically, the story of Chums shows people caught up in the patterns of their time. They are not special – they are just living the lives that their history makes for them. And the special place they entered – well that’s riven by a constantly churning sense of who’s in or out. When those Oxford boys grew up, one set – Johnson, Gove and Cummings – supported leaving the EU, primarily as a means of taking revenge on another set – David Cameron’s remain Oxford boys, for a perceived sense of exclusion from the golden circle. The leavers, using their own frustrations as a starting point, played on that too common feeling amongst people in general that someone else has the power and prestige. Game players like Boris Johnson, imbued with fantasy visions of Britain’s past, messed around with the fire of nationalist sentiment, simply to further their ridiculous desire to climb the greasy pole as an end in itself. It was all part of a game, which had disastrous real world consequences, when a system of international cooperation which, as Kuper points out, had brought unprecedented prosperity to Britain, was torn apart.

There’s nothing very golden about the golden circle of the British establishment. I don’t know if it even exists when most of those in it seem to act out of a bitterness that they are supposedly excluded. That’s how I felt getting to the end of Chums. As I have long suspected, thinking in terms of whether you are in or out is not healthy. You are where you are, and it’s best to make that the place where you are meant to be.

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