Eton mess

Towards the end of Chums, Simon Kuper draws a parallel between Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg et al, and an earlier political Oxbridge clique: the Cambridge spies of the 1930s. Similarly trusted on account of their schooling, confidence and air of breeding, similarly unworthy of that trust and similarly bound not so much by allegiance as by the power of their mutual certainties, the Cambridge Five nevertheless differed in one important respect: while both groups” betrayed Britain’s interests in the service of Moscow, the Brexiteers did it by mistake.” This line distils both the author’s voice — elegant, witty, economical — and his message: that it is absurd how much influence this tiny, moneyed circle has been able to wield, and deeply depressing.

Kuper’s story canters along. The plotting is meticulous and the conclusions are generally careful and well founded. The author begins by surveying the postwar “Oxocracy” (of the fifteen prime ministers since 1945, eleven went to Oxford, none to Cambridge), then settles on the constellation that arrived in the late 1980s, with a shared set of values, preoccupations and blind spots, before they sallied forth into British public life to reshape it in their own interests. These men were (Kuper quotes Rees-Mogg) “used to being educated in beautiful old buildings”, which left more than an aesthetic hangover, shaping everything from their type of patriotism to their winner-takes-all capitalism. Johnson famously defended inequality on the basis that, without it, there’d have been no Chatsworth. “Architecture is the most tangible element of the heritage that separated the toffs from everyone else”, Kuper writes. As one childhood friend of David Cameron’s says: “He is a real, proper Englishman, who would love to defend what he sees as the real England, but his real England is different to almost everyone else’s”.

These men entered adulthood with an intense nostalgia for empire – Kuper identifies the Etonian obsession with Jan Morris’s history of the British Empire, Heaven’s Command (1973), as the culprit – and a keen sense of British exceptionalism. As Johnson boasted, quite against the sporting spirit of inclusiveness, at the start of the Beijing Olympics in 2008: “Virtually every single one of our international sports were [sic] either invented or codified by the British”.

These kinds of attitudes alone could have laid the foundations for Brexit. But there was more: also from boarding school there derived the subordination of maths, the sciences, evidence and expertise in general to the primacy of rhetoric, debate and blagging. “Britain does have world-class scientists, engineers and quants”, Kuper writes, “but they are stuck in the engine room while the rhetoricians drive the train.” He amusingly describes the Oxford Union as “a kind of children’s House of Commons”. Following graduation, all this cohort needed was a selection of “Stooges, Votaries and Victims” – apparatchiks, cheerleaders and amanuenses – to do their bidding. After all, the author argues, you wouldn’t be able to build a working superiority narrative from going to Eton if everybody did.

It is at this point that Kuper’s argument veers off course. It is bizarre to claim that “if someone had polled undergraduates in the 1980s to guess who would be ruling Britain in the 2020s, I suspect most would have named Johnson, Gove and Rees-Mogg”. The prevailing wind among young intellectuals across tertiary education at that time was extremely anti-Tory, and these men would have cut ridiculous and rebarbative figures to many of their contemporaries. My own memory of the more performative poshos from when I attended Oxford (shortly after Kuper’s subjects graduated) was that they seemed at sea. There were many aspects of life – women, beer, supermarkets, nuance – they couldn’t cope with at all. The only respect in which they seemed fully formed was their resilience, or hardness, the result of having been raised not in “homes where they are loved unconditionally”, as Kuper writes, but “in institutions where they are valued for their looks and achievements “. (See also Richard Beard’s recent book about boarding-school culture and its effects, Sad Little Men). Implicitly, throughout, Kuper concludes that Etonians are more focused than the average Joe on looking good and achieving; But you don’t need to be a psychotherapist to understand that growing up in such an atmosphere is as likely to foster a sense of emptiness as it is one of diligence or ambition.

The author’s credulity about the idea that privilege universally and inevitably confers certainty, superiority, class solidarity and a horror of tedious things such as evidence prevents him from asking searching questions about the many exceptions. If Oxford at this juncture spawned Brexiteers, how did Cameron and George Osborne fetch up on the opposite side? If science students were sidelined at public school and, in 1980s Oxford, “mocked as ‘Northern chemists’”, this didn’t seem to put them off – many world-class scientists went to both boarding school and Oxford. And what about that well-known and often comic trope of the public-school leftie? It is asking a lot of any thesis for it to precludes, yet Kuper seems unwilling to consider the exception range of personae and political leanings that this kind of education produces, as though that would harm his case. I’m not sure it would, because what he’s essaying is not a scientific proof, but something much more impressionistic and fun. No single institution created the chumocracy, but all these institutions created bubbles in which its fantasies could survive.

While Kuper is perhaps more charmed by his subjects’ rhetorical panache than might be warranted, he draws a convincing portrait of this elite as a collective cipher, seeking power for power’s sake, devoid of either ideological heft or a sense of genuine civic duty. But that is essentially delinquency, and the restraint of hooligans is, or at least used to be, commonly understood to be society’s job. Perhaps what I’m asking for is a sequel. Simon Kuper makes a convincing case that Eton and Oxford created this chumocracy – but which institutions failed to stop them?

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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