David Cameron's appointment has increased the number of Oxford-educated British prime ministers to 26, writes Richard Lofthouse

If the tally of prime ministers morphed into the boat race, Oxford would be ahead by several lengths, with 26 to Cambridge's 14. There's even a reserve candidate pushing the Oxonian total to a theoretical 27: William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath (Christ Church 1700), conventionally discounted because he served only two days in office. Throw in 30-plus world leaders, yet the absence of a Harvard-style School of government (until now), and we're left with various explanations as to why Oxford prevails in politics. These range from the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) course to the debating Union, political clubs, royal connection and geography, plus long-standing strengths in classics, history and law.

The big picture is one of Oxbridge dominance. Of 54 serving PMs, beginning with Sir Robert Walpole (1676—1745), 41 went to Oxbridge, 10 attended no university and three went to other universities (Earl Russell, Neville Chamberlain and Gordon Brown, to Edinburgh, Birmingham and Edinburgh respectively). At the heart of Oxbridge is a tutorial/supervision system that encourages debate and in arts subjects requires students to construct what are, in effect, rudimentary speeches, laying down sustained arguments pulled together at speed with limited knowledge. However, this famous teaching method does not explain why Oxonian PMs outnumber Cantabrian ones by such a large margin.

“We also need to explain why Oxford has produced so many MPs, from which prime ministers have been drawn,” says Richard Jarman, Oxford's Head of Government and Community Relations. He's right. If you skim through Dod's Guide to the 2010 General Election, Oxford is prominent, counting over 100 MPs compared to a Cambridge total in the region of 50, allowing for the fact that a handful of MPs don't list their education and others went to both universities.

The core cabinet of the current coalition is somewhat more evenly weighted, but not by much. Of 21 ministers, 14 are Oxbridge, but the ratio is 3:2 Oxford to Cambridge, while six out of nine Oxonians took their undergraduate degrees in PPE.

Modern greats

Initially dubbed 'Modern Greats', the PPE degree emerged at Balliol in the 1920s, its author and principal champion Alexander Lindsay (Master of Balliol, 1924—49). In 1938 he contested the Oxford by-election, losing to Conservative candidate Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham). A climacteric in the history of Oxford politics, it also demonstrated Balliol's dominance: 34/150 Union presidents between 1900 and 1950 were Balliol men (the second-largest contributing college was Christ Church, with 17, then Trinity with seven). Three of this year's Labour party leadership candidates took PPE at Oxford, leading the BBC to dub it “a form of educational freemasonry”. Even though hundreds of colleges and universities now offer similar degrees, PPE remains synonymous with Oxford and is certainly part of the answer to the broader question.

Oxford's dominance of British politics is much older than the dazzling sequence that starts with Asquith and Attlee and ends with Heath, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, however. Eleven Oxonian premiers were born in the 18th century, and although few of these dusty-wigged gents are household names, they established the broader context of Oxford's political out-performance.

Peers' privilege

In the 18th century, the office of prime minister had not yet attained its modern form. Despite the trimming of royal power in the 1689 Bill of Rights following the Civil War and Restoration, the first minister remained a servant of the king, while the Commons still deferred to the Lords. 'Party' government, let alone post-Marx distinctions of 'left' and 'right', still lay in the future. If William Pitt the Elder was the first Oxonian prime minister of real stature, information on his predecessors is difficult to source. The first Oxonian PM, Spencer Compton (Trinity 1690), attended St Paul's school, then Middle Temple and Trinity, and was described by a contemporary as “a plodding, heavy fellow, with a great application, but no talents”. Anyone for plum pudding?

Oxford's role in producing ministers was also unique. In the 18th century, a university degree was less of a prerequisite for entering politics than being the son of a peer, studying law and embarking on a Grand Tour. Oxford was part of the mix, not the defining moment. The so-called 'peers' privilege' meant that sons of lords could attend Oxford for a set number of terms (sometimes breaking off for travel) and then walk away with an MA conferred without exams. At the centre of it all were Eton and Christ Church.

Just consider the following stats. Of 19 future prime ministers who attended Eton, 13 went to Oxford and nine of those went to Christ Church. The four who struck out on their own, if that phrase means anything in such a narrow context, were William Pitt the Elder; Frederick, Lord North; Harold Macmillan and David Cameron, who attended Trinity, Trinity, Balliol and Brasenose respectively.

Of course, the gilded link between Eton and Christ Church no longer exists, unless we pin everything on the Right Honourable Member of Parliament for North West Hampshire, Sir George Young (Eton/Christ Church, PPE 1963). “Yes, there was still this Brideshead element when I attended,” says Karl Sternberg (Christ Church 1988). “But it was a very atomistic place,” he recalls, “there was no class faction and it wasn't at all a closed shop.” He insists that it is the atmosphere of tolerance, dissent, individualism and self-sufficiency demanded by the tutorial system that furnishes a larger part of the modern answer — Oxonians self-select before they even get in — that's why they go on to do well.

But we do not need to be coy about the historical importance of Eton and Oxford to each other. Both occupy Thameside locations, the 18th century's answer to the M40 at a time when all the royal residences — St James's Palace; Hampton Court; Windsor — scattered westwards from Buckingham house (later Palace, acquired by George III in 1762). Henry I chose Oxford for Beaumont Palace. Richard the Lion-Heart was born in the city. Elizabeth I was imprisoned in Woodstock Manor. The colleges supported Charles I in the Civil War. George III was Eton's greatest patron after its founder, Henry VI, and never left southern England, attending a spa in Cheltenham. For all these reasons and more, David Butler, psephologist and emeritus fellow of Nuffield College, is in no doubt. “The reasons for Oxford's large number of prime ministers are twofold,” he says, “Eton and geography.” He adds, “Oxford was simply a more convenient place for the rich and powerful to send their sons.”

