Cooper, Kendall and Burnham may have grown up in different parts of the country and represent diverse constituencies, but if it’s hard to separate them in your head, it may be because it’s hard to separate them on paper: they all spent a critical moment in their lives at either Oxford or Cambridge, an experience that furnished them not just with a degree, but with friends and allies and future colleagues. A unifying experience that inducted them into an elite club and set them down the path their adult lives have taken, propelling them to the thinktanks (Cooper, Kendall) and special adviser positions (Burnham) that were the stepping stones to the safe seats they occupy today.
This week their fellow leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn drew attention to one aspect of the issue, saying that Labour should set up a fund to help people on low incomes become MPs. “It is not enough to be for working people,” he said. “We have to be of working people as well.”
But the Oxbridge connection is more invidious than this and if it hasn’t been considered worthy of comment during the leadership contest, it’s in part because in Britain most people who do the commenting also went there. Oxbridge doesn’t just dominate the Palace of Westminster but an entire political class. From the politicians and the special advisers to the political editors, pundits and thinktankees, there’s a homogeneity of experience, of thinking, of networks, of power and of influence that has led to an in-crowd that doesn’t even recognise it’s an in-crowd. There’s arguably more that unites our political elite than divides them. The last election was a battle between one Oxford PPE graduate (Cameron) and another Oxford PPE graduate (Miliband).
Of course, if you believe Oxford and Cambridge are simply our two finest universities, that they take the brightest and the best, and it’s a matter of the natural order of things that their graduates should go on to govern us, none of this is a problem. But how can this be true? Just 7% of the population go to private schools and yet they take 44% of the places at Oxford, and 38% at Cambridge. What are we saying? That rich people are cleverer than the rest of us? That they’re more able? That they deserve to rule?
If Oxbridge were just about education, perhaps this wouldn’t matter: wealthier children get to study in smaller classes, in more scenic surroundings, with better facilities, and more resources when they’re at secondary school. We accept this as fair and right (or at least not so wrong and iniquitous as to make any government look at the charitable tax status of private schools that makes this possible). So what if they enjoy the same advantages for their university degrees?
But Oxbridge is the springboard into public life. It’s the means by which a privately educated elite consolidates its stranglehold on power, wealth, the City and the professions – and pretty much everything else: 82% of barristers went to Oxford or Cambridge, as did 78% of judges, 53% of top solicitors, and 45% of leading journalists, according to the Sutton Trust.
I think we knew it. As one of the remarks says, if they had done say maths or engineering then worked for say ICI that would be one thing but its the same PPE/researcher/SPAD /safe seat etc.
As I said Clegg/Cameron and Milliband have far more that joins than separates. By the way this isn’t sour grapes coz we didn’t go there. It’s unbelievably incestuous and cannot be good for democracy