CW: sexual assault
It’s no secret to anyone who reads the news that British politics begins in the cloisters of Oxford (and, to a lesser extent, Cambridge) — but, for many of the thirty Prime Ministers our university has produced, this is only part of the story; more specifically, their road to Downing Street started on the leather-clad benches of the Oxford Union’s debating chamber, and in the cushy armchairs of its bar. Three of Britain’s post-war Prime Ministers — Boris Johnson, Edward Heath, and Harold Macmillan — held one or more of the Union’s four highest offices in their time at Oxford, and many more, whilst not elected to high-ranking offices, were well known in student political circles. The Union’s grip on real-world politics, however, doesn’t end here; to get a flavour of the role the society has played in producing the country’s ruling class, one need only take a closer look at the cabinets of the past 12 years, as we will do later in this article.
A common argument made by defenders of Oxbridge’s hegemony in Downing Street goes something like this: surely it’s not a bad thing that the country is run by educated people who graduated from its two most prestigious universities? Similar logic can be applied to justify the disproportionate influence the Oxford Union has exerted over British politics by supplying future cabinet ministers — surely it’s not a bad thing that our politicians not only are well-educated, but have experience in politics and an illustrious record of political achievements that go back to their time at said universities? Having seen much of the culture of Oxford and of the Oxford Union — with the near-termly headlines about yet another scandal and the indiscriminate hack messages that pour in before every election, the Union is inescapable even to non-members — I feel extremely skeptical about both of these statements. To me, as an outsider, everything about the Union, from the £300 membership fee to the exhausting slate drama on Facebook and the allegations of sexual misconduct that seem to have limited social repercussions for the abuser, has always signalled an extremely toxic culture that’s hardly an environment you’d want the people running the country to have spent the formative stages of their career in. Still, due to a lack of personal experience, I felt that I couldn’t be completely certain in my judgement. That changed last week, when I sat down with two former Junior Officers, KD and RM (initials have been changed for anonymity), to have a chat with each of them separately about their experiences with the Union.
KD is a woman of colour who served on committee before being elected to a Junior Officer post; RM is an ex-state comprehensive school student who served in appointed positions before his term as an elected JO. Both felt that conscious and unconscious biases against the marginalised groups they identify with had a big impact on how their Union careers played out. KD said that, when she served on the Standing Committee, the way she and the other women on the committee were treated by male members had clear misogynistic undertones — their ideas were not taken seriously and often ignored, but when others proposed largely the same things, their suggestions were taken on board. Whilst officers take care not to make overtly sexist or racist comments to avoid getting ‘cancelled’, implicit behaviours that make the Union a hostile environment for women and people of colour are still commonplace; casual comments about ‘incompetence’ are mostly targeted at women, she told Cherwell. This sentiment was echoed by RM: “When I ran for President, at scrutiny you could just see the hatred directed at my representatives who were women of colour that wasn’t present towards the other slate”.
Another deep-rooted issue within the Union which contributes to a culture of male privilege is reported to stem from members’ and officers’ attitudes to sexual misconduct, which women are overwhelmingly more likely to face in social settings. In the past, KD was sexually harassed inside the Union building by an ex-committee member — she recalled that, she felt nervous about calling out the perpetrator, fearing that others might assume her to be “electioneering” with reputational ramifications. According to KD, all the usual issues that survivors of sexual assault face are exacerbated in a Union context, where everything inherently has a political subtext: “When someone comes forward about sexual assault or sexual harassment, people usually feel bad for the person who’s being accused, and oftentimes they gain more support. Victims are often labelled as ‘psychotic’ or are assumed to be ‘trying to ruin someone’s reputation’, in part because there have indeed been cases of fabricated SA allegations, and women who want to come forward often need male support to be taken seriously. In general, there’s a culture of staying quiet about most things, and when someone has done something problematic, you feel uncomfortable calling it out because it puts the target on your back and you want to keep the peace.”
The culture within the top ranks of the Union seems to leave limited hope for change; as KD remarked, women and people of colour elected to Officer positions usually try to avoid “feeding into stereotypes” and rarely feel comfortable focusing too much on feminism or antiracism because they anticipate backlash.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a debating society which charges £300 for membership (£178.50 if you’re eligible for its access membership programme), many instances of classism among members are still reported.
According to KD, access is widely seen as a joke and candidates who care about it are looked down upon as “naïve”. “I’ve known former Presidents,” she said, “who cared about access before being elected but, whilst in office, felt uncomfortable making any real changes because they’d be seen as radical superwoke superlefties. Others have no actual care for access and only put it on their manifestos to tick a box.”
RM, who got involved in Union politics after being ‘coffeed’ by someone he’d met before university, had many thoughts to share about the Union’s relationship with access. “There was a lot of informal social etiquette I needed to learn that I would already have been familiar with had I gone to a different school. Already as an appointed officer I felt a bias against state-school students. I didn’t quite fit the mould in terms of knowing how to give a performance, and it took me a lot of effort to be seen as a serious person. State schoolers have to go much slower and put a lot more work in if they want to run for office because they don’t have the network that people who went to Eton, Harrow, Winchester and other schools like that do from the get-go.” He shared KD’s view that people who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are pressured into feeling uncomfortable talking about access issues and making reforms that threaten the status quo. “When I said I was working-class, that was described as an “openly aggressive statement”, and talking about my life was labelled “weaponising identity politics”. The newspapers were also hostile; during my interview for the Cherwell, one of the questions went something like “you talk a lot about access, but how are you going to help all the other members?” and I wasn’t even surprised because I’m very used to answering to that criticism. Talking about your identity is seen as inherently aggressive and perceived as ‘wokery’.”
