John Authers

Britain Still Can’t Look Beyond Oxford for Its Leader

Britain, and particularly its ruling Conservative party, is growing more diverse. Of that there is no question. But regardless of gender or ethnicity, an aspiring prime minister still must clear certain educational hurdles.

The crowded field of eleven who threw their hats into the ring when Boris Johnson announced his resignation earlier this month included more women than men, and a range of ethnicities — among them they could claim Indian, Iraqi, Nigerian and Pakistani ancestry. And indeed, now that Conservative MPs have whittled the choice down to two, no white man is left standing. The recently resigned Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who is of Indian ancestry, will take on Liz Truss, the current foreign secretary, in a ballot of all the party’s members in the country. This looks like a breakthrough for a more diverse and multicultural Britain — except that both Sunak and Truss did the same course at the same university.

The course is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and it’s been offered for about 100 years by the University of Oxford. It was designed unapologetically to help train the country’s future leaders, and it appears to have succeeded all too well.

To be clear, I was lucky enough to take the course myself, in the same year as another PPEist, the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. (Sunak and Truss are both a few years younger.) The degree course is a great training for the mind, but this column, which I wrote back in 2018, makes clear that PPE has come to exert an unhealthy dominance over Britain’s political culture:

Harold Wilson, elected prime minister in 1964, was the first PPEist to top the greasy pole. In this decade, my generation of PPEists took over virtually the entire British establishment — and we have made a total hash of it.

David Cameron, who called the Brexit referendum, is my direct contemporary as a PPEist. Another eight PPEists were among ministers at his Cabinet meetings. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader whose defeat to Cameron ensured that the Brexit vote would happen, and whose rewriting of his party’s leadership election rules opened the way for Jeremy Corbyn, is another contemporary PPEist. So were two of his opponents for the job, including Miliband’s brother, David. Corbyn is not an Oxonian (which might explain why the media are scared of him), but his chief adviser, Seumas Milne, has a degree in PPE.

In media, many top jobs at the BBC are held by PPEists. The editor of The Economist is another direct contemporary as a PPEist. At the Financial Times, where I spent much of my career, I worked alongside five others who had overlapped with me taking PPE at the same college. (Only about 10 of us took the course at that college each year.)

Since then, two prime ministers have resigned, the country has been through a general election, and the UK has finally got Brexit done and left the European Union — albeit on terms that many in the current government now want to change. But the dominance of Oxford graduates, and particularly PPE, remains unabated.

Boris Johnson, a classicist, did manage to see off his Oxford contemporary Jeremy Hunt, a PPEist, in the Conservative leadership election of 2019. But now, a new generation has produced a choice between two PPEists. Oxford has steadily become a more open place, which helps explain why it has produced both Britain’s female prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

In theory, greater diversity in backgrounds should lead to broader diversity of ideas and flexibility of thought in government. However, this will inevitably be narrowed, and the risk of groupthink will rise greatly, if everyone in government has been through the same training program. In that 2018 column, I inveighed against:

… the way we learned to behave at Oxford. Ambitious young PPEists spent their lives playing at politics or journalism, making the connections that would see them through life, and engaging in the kind of nasty interpersonal rivalries and highjinks that the world is now watching at Westminster.

The way PPE is taught encouraged this behavior. Your degree is entirely dependent on a week-long series of three-hour exams taken at the end of your final term. Up until that point, your only academic commitments are one or two weekly one-hour tutorials with professors. Survive your first-year exams and pass muster in your tutorials, and you could build your CV almost full-time before some desperate studying at the very end.

Ed Luce of the Financial Times, a fellow PPEist, calls us the “essay crisis” generation: “people who mastered the art of delivering their assignments in limpid prose that they had only started working on overnight.” He adds, “If you learn young how to slip past Oxford’s best scholars, the rest of life ought to be a doddle.”

Added to this, the sheer range of subject matter that we covered in only three years tended to inculcate a habit of skating over the surface of profound subjects, and coming up with a superficial view that is just about good enough to pass muster when reading an essay to your tutor or taking an exam. That is, regrettably, great training for politics as it is currently practiced, but it’s not great training for the clear-eyed and dispassionate handling of details that we would like to see in politicians.

Oxford politics, famously nasty, led to to feuds that reverberated decades later in Westminster. In this great piece for the New Statesman, Simon Kuper went through the relationship between Johnson and Michael Gove, who met in the bar of the Oxford Union in 1985. Two weeks ago, Johnson’s late-night decision to fire Gove proved to be his last significant act before resigning.

None of this means that it’s not encouraging that the contest comes down to a competition between a man of color and a woman. But it’s discouraging that somehow or other the nation still cannot stop itself from outsourcing the task of vetting and training its leaders to the PPE faculty at Oxford University. There is opportunity in Britain, but it still seems to depend on getting in to Oxford.

Ironically, Penny Mordaunt, squeezed into third place by Truss having been second in all the earlier rounds of voting, would in a way have represented a more direct split from the past. She would have been the first-ever prime minister to get an undergraduate degree from an English university other than Oxford or Cambridge; she has a degree in philosophy (but not politics and economics) from the University of Reading. But the habit of trusting Oxford continues. Thus, my conclusion from four years ago now looks as though it has proved decisively wrong:

I would not blame the country if it decided it was time for PPExit. Like most alumni I love my alma mater, but the dominance of Oxford, and of the PPE course, is plainly doing the country no good. We should be compelled to cast a wider net when looking for our leaders.

PPExit must now wait at least until the next general election, due by the end of 2024.