Is It Still Worth Climbing the Greasy Pole of Oxford Politics?

Reproduced from the Huffington Post:

Aside from yet another tedious round of Oxbridge bashing, the BBC’s new series ‘Young, Bright and On the Right’ fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our Oxbridge-educated political elite.

There indeed used to be a time when climbing up the greasy pole of Oxford politics promised ‘glittering prizes’ to those fierce and ambitious enough to brave it. William Gladstone famously captivated the debate chamber of the Oxford Union in vociferous opposition to the impending 1832 Great Reform Act. He would go on to become President, before entering Parliament a year after his graduation. Asquith and Heath would similarly come to dominate Westminster via ascendancy of the Oxford Union.

This is plainly the path to power that Chris and Joe, the Tory boys, have in mind. Unfortunately that path, however well worn, is disintegrating.

Glancing at today’s ‘big beasts’ it admittedly doesn’t seem so. BoJo, whose flirtations with the Tory crown have almost induced Tory backbenchers to orgasm, was a Union President. And William Hague established himself by achieving the elusive Oxford ‘triple’: President of the Union, the Conservative Association and First Class Honours in PPE. Command of student politics still sets one up nicely for the big-boy stuff, it seems.

Michael Heseltine at the Union, President in Michaelmas ’54. Photograph: popperfoto

However the trend is moving firmly in the other direction. Consider today’s leaders of both Left and Right: Cameron, Osborne and Miliband. All at Oxford, and all wholly withdrawn from the murky world of student politics. The reasons for their detachment vary. Cameron preferred chasing girls and playing tennis, with success in both. Miliband was just a bit square (reportedly his fame as a student rested on being able to solve a Rubik’s cube in 30 seconds). Osborne was simply an awful hack. Before entering Parliament he had only contested one prior election, for Magdalen College JCR Entz Rep. He lost.

But they all had one thing in common: connections. These were of differing types and natures, but all made it to the despatch box by utilising them.

Cameron infamously received his first job at the Conservative Research Department following a call of recommendation from Buckingham Palace (who placed the call is pure speculation). Osborne secured a similar job after a tip-off from a friend. And in the Hampstead suburbs in which the Milibands were left-wing aristocracy, Ed had no trouble pursuing the Special Adviser route into politics.

Oxford matters of course, but not in the way Chris and Joe think. The Bullingdon matters. Cultivating the right friendships matters. College alumni can be helpful. Most of all though the attributes of family wealth, a baronetcy and private education all spawn a prodigious network of contacts that far outweighs the social assets accumulated at the dwindling political societies. I know of three people – no doubt there are more – who have got their foot in the door by exploiting contacts. One received an internship at CCHQ through his brother’s girlfriend; another spent a fortnight in Downing Street courtesy of her father, a prominent Tory donor and the third shadowed a Cabinet Minister who was a close family acquaintance. None hold any position at OCA or the Union.

Tomorrow’s Camerons and Osbornes already have their future figured out, even if the exact details haven’t yet fallen into place. They don’t need CUCA or OCA for fulfil their aspirations in the acute sense that Chris and Joe feel they do. So they don’t bother going. And anyway, a litany of scandals (resulting in OCA being stripped by the University if its ‘U’) has depleted the kudos that would otherwise come with being OCA President. Consequently the Oxford Tories I know are a generally unambitious bunch. They enjoy the company of those of similar political persuasion and mutual acquaintance, but are immediately suspicious of attempts to use the Association as a ‘platform’ from which to launch a political career. Joe, a former President of OCA, is seen by his contemporaries in precisely this light.

So Chris and Joe, do carry on moving in Tory circles, squeezing the flesh of fellow hacks. But don’t expect political fortune to come your way. In 21st century Britain the networks of power bypass mere clubs and societies. If you haven’t had the good sense to be born of good stock, there’s no making up for that by ingratiating yourselves to those who have.

And please, for your sakes, don’t go pleading your case on the BBC. It’ll be the last time you make it onto a television screen.

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