While Boris Johnson may have lost his premiership in recent weeks, a fascinating and profoundly depressing new book by Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper reminds us of why the story behind the rise to power of Johnson and his circle matters. In Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, Kuper relates how Johnson and many in his cabinet started forming themselves into a powerful political caste while they were attending Oxford University in the 1980s. I attended my access course at Ruskin College Oxford in 1988, the year that Kuper and many of the key actors in his book ‘went up’ to Oxford as freshers, but while I met some of them, I was only dimly aware of what they were up to. Chums shows how this group of already privileged, largely privately educated and mainly male undergraduates were carefully building a network on the strong bonds of the private school system. They made connections with ministers in the Thatcher government and started preparing for future careers in right-of-centre think tanks which would ultimately allow them to become Conservative MPs a decade or so later. Reading Chums made clear that I wasn’t witnessing irrelevant student politics. These were deadly serious preparations for power.
Kuper’s view of this group reflects his position as both insider and outsider. Although he is a world-class journalist working on one of the best global papers, his origins are solidly middle-class, and he enjoyed a very good state schooling. As a writer, he looks in on the already sedimented social relationships rooted in a narrow slice of private schools that feed into Oxford. Kuper recalls going to interview David Cameron in 2010, before he became Prime Minister. Both men had attended the same university, and both had gained good degrees, yet Cameron effortlessly made clear their class difference:
The moment the fleshy-faced, expensively dressed David Cameron walked into the poky meeting room at Westminster, I looked up at him and he looked down at me, and we each clocked at a glance, as only Britons can: “He’s upper-class!” “He is middle-class!”. Cameron opened with an ice-breaker: “For the FT, is it? Is it How to Spend It?”. How to Spend It is the FT’s monthly luxury magazine, aimed at investment bankers and their spouses. I was not a regular reader. As I began to explain confusedly that I was actually writing for the main paper, Cameron interrupted. “I’m only joking”, he chortled. “My wife works for the Smythson’s. they’re always trying to get into How to Spend It. It’s like ‘the place to be’ if you are a luxury goods business”.
Kuper’s description captures an Etonian’s uncanny ability to soften entitlement with charm, and it is just one instance of class privilege that he includes in Chums. The book portrays a caste of people who just know they are born to rule. They embody such a sense of entitlement that they have naturalised it in their day-to-day encounters and in their approach to national politics.
But Chums doesn’t just reveal the elitism of the elite. It shows how class relations are like a game of Tic-tac-toe. Working-class people start off in such a position of inferiority that no matter how bright they are or how hard they work, they cannot win the game. For them to gain power, economically or politically, seems almost hopeless. The only way to do it requires sustained investment in preserving privilege that privately educated kids get pretty much from the get-go. It’s easy to come away from this book with a sense of despair.
But I do see some unexpected reasons for hope in the UK lately as union leaders have spoken out in a series of industrial disputes created by the cost-of-living crisis. Rail Maritime & Transport (RMT) General secretary Mike Lynch’s media appearances have developed something of a cult following. Nadine Houghton of the GMB union has also gained attention speaking on behalf of baggage handlers at Heathrow who are seeking to have their pay restored to pre-Covid pandemic levels after British Airways cut it by 10% in 2020. Both have offered sound economic, social, and moral arguments. Even better, they use the language of class unapologetically. Their surefooted dealings with hostile media and conservative politicians show them to be confident, highly articulate advocates who are on top of their briefs – unlike the almost completely ignorant middle-class commentariat. Along with effective public speakers, unions are also gaining support because ordinary people get the class dynamics at work when elites in the media and politics attempt to set ‘union barons’ against ‘normal people’. Books like Kuper’s help create that awareness.
This could be a really important time for the revival in centre left politics in the UK, if only the Labour Party would get on board. Unfortunately, the Labour Party doesn’t seem certain that supporting the cause of working people will win them votes, though shadow cabinet member David Lammy was criticised for not supporting workers at Heathrow. He made a rapid ‘U’ turn hours later. Labour wants to be seen as above industrial disputes, but the likes of Lynch and Houghton have shown that being prepared to explain and defend workers can gain both support and, potentially, votes.
As depressing as it can be to read Chums, it’s worth remembering that the Oxford experience Kuper describes is over three decades old. As he notes, recruitment is more diverse now, and expectations on undergraduates are higher than in his day. Things may well be changing. Instead of fighting on a field chosen by the rich and powerful, the progressive working-class seems to be setting out a popular agenda that even Labour can support.
Tim Strangleman, University of Kent