On Tuesday 31st May, Simon Kuper (the author of Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK) delivered a speech at Balliol College to a filled lecture theatre. The question that underpinned this talk was: “Has Oxford Ruined Britain?” Providing an explicit answer to this question, Kuper stated that he “doesn’t think so. Actually, I think it has improved it.” However, this response seemingly stands in conflict with his scathing criticisms of the institution, particularly the Oxford Union and tutorial system. 

During the first part of the talk, Kuper restated the thesis of his book: he attributed the rise of  modern Tory politicians like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to an excessive emphasis on rhetoric in the Oxford tutorial system, particularly in the arts subjects, and in the Oxford Union. First, Kuper reduces the value of the tutorial system to a rhetorical exercise, painting the picture of a student reading out their hurriedly-written essay based on “bits of maybe two booksspending an hour dancing around gaps” in knowledge. Second, Kuper speaks of how the Oxford Union exacerbates this emphasis on rhetoric, where one “won a union debate… with carefully timed jokes, calculated lowering of voices and common jibes”. In fact, he reports that displays of knowledge were met with cries of “Facts! Facts!”

This over-emphasis on rhetoric, Kuper argues, is exacerbated by multiple factors like the sense of entitlement stemming from the relative financial  stability of 80’s Britain and  membership of exclusive circles like the Bullingdon Club , which inspired “an envy for their ancestors who had ruled Britain in more exciting times”. Kuper positions Brexit as the platform utilised by these Tories to exercise their Oxford-instilled entitlement and rhetoric to pursue their “grand British cause” and achieve the careers “they believe they deserved”. Pointing to Boris Johnson in particular, Kuper claims that he “fought the referendum like an Oxford Union debate, funny and almost substance free”, containing minimal mention of  issues which have gone on to form sticking-points  in Brexit negotiations, such as the Single Market and Irish Border.

Moving beyond Brexit, Kuper claims the Oxford sense of entitlement is exhibited in Boris Johnson’s aversion to Covid lockdowns and the “party-gate” incident; “the core of the Johson psyche and caste psyche is ‘rules do not apply to us’”. Essentially, Johnson risked political jeopardy to party because he “grew up expecting maximum personal freedom”; not being denied this liberty at either Eton or Oxford. 

Kuper’s audience, perhaps like readers of his book, tried to draw comparisons between modern Oxford and Oxford in the 80s. Though Kuper makes some comparisons himself, commenting on the persistent existence of the tutorial system, the insufficiency of 8-week terms and PPE “being too light to be a formal education”, he most confines his perspective to Oxford in the 80’s. Instead, he concludes his talk by posing a broader question to current students: “Is what I’m describing a historical era? How much of it applies today?

Some attendees disagreed with his arguments. During the Q&A portion of the talk, an attendee who identified herself as a history lecturer, criticised  Kuper’s thesis as “terrible” for deriving inspiration from the EU Referendum outcome and consequently over-relying on the percentage-point difference that meant Brexit succeeded; would Kuper’s argument be sustainable had Brexit not occurred? Kuper concedes that he “wouldn’t have written the book… if they hadn’t won” but insisted that the autocracy that Oxford produces would have still lived on: “we would still have a spectacle of an almost entirely Oxford, an almost entirely male, entirely private-school group of people, who on both sides, are running the country”.

Earlier in the talk, Kuper details that he “explored the UK through Oxford”, having grown up in the Netherlands and spending time  in Paris. Other questions asked by attendees drew out this foreign perspective which underlies his book, such as a question asked by OULC secretary, Fionn McFadden about whether the UK. government should abolish public schools. Kuper replied that they should not be abolished but that state-funded schools should be given so much support that they become irrelevant. As Kuper  stated, “Eton without Oxford is worth less than Eton with Oxford”. Kuper acknowledges that his stance derives from his experience with the education system in the Netherlands, where the government spends 30% more than the OECD average per student.

Kuper indubitably raised some critical points, both within his book and his talk. His thesis seems most veritable in his discussion of the 1980s and our contemporary politicians. The question which still remains unclear, both to Kuper and others, is the extent to which it is still the case that Oxford is ruining Britain, and producing politicians with rhetorical flourish rather than pragmatic ideals. Whether we have fallen into the same trap is for our generation to find out.