Debate: ‘does Oxford produce good British Prime Ministers?’

A training ground for outstanding national leaders or producer of the unrepresentative and out of touch? Ben Evans and Ellen Peirson-Hagger go head to head

Wikipedia

Yes: Ben Evans 

Unfortunately the sheer number of Oxonian Prime ministers forecloses a comparative answer to this question. Instead we need to examine the particular benefits an Oxford education provides for a Prime Minister and, by extension, the country as whole. Of these, three are especially significant.

The first is a sharpening of the intellect. Oxford’s selection process is perhaps the most rigorous in the UK, ensuring that we receive the most accomplished students. But, having done so, the University does not let them rest upon their laurels – it subjects them to rigorous intellectual scrutiny, forcing them to develop and defend their own ideas via tutorials. This high intensity personal debate is the best possible way to develop the kind of mental agility, negotiation skills and reasoning capacity which are invaluable assets to a Prime Minister, both in policy deliberation and international diplomacy. Furthermore, the tutorial system, being unique to Oxbridge, provides experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Even when we move beyond the tutorial, Oxford overflows with opportunities for debate, whether in the Union or one of many student societies.

An Oxford education does not only improve one’s raw mental capacity, it also provides would-be Prime Ministers with the wisdom of the foremost academics in their field. Prime Ministers have policy advisors, but given they must make the final decisions (and given advisors may say what PMs wish to hear) the benefits for decision making of a PM with strong grounding in economic theory, law, politics or ethics cannot be overestimated. Not all Oxford PM’s have studied relevant subjects (Thatcher studied Chemistry, for instance); however Oxford provides other means to gain political insight – most notably via the range of influential speakers attracted to the University by its reputation, or their status as alumni.

Finally, Oxford also provides an environment in which highly gifted individuals interact with similarly talented individuals with different views. This has two effects on potential future PMs. First, they realise they are not infallible. Ordinarily, intelligent individuals, when left as large fish in small ponds, face the real danger of succumbing to arrogance, of believing that because they are better informed or smarter than those they know, they are categorically correct; a trait which leads to disastrous overconfidence, stubbornness and refusal to listen when in power. For such a person to be transplanted into Oxford, there to be surrounded by those of comparable or greater skills, to have their arguments rebutted by their fellows or their views dissected by an adroit tutor, is at once to instill in them the knowledge that they are not superior.

When this is coupled with the diversity of opinion the Oxford student is likely to encounter, students are encouraged to be careful in forming their own beliefs and intellectually considerate in responding to those of others. This may be part of the explanation for why British PMs have tended to moderation, with parties co-opting the successful elements of one another’s programme (examples of which include Macmillan’s ‘Middle Way’, Blair’s ‘Third Way’). This sort of politics, based on evidential and pragmatic considerations rather than rigid ideology, has proven both efficacious and popular.

Before we can conclude, two arguments of the opposition need be dealt with. The first is the idea that Oxford makes PM’s who are ‘out of touch’ and unrepresentative. This is quite simply irrelevant. What matters for good governance is the ability to govern well; to effectively implement beneficial policy. Being aware of the price of a pint or the average weekly household spend on groceries is neither here nor there. As for not representing the public; it is absurd to suppose that any single individual can possibly accomplish such a feat, quite aside from representativeness having negligible influence on quality of governance.

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The second argument is the idea that Oxonian PMs gain power through connection rather than merit. This is an extremely difficult argument to quantify. If, as I have argued, Oxford gathers together intelligent people and then endows them with still greater intellectual resources, they are bound to do well. If they have similar interests, they will do well alongside one another. Even with no connection based advancement (and I don’t doubt it does exist to some degree) the opponents of Oxford would find everything they claim is a symptom for university based nepotism: but a symptom that exists regardless of the presence of the disease is, in truth, not a symptom at all.

Oxford’s detractors claim that the reason for Oxford’s Prime Ministerial success is that the political game has been rigged in its favour. But the simple truth is that it is Oxford that produces the best players; Prime Ministers who have established the welfare state, decolonised the Empire, reined in inflation, nurtured the modern service economy and much more besides. Oxford does not produce good Prime Ministers, it produces great ones.

No: Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The context of a Prime Minister’s education is most often Oxford, and the recent context is often PPE. It is ridiculous to believe that one singular university, no matter a single course, could produce countless Prime Ministers perfectly fit for a job which is so diverse and challenging.

This trend goes back as far as 1742, to Spencer Compton, Britain’s second ever Prime Minister, who studied at Trinity College. The fact that this trend continues almost 400 years later is, at best, out-dated. At worst, it proves the narrow-minded, stubborn and unwilling nature of our system to confront change.

