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The path to power

The path to power
The path to power

On Monday, the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Oxford graduate Rishi Sunak or bookmaker favorite Liz Truss will walk through the famous black door at 10 Downing Street.

The winner will replace Oxford graduate Boris Johnson, who took over from Oxford graduate Theresa May, who took over from Oxford graduate David Cameron.

Can you spot the pattern here?

The Oxford effect

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, known collectively as Oxbridge, are renowned around the world. But it is Oxford that dominates Britain’s political sphere and the wider establishment, with 29 of 56 prime ministers to date, 12 of 15 since 1945 (including the imminent incumbent), compared to 14 who have gone to Cambridge. Only eight did not attend college at all.

According to the 2019 Elitist Britain report, UK power structures are dominated by a narrow section of the population: the 7% who attended independent schools and around 1% who graduated from Oxbridge. The report found that 31% of politicians attended Oxford or Cambridge and 57% of ministers.

What is it about Oxbridge in general, and the University of Oxford in particular, that creates such a compelling path to the top of Britain’s political establishment?

With Oxford and Cambridge’s reputation for academic excellence, it could be argued that both universities attract and produce the brightest minds and so it is only natural that many of their graduates become prominent figures in public life.

Many people point to the dominance of the Oxford degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) which seems to have dominated Westminster in recent years (Truss and Sunak are both PPE graduates). But, as noted political historian Anthony Seldon points out, “Although he may have dominated the Cabinet, his influence at 10 Downing Street was not so strong. Since 1900, three prime ministers have studied PPE: the same number who studied science, technology, engineering and mathematics and considerably fewer than the seven who studied history or the classics. Additionally, two prime ministers after 1900 studied modern languages ​​and one each studied philosophy, law and geography.

Simon Kuper, FinancialTimes The columnist and author of Chums, How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tooks Took Over the UK, goes further, refuting its influence at the highest level: “The PPE degree is unusually shallow, even by Oxford degree standards. The entire Oxford degree typically takes 72 weeks, or less than a year and a half. With PPE, you break that down into three completely different topics, so it’s pretty superficial.

The Oxford Union, where future parliamentarians learn the art of winning the argument.

Source: Julien/Adobe Stock

The art of rhetoric

For Kuper, more important than the quality of education is extracurricular activity, especially the Oxford Union Debating Society. “That’s where you learn the kind of rhetoric prized in the Commons,” he said. “The Oxford Union is a sort of nursery for the commons, a children’s parliament. You have the same orientation of the benches, the same “yes” and “no” votes, people shouting points of order.

“So when you walk into the Commons they find it very familiar.”

Rhetorical training in the Oxford Union is seen by Kuper as the foundation of future parliamentary success. Boris Johnson is seen as typical of this style, putting delivery before substance and detail. Kuper observes, “The rhetoric you learn is this joking, this jousting, ignoring the other person’s arguments, being funny, being entertaining. And Boris Johnson symbolizes the qualities of the Oxford Union to the point of parody.

In chums, Kuper argues that the Oxford style of education, being able to make a point in front of your tutor, puts cramming and rhetoric before understanding details. “Oxford mostly teaches you to speak well and write well, even when you don’t know much about what you’re talking about,” he told me. “The ability to speak well and present well is paramount in British politics. It is very difficult to reach the top without it.

Companion FinancialTimes journalist Ed Luce points to “people who had mastered the art of delivering their homework in crystal-clear prose that they had only begun to work on overnight.” If you learn young to step past Oxford’s top academics, the rest of life should be a breeze.

Well connected

In addition to the ability to present and make a strong case, another key ingredient for success identified by the elitist Britain rapport is the ability to establish the right relationships from an early age. Oxford University’s dominance in British politics naturally means that many politicians find themselves surrounded by their academic contemporaries as they rise through the ranks.

Former British cabinet minister Michael Heseltine remembers studying under future political giants and meeting the great figures of his day when he was at Oxford. He told the BBC: “Oxford presents every opportunity for political exchange and competition; political parties are very active in their student counterparts. Just the experience of being able to spend so much time in a world where you meet other politicians, not only as students but also as speakers. There are hugely awesome opportunities for undergraduates to meet people at the top of their tree, and that includes household names in the world of politics.”

And then there is the pipeline effect. As Danny Dorling, Professor of Social Geography at Oxford explains, “One of the effects of going to Eton and going to an Oxford college is that the impulse to go on and do something big is very strong. You will know that people have gone on to accomplish great things. .”

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