Christ Church, University of Oxford BA History
Birkbeck College, University of London
History PhD student
Bonnart Trust Scholar
Things were not always this way. ‘Dominion over palm and pine’ was how Rudyard Kipling had described Britain at its imperial zenith. In a poem to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Kipling proclaimed that Britain had been divinely ordained to govern a great empire. According to the maxim, it was an empire on which the sun would never set.
In the present day the sun has, in fact, set. And like a drinker desperately searching for his keys in the dark, the British parliament is scrambling to find its way out of a constitutional crisis entirely of its own making. David Cameron, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Theresa May. The man who called the ill-advised referendum, two who led the campaign to leave the European Union, and finally the woman who has since led the country. They are the usual suspects so to speak and what they all share is an alma mater: all four are graduates of the University of Oxford.
This is not surprising. Since 1721, 41 of Britain’s 54 Prime Ministers have attended either Oxford or the equally prestigious Cambridge. Today less than 1% of the UK population is a product of Oxbridge. Nevertheless Oxbridge graduates make up around half of Theresa May’s cabinet, nearly 75% of the top judiciary and over half of the country’s leading journalists. Again, maybe this is not wholly unexpected, Oxford and Cambridge are consistently ranked as among the finest universities in the world. Surely it can only be positive, if Britain choses its governing elite from these institutions.
However any avid viewer of the Brexit psychodrama could not have possibly come to this conclusion. Germany’s Europe Minister, Michael Roth, spoke for many when he said that the British cabinet had ‘no idea how workers think, live, work and behave.’ The Westminster impasse is the fault of those ‘born with silver spoons in their mouths, who went to private schools and elite universities.’ The sad truth is that Oxford and Cambridge reflect, perhaps accentuate, wider inequalities in British society. Students from London and the relatively rich South East receive a huge proportion of places. On the other hand, Wales, the Midlands and the North East, former industrial heartlands of the country, are severely under-represented. Working class students also face substantially greater hurdles in securing a place – the overwhelming majority of those who do so come from the top two socio-economic groups. To compound matters, British students of African and Asian descent can be almost entirely absent from parts of these universities.
Put simply, the undergraduate student body of both Oxford and Cambridge does not look or sound like the country that surrounds them. While race and class do not determine intelligence or aptitude, one could be easily fooled when looking at the British students who make it to Oxbridge. Maybe this disparity could be ignored if these august institutions were on the margins of society. However a degree from Oxbridge is a passport to the elite of Britain. When Theresa May called together the leading Brexiteer Conservative MPs at her country estate, up for discussion was the most significant political decision of post-war British history. ‘Luckily’ for Britain this was in the hands of 14 politicians, ten of whom had a degree from at least one of these venerable universities.
For some in the Conservative Party, leaving the European Union has become an article of faith. As it stands, Britain is set to rip up over 40 years of laws and international agreements with little idea of what will replace them. Has Oxbridge played a role in radicalising these elite politicians in their search for a pure Brexit? While this may seem an unfair accusation – those on the other side of the debate also share similar paths – it is not completely without merit. They will not be the ones to suffer the consequences of a reckless Brexit, their backgrounds will insulate them. Watching the debates in Parliament, it is easy to see the traces of the Oxbridge method of teaching. A student at one of these elite universities will, once or twice a week, meet with a professor to discuss and defend their work. Usually in conjunction with another student, this tutorial system can be adversarial. Being forced to defend your work in front of another young student does not always lend itself to compromise – it sometimes leads to entrenchment. Other approaches, such as seminar or group work, which encourage collaboration and negotiating difference, feature less prominently in undergraduate teaching at these universities. Make no mistake, Brexit is immensely complicated, but it does seem that parliamentarians lack the requisite skills to come to any form of agreement or compromise between themselves.
Just as Westminster is split, Brexit has revealed Britain to be a country divided in two.
‘As if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’
These words were written by Benjamin Disraeli in 1845, seemingly not much has changed in British society. It is a problem if elite universities do not reflect the diversity of life outside the ivory tower. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge is the cause of Brexit, but their fingerprints are all over the levers of power in Britain. Indeed, while many alumni of these universities have had a positive impact on national life, no one can seriously argue that the current state of British politics is a great advertisement for an Oxbridge education. Structural change is required and in the meantime, maybe turning to another Oxford (and Eton) alumnus may offer some small guidance. When the former Foreign Secretary, and prominent Brexit supporter, Boris Johnson found himself in Myanmar on official government business, he visited the Shwedagon Pagoda. At this Buddhist shrine, Johnson attempted to recite another of Kipling’s colonial-era poem, namely ‘The Road to Mandalay.’ Ever eager to show off his learning, Johnson (mis)quoted the poem: ‘The temple bells they say/ Come you back you English soldier.’ Myanmar remembers British rule as a difficult period in its history. While Johnson may have a knowledge of Kipling’s poetry, he possessed neither the wisdom nor sensitivity to comprehend the significance of these words to his hosts. Or perhaps he did and he continued anyway. Either way the British public can only hope that the next generation of leaders is drawn from the full spectrum of the population. As Mr Johnson has proved, knowledge alone is insufficient.