Privilege ends

There's a broader confusion over politics, Oxford and the emergence of meritocracy. If, like this writer, you attended Oxford in the last quarter of the 20th century, there was an unwritten assumption that Wilson, Heath and Thatcher were part of an inevitable tide away from privilege. It started with Ramsay McDonald, the illegitimate son of a farm labourer and a housemaid, who became the first Labour prime minister in 1924. Privilege ended, says Douglas Hurd, with Sir Alec Douglas-Home's arrival at number 10 in 1963, “the last flowering of a highly sympathetic tradition of political service based on a mixture of patriotic duty, personal ambition and inherited land”. The comment is diluted by the election of Cameron, a direct descendant of King William IV as well as an Old Etonian. Yet the broader historical point concerns the terrifically English manner by which low birth was no obstacle to high office long before the rise of the Labour party; and also the degree to which there was a long tail of privilege.

Self-described as an “Irishman born in London”, the brilliant George Canning (Christ Church 1787), whose impecunious mother turned to acting to pay the bills, was an outsider turned insider. Rescued by a wealthy relative, he was a brilliant success at Eton and Oxford. His famous couplet, “Pitt is to Addington / As London is to Paddington” betrays his outsider status as much as it pinpoints Addington's minor gentry social origin. As for the 'peers' privilege', it died only slowly. Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, electorally the most successful Conservative leader of the 19th century, as well as the most fearful of democracy, was awarded an honorary fourth class in mathematics before claiming the privilege of founder's kin to enter All Souls. Douglas-Home (Christ Church 1922) was awarded only a 'gentleman's third' in history in 1925, put down to illness and champagne. none of which undermines Simon Jenkins' point in Thatcher & Sons, that Oxford “was a citadel of meritocracy”.

Meritocracy's rise

Barred from the Union by gender, Thatcher (Somerville 1943) instead became president of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Yet the debating union ('the Union') retains a powerful if controversial role in producing prime ministers, among them several true heavyweights, including Gladstone, Salisbury, Asquith and Macmillan. There are at least five ex-Oxford Union presidents currently in parliament, ranging from William Hague to Alan Duncan, suggesting continued strength.

Political biographer Richard Thorpe, who recently published a new biography of Harold Macmillan, argues to the contrary that “the list of PMs who had nothing to do with the Union is as great or greater than the list who did — it includes Rosebery, Attlee, Eden, Home, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron”.

Polarising and controversial as the Union continues to be (Shirley Williams commented that it was good training for parliament because both institutions were “dotty, out-of-date gentleman's clubs”), it mimicked parliament and, according to Macmillan, “provided an unrivalled training ground for debates in the parliamentary style”. For most of its Victorian heyday, it was an extension of a vibrant, self-electing club culture at the great public schools, especially Eton. It also housed a superb library that fed Clement Attlee, even though he never once entered the debating chamber.

Macmillan (Balliol 1912) also joined the Liberal Club, the Conservative Club and the Fabian Society. There was a Canning Club, a Chatham Club, and later the Labour Club (which Hugh Gaitskell joined to support the general Strike in 1926) and a Conservative Association. There were hundreds of other college clubs that came and went much as they do today, gaining traction one minute and sliding away the next.

Yet the role of 'Oxford' precedes the role of any club in producing future prime ministers. The Union's greatest president, Gladstone, in 1830, was a superb orator before he came up to Oxford. Like countless other future presidents, he had the gift of boundless self-belief. At its centenary dinner in 1924, one Union member wrote: “Everyone felt that it was only some extraordinary accident that had prevented all of us becoming archbishops, premiers and Lord Chancellors.”

As the 20th-century University's historian Brian Harrison says, becoming prime minister “is about self-belief and thinking that you're better than everyone else, not getting a first”. Cameron's first is unusual in this regard — although Harold Wilson got one and so did Peel and Gladstone. Thatcher, Heath and Blair all earned second-class degrees, while plenty of their forebears flunked, Heath only rising to the presidency of the Union because of an organ scholarship that gave him a fourth year of campaigning.

Classics and politics

Why did the Union member dream of “archbishops, premiers and Lord Chancellors” rather than “scientists, bankers and mathematicians”? It wasn't that Oxford spurned science — it was the birthplace in the 1650s of the Royal Society, after all. Rather, it was that statecraft demanded legal training, classics and history. Oxford obliged, attesting a political culture that continues to the present and is not separate from the 'generalist' qualities sought in PPE.

Sir Robert Peel achieved a double first that included unfashionable mathematics — a feat Gladstone exceeded in 1831 only by dint of cramming, having left Eton proficient in Greek and Latin, competent in French, with bare adequacy in mathematics and “largely ignorant of the sciences”. Hating Eton and Oxford, William Pitt the Elder sent his son to Pembroke, Cambridge, where although he “read extensively in the classics and English literature, he became interested in chemistry and was fascinated by Newton's Principia”. Thatcher really was unusual in this regard. She studied chemistry at Somerville and before becoming an MP researched ice-cream preservatives.

Says biographer Thorpe, “You can't generalise, but Oxford is simply more worldly. Cambridge is fenland; it's more scientific and in the 1920s and 1930s it's Rutherford splitting the atom. Oxford was always easier to get to from London.” You have to get to Attlee's Dictionary of National Biography entry before reading a single mention of east London, and thus proximity to the great Cambridge Road, today's A10. There is a Yes Minister joke about Oxford having two motorways to Cambridge's one because so many civil servants needed to get home at the weekend. The hearsay, like the geography, is cumulative, just as George III's preference for southern England is indistinguishable from Oxford's ascendancy in the 1700s. Oxford is not Cambridge — and it's the more political of the two universities.