Simply, the vast array of leadership, diplomatic, and practical thinking skills that have always been required from a leader cannot possibly stem from just one institution, for they are skills which combine talent and inherent character, alongside aspects that can be nurtured in an academic environment. On top of this, the role of a Prime Minister has changed massively over these 400 years. To say that Oxford, a singular institution, continuously develops these changing requirements in students is implausible.

Oxford is renowned as an institution which teaches its students to think independently, negotiating difficult courses and extreme amounts of work in little time. As Ben discusses, the tutorial system encourages students to think and communicate clearly. Whilst Ben is not wrong to state that an Oxford education improves one’s raw mental capacity (or so a student paying such an amount in tuition fees here would like to believe), one’s intelligence is not proven by attending Oxford, nor is it the only characteristic needed to be a ‘good’ PM. In fact, the key characteristic that aligns Oxford students is an incessant interest in their subject, above all. A PM, on the other hand, should be practical, fast, and knowledgeable of a wide variety of areas.

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Even more relevant are the people by whom any student is surrounded. If only 53.8 per cent of Oxford’s 2015 undergraduate offers to UK students went to students from state schools, yet 93 per cent of all school students in the country attend state schools, Oxford is not truly representative of the UK. If black students make up just one per cent of Oxford’s undergraduate body, yet more than two per cent of the UK’s population, Oxford, again, is not a true representation of our country. Perhaps this would be a different argument if the members of the University who went on to become PMs were actively aware of Oxford’s inequalities during their time here. But when David Cameron (PPE, Brasenose) was a member of the Bullingdon Club, known for its members making the very most of their place at the top of the social hierarchy, it is clear that the elitist society which prevails in much of Oxford does not often stir revolutionary fires against injustice in the souls of wannabe PMs.

Being academically rich and intellectually curious is not the same as being culturally or socially aware. This narrow university field is not limited to PMs. A laughably high number of nine of the total 22 MPs in the current cabinet are Oxford alumni. Six of these nine studied PPE. All six are white; all but one, male. This lack of diversity saturates Oxford too and is part of the perpetual cycle of this tight hierarchical political bubble that, after 400 years, we have still not escaped.

Ben refers to the Oxford Union, a political bubble within the Oxford bubble, as a means of practising debate, presumably in advance of the jeering of Parliament and the corrupt “it’s who you know” elitism that exists at the top of the Conservative Party, in particular. It is clear that this aspect of the University is emulated in our political system. When so many would argue that the misogynistic, childish behaviour of individuals during PMQs is one of the things requiring most change within our system, this is one of the clearest examples as to why Oxford does not produce ‘good’ PMs. If we teach them to do here what they so rightly lose dignity and respect for during their careers, we are teaching them nothing ‘good’.

Ultimately, it cannot be said that Oxford produces ‘good’ Prime Ministers: our university is no manufacturing plant for humans of the best all-round pedigree. The fact of the matter is that for a Prime Minister and for a cabinet to be ‘good’, both must be representative of the people of a country. Until prospective Prime Ministers realise that studying PPE at Oxford should not be their singular path, this will continue as one vicious, narrow-minded circle.

Perhaps it is the 27 Nobel Prize winners who are Oxford alumni, rather than the 26 Prime Ministers, whom we should celebrate.

2 COMMENTS

  1. It’s a bit difficult to analyse the arguments when the opening facts are wrong, and thus perhaps the person was very informed to begin with.

    “The context of a Prime Minister’s education is most often Oxford, and the recent context is often PPE…”

    The first part was correct but the second demonstrated how brainwashed the author was. Throughout history, only THREE PMs read PPE, and the last before David Cameron was elected in 1974, 42 years ago! There were 5 prime ministers between them and none read PPE (2 did go to Oxford).

    Dr Brown went to Edinburgh University for history (both his MA and PhD).

    Adv Blair went to Oxford for law (a BA).

    Sir John Major never went to university.

    Baroness Thatcher went to Oxford for chemistry (a BA).

    Baron Callaghan never went to university.

    Now we’re back all the way to 1974-1976, when lecturer Baron Wilson was elected prime minister. He was offered to read history and then changed to PPE.

    The other PPEer in history? Sir Edward Heath.

    To say PPE is the discipline studied in “recent context”, you will have to say “recent” meant 1970-2016, and even then only 12 of those years were Britain under a PPE graduate, or only 3 out of a total of 8 prime ministers. 26% and 38% respectively.

    1970-2016 (“recent”)
    PPE – 12 years
    Chemistry – 11 years
    Law/no university – 10 years each
    History – 3 years

    PPE – 3 PMs
    No uni – 2 PMs

    Then of course, no-one uses “recent” to mean “the last half of a century”. Normal usage of the word in the context would probably mean 20 years or the last 4 PMs. Law ruled in the last 20 years and no discipline has been repeated for the last 4 PMs.

    Although of course the author meant the last 10 years then in 6 they were ruled by a PPEist, the SAME person, or 3 PMs who studied different disciplines.

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