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Book Review – Specials: Chums: How A Tiny Caste Of Oxford Tories Take Over The UK by Simon Kuper

Book Review – Specials: Chums: How A Tiny Caste Of Oxford Tories Take Over The UK by Simon Kuper


Book: Chums: How a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK

Author: Simon Kuper

Editor: Profile

Price: 1,399

Simon Kupers’ book on the pernicious influence of caste is both provocative and richly entertaining. But the caste he has in mind is a subset of the privileged who went to Eton and Oxford where they used the universities to debate society as preparation for high office.

The clue is in the title Chums: How a tiny caste of Oxford Tories took over the UK. His thesis is that Brexit was hatched in Oxford in the late 1980s and the book is an attempt to write a group portrait of a set of Tory Brexiteers, mostly men from the traditional ruling caste who have borrowed a old route through Oxford to power.

Kuper claims his book is not another biography of Boris Johnson, but the former prime minister is clearly the villain of the article. The author argues, Etons mission [is] to produce the ruling class and that from 1900 to 1979 almost a quarter of all ministers had been at Eton.

Kuper is not the first man from Oxford to take a pop at his foster mother but his reproach is that the Tories of Oxford and especially the Etonians among them have been fabricated by many forces besides Oxford. They had been groomed for power from childhood, and that [t]ory Brexiteers were a minority even among Oxford politicians in the 1980s. For him, Oxford matters too, as an independent variable. The proof of this is that it is possible to tell the story of British politics over the past twenty-five years almost without reference to any other university. I will argue in this book that if Johnson, [Michael] Go on, [Daniel] Hannan, Dominic Cummings and [Jacob] Rees-Mogg had received rejection letters from Oxford at the age of seventeen, we would probably never have had a Brexit. He says: It is impossible, when speaking of the Oxford Conservatives, to disentangle the overlapping influences of caste, school and university.

Kuper is less critical of Cambridge, but his drastic solution is to get rid of all undergraduate students at Oxbridge and turn Britain’s two main universities into postgraduate-only institutions. This, he says, would remove the biggest distortion of Oxbridge in British life.

It’s not an idea likely to appeal to generations of Indians and Pakistanis with idyllic memories of their days in Oxbridge. Jawaharlal Nehru was at Trinity College, Cambridge, as were Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi. Indira Gandhi was briefly at Somerville College, Oxford. Imran Khan and Benazir Bhutto were contemporaries at Oxford. Benazirs’ father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, both attended Christ Church, Oxford.

Not all of Kupers’ observations should be taken seriously, but the book is a lot of fun. Perhaps he is right when he says that the boys who went to the best British public schools grew up with a positive view of British colonial rule because the history of the Empire…was personal aux tofs… Ten of India’s twenty viceroys went to Oxford.

Incidentally, the two candidates battling to replace Johnson Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss both read PPE at Oxford.




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