I have a disturbing finding for Cherwell readers: naked ambition, so embarrassing to the Oxford student psyche, actually pays off. All those pushy people who are so annoyingly keen to run what are essentially pretend institutions at Oxford – the Union, this newspaper, clubs, whatever – are not all going to get the comeuppance you might think they deserve later in life. They’re going to end up running things for real.
I base this on the fact that the exact people who ran pretend things when I was at Oxford – I was at St John’s, a little over two decades ago – have ended up being the people who actually run very real, very big institutions now.
Like running London – as in Boris Johnson, President of the Union back then. Or being BBC Political editor – as in Nick Robinson, back then editor of a student magazine. Or potentially running the whole country – as in another of my contemporaries, David Cameron.
Why make this point ?
Because Cherwell reminded me today that with Boris, his sister Rachel (now editor of posh magazine The Lady), Toby Young (author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) and others, I contributed to a precociously self-satisfied 1987 book called the ‘Oxford Myth’, which Rachel edited.
My chapter was about ambition – a breathlessly superficial overview of the self-promotional activities of late 1980s students in drama, journalism, film and politics. My thesis – no doubt because I had read a couple of existential novels – was that it was fear of anonymity that drove a certain group to thrust themselves into limelight of any kind. Their motives were profile first, and philosophical substance a distant second, my chapter suggested.
Two decades later, with much of that youthful ignorance beaten out of me by the constant enlightenments and knockbacks of a media career, I would dearly like to be able to provide readers with the schadenfreude of everyone I highlighted having failed dismally, after that brief career phosphorence on Oxford’s extra-mural stage. But not a bit of it.
If anything, a revisit to that book just confirms the myth that Oxford actually was, and probably still is, a ticket to a career fast-lane, and your leaders of today’s Oxford’s student activities will go on to take major roles in the country at large as well.
Whether that’s a good thing, I’m not so sure. Out in the real world, there are plenty of equally talented people working at ordinary
British universities (I’m on the board of two, and I know this at first hand) with a lot fewer resources at their disposal, and a lot less access to the real levers of career success.
But as a student you can only work with the Oxford brand as you find it. You could have a deliberate career strategy of ditching cynicism about university activities which relate to the career you might ultimately want to follow. Be completely un-British about student media, arts and politics in your enthusiasm, your engagement and frankly self-publicising zeal. It might very well pay off, The Oxford myth is a misnomer, because Oxford’s access to the fast lane is still real and it starts with what you did here out of hours.
And what to make of that privilege ?
Well do some good with it. Remember that line the dying Tom Hanks character has at the end of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ to Matt Damon’s Ryan, for whom so many have died to make safe: ‘Deserve it.’
Whether you like Johnson and Cameron or not, the fact is that the endless reprinting of the Bullingdon Club photos in the press are unfair. Both really have eschewed their Eton/Oxford privilege to focus real policies on helping the underprivileged, not the elite.
Many of the most self-promotional of my generation went on to become socially aware and effective; ground-breaking investigative journalists, AIDS experts, climate experts. If you make the Oxford Myth something you can deserve as well as benefit from, then maybe ambition is OK after all.
Alex Connock is Chief Executive of media group Ten Alps Plc.