The former committee members also gave examples of nepotism that they’ve witnessed – the legacy of the Bullingdon Club appears to live on, if with an extra veneer of (often performative) diversity. “Outsiders” have a hard time breaking into the inner Union circles to begin with: “People with similar backgrounds tend to form cliques within the Union and it’s hard to get in. Culturally, people who went to private school fit in easily, whereas people like me don’t feel welcome in the Union and wouldn’t spend all of our time there. There’s also a lot of insider information passed down within private school circles – for example, I recall two people from the same boarding house being elected to the Union a couple of years apart. It’s common to have parents turning up to vote, and even within the student body, there are lots of people who never turn up to most events but show up to vote for the candidate who went to the same school with even if they don’t like each other,” RM said.
KD expressed a similar idea: “It’s not uncommon for people who are big in the Union to know top politicians personally, and even without those connections, people from wealthy families who went to private school have a much easier time getting elected. Slates play a big part in this. Most people who run for President place a lot of importance on ‘background checks’ when forming their slate: they make a long spreadsheet of names and then ask around within their college to find out what their reputation is, so if you haven’t got to know many people yet and can’t be background-checked, the slate leaders will usually go for someone else even if you’re a very strong candidate. Slating in Michaelmas is especially nepotism-based; there’s a large influx of new members who are eligible to vote creating uncertainty about the outcome of the election, so people try to find big names and go for people who went to Eton, Harrow, Winchester and St. Paul’s. It’s hard to get into Union politics for people who have few connections in the society; if you try to approach people as a non-insider, you seem like a try-hard, so the ideal way to get into the inner circle is to first get to know people casually by going to the same events – drinks, debates, hanging out in the bar – and only then try to get involved.”
On Union nepotism beyond Oxford, KD said: “People mostly get involved to network — it’s a good way to meet people who will be in power 30 years from now. Intergenerational connections are the way the people in power stay in power. Ex-Presidents often come to their Union even after university. Many of them continue to stay friends with other Union people long after graduation, they all move to London and socialise within the same circles. A lot of people get pulled into jobs by Union people they know. I feel that the Union network is a concentrated version of public school networks, and it’s still predominantly posh, white and male.”
RM spent much of my interview with him emphasising how inaccessible the circles he entered through the Union would have been to him otherwise: “A Union career gives you a lot of privilege, but at the same time, being an officer isn’t an easy job and in many cases, it’s a challenge just to make it through your term. So I’m not saying ex-Union people don’t deserve to be in the jobs they land, they just had a lot of legs up along the way and they come to disproportionately dominate institutions.”
Zooming in on the makeup of the past few Cabinets puts these sentiments on a more solid historical footing. Amongst the members of Rishi Sunak’s cabinet are 3 former Oxford Union Presidents (Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; Mel Stride, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions; and Jeremy Quin, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General), as well as 2 former Cambridge Union Presidents (Lucy Frazer, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State for Development and Africa). As far as other Oxbridge political cliques go, Jeremy Hunt, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, served as OUCA President in his time at Oxford; OUCA’s Cambridge counterpart, CUCA, boasts two former Chairs (Suella Braverman, Home Secretary, and Greg Hands, Minister without Portfolio — the latter also served on the Cambridge Union committee) in Cabinet. Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is said to have been involved in conservative student politics to the extent that her time at Oxford was cut short by her academic performance being sabotaged by “extracurricular activities”. In Liz Truss’ short-lived cabinet — in addition to Coffey, Hunt and Braverman — Jacob Rees-Mogg served as Librarian of the Oxford Union before being defeated for the office of President, and Simon Clarke and Graham Stuart chaired OUCA and CUCA respectively.
Somewhat unexpectedly, whilst Boris Johnson himself is one of the Union’s most notorious alumni, his premiership’s cabinets look almost like a hack-free oasis compared with Sunak’s. The familiar names Hunt, Gove and Rees-Mogg are joined only by Nicky Morgan, Baroness of Cotes, who served as Oxford Union Treasurer, but, like Rees-Mogg, lost her presidential bid later on. Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May appointed two former Oxford Union Presidents (Damian Green and Damian Hinds) and one former CUCA chairman (David Lidlington) to her cabinet. Going another Prime Minister back, the years of the Cameron-Clegg coalition were a good time to be an ex-student politico in Parliament; five Cabinet members (William Hague, ex-Oxford Union President; Kenneth Clarke and Vince Cable, both ex-Cambridge Union Presidents; Baron Young, who served on the Standing Committee of the Oxford Union; and, finally, Dominic Grieve, former OUCA President) started their political careers at Oxbridge.
My conversations with the former committee members I interviewed for this article were insightful, but hardly eye-opening. Everything they said was the sort of thing an Oxford student gets used to very quickly, and it takes a while after hearing them before their mind can take a break from the echo chamber of the Oxford normal. As has been abundantly demonstrated by the likes of Boris Johnson, the Oxford Union is categorically unfit to continue to serve as the factory of Britain’s ruling class — it is, at its core, resistant to reform, has been slow to catch up with societal progress and, in many ways, has done so only performatively. It is an institution whose prestige has done society more harm than good, and, unless we want our future politicians trained at the Oxford Union school of nepotism, something needs to change.