Three members of the current White House are Oxford alumni, as well as nine members of the British cabinet (a further five went to Cambridge). Boris Johnson’s new worst enemy, Dominic Cummings, also went to Oxford. Keir Starmer did his BCL here, and six other members of his Shadow Cabinet attended in some capacity. The current editors of The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times all went, as well as notable television presenters including Ben Browne, Fiona Bruce, and Reeta Chakrabarti. Two winning films at the 2021 Oscars were written or directed by Oxford alumni.
An impressive record, and one that our University is undoubtedly proud of. Public discourse, regardless of its medium, is dominated by Oxonians (blurgh). That is indisputable. Whether this dominance is a force for good is a totally different question. In light of this week’s political debacle, perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that Oxford’s obsession with producing ‘the leaders of tomorrow’ is in any way healthy.
In theory, it almost sounds like a good idea: Oxford is an incredibly selective institution that prides itself on stretching its students to breaking point. Logic maintains that it should produce the most hard-working, dedicated people, so it makes sense that alumni should be found in high positions in every aspect of public life. The reality, however, is that the people that ‘make it’ to these positions aren’t your regular, hard-working students who enjoy a night out at Bridge or a pint in Spoons. The people that are poised to dominate the political, cultural, and economic landscapes of our future are the people who were funnelled straight from elite boarding schools to the Oxford Union. In other words, we’re totally screwed.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to laugh at student politics as much as the next man. Recently, however, it seems like it’s starting to seep into the real world. Take the latest calamity in Downing Street, which has seen Johnson scrambling to cover a trail of corruption and obscenity by spraying blame on Cummings like a threatened skunk. In response, the latter published a searing tell-all on his WordPress blog, revealing disastrous allegations of corruption and sleaze to the surprise of precisely no one. My immediate response was, admittedly, the profound nausea I always get when I see a photo of these two men. However, as the urge to vomit receded, it was quickly replaced by a nagging sense of déjà vu.
Let’s look at the facts: a blustering, offensively posh leader of a political bloc makes atrocious comments to friends in semi-private settings. When these comments are made public, he seeks to blame a previously close friend who, in many ways,is just as odious. That ex-friend then responds with a vicious, online statement which will likely damage the leader’s prospects in an upcoming election. Sound familiar?
Oxford’s ability to propel it’s most vile students into the stratosphere of British public life has left the UK at the mercy of a dispute between a “career psychopath” who looks like he’d be more comfortable praising the Death Star’s construction from under a hood, and a sex-obsessed buffoon whose best PR moment in the last ten years was rugby-tackling a Japanese child. If this were just another student-society tantrum, fine. We’d get some atrocious speakers, no one would go to the events, and the disgraced couple would slink into the shadows of consulting or investment banking when their terms were up. But this is not student politics. This is real life. Their ignorance and hunger for power have contributed to one of the worst disasters in Britain’s post-war history.
It’s starting to dawn on me that graduating will not be the end of the mortifying political spats that grace our Facebook feeds every other week. I had assumed that the preposterous volume of scandals at Oxford was a result of public school boys suddenly coming into contact with normal people in an environment with an unhealthy level of media coverage (there are FIVE student newspapers!). This assumption now seems laughably naive. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that we’re destined to relive the same sordid scandals for the next 30 years, each time with higher stakes, until Russia finally puts us out of our misery with a well-placed nuke.
There are only two possible solutions to the problem. The first is simple: a total moratorium on hiring Oxford graduates in the media, politics, and the City. Forever. As effective as that would be, as a prospective graduate who is rather keen not to starve to death in his early twenties, I selfishly think that it might not be the best way forward. The second is more complex: actually teach the skills and attributes these people will need when they reach high office.
Perhaps Oxford students know enough about Keats, The Iliad, and Keynesian economics. Maybe it’s time to replace that Roman Law module with “Apologising 101” or “Introduction to Guilt, Shame, and Embarrassment”. If Oxford is going to keep stuffing itself with children whose parents abandoned them in the wilderness of boarding school to grow up like Spartans, it needs to realise that it has a duty to teach them the values that most people learn from their family and friends. Otherwise, we can look forward to more porcine antics from our Latin-spewing classmates in Number 10.
Art by Justin Lim.