Whether it’s the Bullingdon club or the botch job of Brexit, the roots of Britain’s ruling class are rotten to the cure but few writers have given us a truly comprehensive guide to explain just why this is the case, Simon Kupers ‘Chums’ is the concise timeline to fill this unoccupied void.
If you picked out a high ranking Tory politician out of the last decades worth of cabinets and asked them to make a quasi-inspirational advert, like the Royal Navy bloke from Carlisle, it would go something along the lines of: “I was born INTO Eton, but I was made in Oxbridge”. But in all seriousness, the UK’s ruling class may not be hereditary in name or law when it comes to recent governments they are not far off.
Kuper’s opening chapters detail some of the key figures who overcame the hurdle of a middle class upbringing to rise up from some of the UK’s richest boarding schools, get into Eton college and then Oxford University. Enter the cast of cautionary characters: Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings and George Osbourne to name only but a few. Not only would this infamous band of human caricatures eventually influence and shape our national policy, they did it with a sickly sense of comradery and good political sportsmanship from their days as childhood friends and with a simultaneous knowledge however bad things would get, the country would be in the shit rather than them.
This is prefaced with a bleak narration of the Oxford admissions process in the 1980’s that serves as a reminder that however arcane and elitist you think the Oxford of today is, it pales in comparison to the dark ages of this decade. Kuper alludes to an interview question that tells you exactly the sort of ‘leaders’ the university wanted to cultivate: “Do you think the Piazzeta San Marco in Venice looks like Branch of Barclays bank?”, or in plain English: can you speak absolute bollocks about something you know nothing about but at least make it look like you do?
On a note of further dismay, the Oxford of the 1980s was not a hotbed of strategic or scientific intellect, instead it drilled into its undergraduates or politicians to be the fine arts of pontification, cack handed essays and basically bullshiting at a moments notice. As a once-student at Oxford, Kuper says the typical humanities degree taught students like him “to write and speak for a living without much knowledge”.
Furthermore, Kuper says that Oxford Union, the university’s famed debating chamber, is seen as a warm up act to the House of Commons by many of the ‘Chums’ that inhabit it with a focus on oratorical panache rather than truly erudite argumentation, in essence style over substance if ever the phrase could be more accurately attributed. Moreover this accession wasn’t just a right of passage, it was regarded by the most ruthlessly ambitious and privileged such as Borris Johnson as taken for granted something he would inherit, and low and behold he wasn’t wrong!
The more technical and methodical side of Kupers book is the mechanism which facilitates the ‘chumocracy’ as he calls it. The three key institutions, Oxford, Eton and the Conservative party have a toxic and symbiotic relationship with one another and function as self-sustaining organisms. In simple terms, historically rich families send their children to the UK’s richest boarding schools, Eton being the crown jewel in this regard, these precious little proteges then network and start plotting who will form their allies in their races for oxford union president and actual premiership in government thereafter. Any reference to politics being a game or allusions to this have never been more painfully and emphatically vindicated than Oxford’s chumocracy network.
And a chapter on Brexit delves into one of the ‘Chumocracys’ worst exports: euroscepticism, indeed Brexit was predicated on almost entirely what Kuper describes as a preservation of ‘Old England, or before its pre-industrial times’ by proponents such as Daniel Hannan. In other words it was an opportunity for the sovereignty of upper class Etonians to recline in their desecrated country hamlets rather than enact any tangible benefits for the country at large.
The single drawback of the book is its solution or remedy, which it addresses in part, to the Chumocaracy’s of the future. His primary reason for optimism seems to stem from the fact that Oxford as an institution is becoming more progressive, with the number of women increasing from 50 to 55 percent, a rise from 58 to 68 per cent in state school admissions from the years 2017 to 2021. He also points to the fact Oxford is weeding out “natural essayists”, meaning the privileged work shy students and promoting more actual scholars. His hypothesis is that a more meritocratic Oxford may make for better leadership. There is substance to his argument in many ways no doubt, but on the other hand isn’t an Oxford-centric view of British politics what got us in this mess one way or another? With plenty of high quality universities in Britain, many of the best in the world in fact, why only advertise this one?
The moral of Kupers story, even if there was not intention in non fiction work such as his to be one, is that it’s painfully clear to us outsiders and less well off voters that being born with a silver spoon in your mouth doesn’t mean you will be a silver bullet for the problems facing the country, in fact, these people may just be the reason for it.