Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took over the UK by Simon Kuper - review by Patrick Marnham

Patrick Marnham

Fruits of the Union

Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took over the UK


Profile 231pp £16.99

Simon Kuper’s thesis is that the United Kingdom is being run by a coterie of Oxford-educated friends who were at university at roughly the same time as he was. Many arrived from Eton. They were trained in the debates held at the Oxford Union and the elections held by the university Conservative Association, where dirty tricks abound. They left Oxford with an overpowering sense of entitlement and a deep conviction that politics was not a serious or principled occupation. It was just a game. And they came into their own with the Brexit referendum. These are the ‘chums’ of the title and they are now in the process of ruining the country. ‘I will argue in this book’, Kuper writes, ‘that if Johnson, Gove, [Daniel] Hannan, Dominic Cummings and Rees-Mogg had received rejection letters from Oxford aged seventeen, we would probably never have had Brexit.’

His argument has not been well received by some of the survivors of that privileged group who have been asked to review it. But it is a valuable, funny and well-researched addition to the literature on this country’s decline. For anyone who was at Oxford thirty years earlier than Kuper, his description of the university in the late 1980s and early 1990s is startling. In the 1960s the undergraduate body was markedly left-wing. No prime ministers were to be provided by the Oxford Union of those days, though its officers included students of considerable political promise. Among them were Jonathan Aitken (a future Tory Cabinet minister, later jailed for perjury), Tariq Ali and Michael Beloff. The Union’s most successful embryo politician was the Jamaican Eric Abrahams, who invited the civil rights leader Malcolm X to speak there. In October 1964, Cherwell, the university newspaper, which Kuper was later to write for, welcomed the newly elected Wilson government’s plans for comprehensive schools, but expressed fury that the government did not intend to abolish all private education. So what happened to Oxford? The transformation can be traced through the changing admission ratio for privately and state-educated candidates.

In the mid-1980s there was a marked decline in the proportion of state-educated pupils accepted at both Oxford and Cambridge (though this was contrary to the wider trend over the past fifty years). The reason for this is quite simple. The Labour government’s decision in 1964 to set about

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