Ata “slave auction” at the Oxford Union in 1987 – an “opportunity to buy your favorite trade unionist for the evening” – there was, according to the university newspaper, frantic bidding for the services of the young 19 years old in Michel Gouve kilt. He left for Â£35. Gove was known at the time as one of three preeminent speakers in the small world of the academic debating chamber â the others were future BBC political editor Nick Robinson and Simon Stevens, until recently chief executive of the NHS England.
The previous year’s union chairman Boris Johnson failed to show up for the slave auction and was sold in absentia. Johnson’s own rhetorical style differed from the conscious rigor of his peers. He had learned, writes Simon Kuper, in debates at Eton, “to defeat opponents whose arguments were better simply by ignoring their arguments”. He instead offered “carefully timed jokes, calculated lowering of voices and ad hominem mockery”. In this way, he had won the election for union president with the help of various self-proclaimed ‘Boris cultists’, including Gove and future Covid skeptic Toby Young.
The Johnson style was â notes Kuper in this short, pointed and often disturbing review of how our current politics first played out at Oxford half a lifetime ago â something new. For perhaps 30 years at Oxford, the Tories had been in defensive retreat. The manner of Johnson’s immediate Conservative predecessors in the union, Theresa Brasier, her future husband Philip May and her best friend (and future Deputy Prime Minister) Damian Green, was particularly tentative and circumspect. But in 1984, emboldened by the twin forces of Falklands-era Thatcherism and Brideshead revisited on TV, the archaic conservative voices â carefully laced with Johnson’s ironies â were hoarse again. (David Cameron, two years below Johnson at school and at Oxford, was another type of throwback – wealthy and connected enough to feel above the “hack” of student politics.)
It helped this new breed, Kuper argues, that in the union they often joked with each other. The Oxford University Labor Club, keen on Billy Bragg and the miners’ solidarity marches, boycotted the debating chamber (one result, according to Kuper, is that they “never learned to speak “). The big left-wing political beasts in the second half of the 1980s, on the university level, were the Miliband brothers, Dave and Ted, and Eddie Balls and Yvette Cooper, organizing protests against rents at their respective colleges. Young Keir Starmer, who completed his undergraduate degree at Leeds, arrived in 1985 and took a stand on support for printers in Wapping. Johnson could raise predictable chuckles in union debates by describing student socialists as âretiring to their miserable caucuses in overalls.â
All this to say: if you thought you knew the extent of the stubbornly incestuous Oxford networks that currently sit at the pinnacle of our politics, this book will still surprise you. FinancialTimes the columnist Kuper himself arrived at Oxford in 1988, just after Gove and Johnson left. Kuper, from a comprehensive school in north London, mainly inhabited a different social world from the subjects of his book but, like them, he acknowledges, he was trained by his Oxford humanities degree mainly “to write and speak for a living without too much knowledge”. .
He is scathing for those habits of college tutoring, which too often favored bluff and charm over industry and doubt. Yet it is not, he insists, “personal revenge on Oxford”. Rather, it is “an attempt to write a group portrait of a group of Tory Brexiteersâ¦ who took an ancient route through Oxford to take power”.
As Johnson himself pointed out, if you wanted to know how influential the Oxford Union was in British politics, you just had to look at all the photographs of former presidents (and future prime ministers) on its walls. There was, however, a distinct difference between these characters and their 1980s suitors. As Kuper observes, the vintage politicians of Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan had been shaped not just by Eton and Oxford, but also by war. In 2007, Rory Stewart â who had left Eton and Oxford in Iraq and Afghanistan â observed that in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party: âChurchill had been replaced by Bertie Woosterâ.
Kuper argues that although the clique around Johnson believed they were born into power, unlike the empire swordsmen they admired, they had no cause to fight for. His book details how this “cause” was eventually put forward by three other close contemporaries at Oxford, all of whom fell under the sway of Norman Stone, a polymath, alcoholic history teacher and sometimes adviser to Margaret Thatcher. The first was a young Scot, Patrick Robertson, introduced to Stone by Gove at a Burns Night dinner, the second was Dan, now Lord, Hannan, and the third was the most intense of the undergraduates, Dominic Cummings.
It was Stone who personally fueled Cummings’ public school anarchy and persuaded him to travel to Russia after graduation to get a sense of the post-Cold War world. Robertson, meanwhile, partly inspired by the historian’s horror of the EU, left Oxford after his second year to devote himself to the Bruges group of eurosceptics he created at university. (Robertson, Kuper points out, now lives in St Moritz, where he runs the public relations firm WorldPR, responsible for the post-Brexit “global Britain” campaign. He is also Kazakhstan’s honorary consul to the Bahamas.)
Hannan, among the main Kuper witnesses here, had grown up in Peru, where his family had a poultry farm. After the collapse of Communism, he sniffed out â along with Stone â a new “enemy of freedom” in European bureaucracy and found an early sidekick in his absurd Oxford contemporary Jacob Rees-Mogg. After graduating, Hannan persuaded some right-wing fringe MPs to pay him a salary as the sole employee of the European Research Group; two decades later, he persuaded Johnson to lead the Leave campaign. And so, as Kuper writes, once again “the timeless paradise of Oxford inspired its inhabitants to produce timeless fantasies like Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, narniaand, in incubation from the late 1980s, Brexitâ.
It goes without saying, reading this story, that the overwhelming influence of just one type of graduate from just one university (and often just one school, Eton) at the top of British public life has been deeply damaging. Kuper offers a few solutions â making Oxford exclusively a graduate research institute is one â but also hopes that the pandemic and all that has come with it could finally mark the end of Britain’s weakness for “the amateur ruler, lightly seasoned by Oxford Tutorialsâ. If so, a fitting epitaph could come from Rees-Mogg, who, when asked in October 2021 why Tory MPs do not wear face masks in Parliament, replied: “We on this side we know.” As if that was all that mattered.
Chums: How a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK by Simon Kuper is published by Profile (Â£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply