I’ve reviewed Simon Kuper’s book Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the U.K. for the House Magazine. I say it’s an entertaining, highly readable book that contains some great anecdotes, but it’s core thesis – that the Brexit project was shaped by the class interest of a group of grievance-mongering Tory toffs who resented the transfer of power from Westminster to Brussels because they regarded the exercise of that power as their birthright – is laughably chippy. Here are the first few paragraphs:
It has become a commonplace of Islington dinner parties that the reason Britain is in such a mess is because of its wretched class system which has condemned us to being ruled by a bunch of incompetent Tory toffs. Not only are they lazy and amoral, believing the rules don’t apply to them, but for the most part they’re innumerate and scientifically illiterate, thanks to the humanities bias at Britain’s elite public schools and Oxford University. Little wonder, then, that they’ve made such a hash of governing the country, culminating in the disastrous decision to leave the European Union.
This furious critique of our current political masters has been given its clearest expression yet by the Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper. In Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, he traces Brexit back to a group of straight, white, ex-public schoolboys at Oxford in the 1980s and blames it on their elite backgrounds, their gargantuan sense of entitlement and the cult of the gentleman amateur.
“Ruling Britain was the prerogative of their caste,” he writes. “They didn’t want outsiders in Brussels muscling in.”
The dramatis personae of this story will be familiar to anyone interested in contemporary British politics and it is genuinely remarkable how many students who attended Oxford between 1983 and 1993 – that was the critical 10-year period, according to Kuper – now dominate public life. They not only include the architects of the Vote Leave campaign – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan and Jacob Rees-Mogg – but also some of the main protagonists on the other side – David Cameron, George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Hugo Dixon, Rory Stewart, Nick Boles and Roland Rudd. Also at Oxford at the same time were many prominent Labour politicians, including Keir Starmer, David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper.
Just listing all those people points to a difficulty for Kuper. If being part of a privileged clique at Oxford from 1983-93 was instrumental in shaping the views of the politicians who masterminded our exit from the European Union, why did so many members of this club end up campaigning for Remain? And it seems a bit simplistic to reduce the Tory values of Johnson, Hannan and Rees-Mogg to a desire to perpetuate their class privilege when some of the most prominent Conservatives of this Oxford generation, such as Gove, came from modest backgrounds. Indeed, Boris wasn’t exactly to the manor born himself, being a scholarship boy at Eton. As Cummings once remarked on Twitter about this class-based analysis of the Brexit project: “If u think me Gove & Boris are posh you have literally no idea what posh is.”
Worth reading in full (no paywall).