Viewed as a Varsity match, Theresa May’s ascent to the top office is another thumping victory for Oxford.
By Richard Lofthouse
Then Theresa Brasier, the future Prime Minister, read geography at St Hugh’s, matriculating in 1974. She is the 27th Oxonian Prime Minister, the last three being her predecessor David Cameron (Brasenose, 1988); Tony Blair (St John’s, 1972) and of course Margaret Thatcher (Somerville, 1943). She is also the second female Prime Minister.
By contrast, in the whole history of Prime Ministers going back to Spencer Compton (Trinity, 1690), Prime Minister in 1742-3, Cambridge have only managed 14. If this contest morphed into the boat race, Oxford would be ahead by several lengths and still pulling away.
If we look at May’s freshly picked Cabinet, Oxford remains dominant with 7 Oxonian ministers (including May) versus 4 Cantabrians. The Oxonians are: Philip Hammond (Univ, 1974, PPE); Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1983, Classics); Damian Green (Balliol, 1974, PPE); Jeremy Hunt (Magdalen, 1985, PPE); Liz Truss (Merton, 1993, PPE) and David Gauke (St Edmund Hall, 1990, Law).
Much has already been said about the meritocratic nature of the talent represented in May’s Cabinet, dubbed by some ‘May’s state school Cabinet’. Of the seven Oxonian ministers now in government, five went to state school, the two exceptions being Boris Johnson (Eton) and Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse).
Two of those ministers have local connections to Oxford: Justice Minister Liz Truss was born there, while May partly grew up in nearby Wheatley, the village where her father was vicar. Of all the schools attended by the new ministers, May’s is the most interesting, because it was one of a handful of surviving grammar schools, Holton Park Girls (today a secondary school Academy).
Numerous Oxford alumni have cried: bring back the grammar schools. As a solution to feared ‘declining standards’ in British education over the years, this response has been thick in the pile of monthly letters received by the editor. As a reminder to the younger audience, a grammar school is a state-funded school but selective on the basis of academic merit. From 1944, when it began, you sat the dreaded 11 Plus exam, typically at the age of ten as you neared the end of primary school. If you passed, off you went to a grammar school and a great future. If you failed it, off you went to an uncertain future at a comprehensive school. The whole thing was considered barbaric by some, typically on the left of the political spectrum, and the 11 Plus system was largely dismantled in the 1960s and 70s. In fact the Prime Minister’s own grammar school ended its grammar status while she was a pupil there. Yet in a very British manner, 164 grammar schools remain and many have done well.
The other notable Oxonian themes of May’s cabinet are the continuing dominance of Balliol College (Johnson and Green); but more so the dominance of PPE, or Politics, Philosophy and Economics, (Hammond, Green, Hunt and Truss). Often imitated but seldom equaled, this curio degree emerged at Balliol in the 1920s, its author and principal champion Alexander Lindsay (Master of Balliol, 1924-49). Six out of nine Oxonian Ministers in Cameron’s first Cabinet were also PPE-ists, so this subject is on a roll. The greatest disappointment is no historians, (although Home Secretary Amber Rudd read history at Edinburgh) and May’s own choice of geography will produce grins among those who saw it as a soft subject; however, her second class degree (at a time when the second class wasn’t sub-divided) puts her in good company – Thatcher, Heath and Blair all earned second-class degrees. As Oxford’s twentieth century politics expert Professor Sir Brian Harrison noted once, becoming Prime Minster “is about self-belief and thinking that you’re better than everyone else, not getting a first.”
As for the bigger question ‘why has Oxford done so well at politics?’, there are numerous answers rooted in history, the subject of a previous feature (www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk, see back issues, Michaelmas 2010, p26: First Among Equals). One answer that the Prime Minister would approve of, is geography. Historically, there was a magic corridor at a time when the River Thames was the watery equivalent of the M40: it connected Eton to Christ Church. Equally important was the westward fling of royal patronage, which spread from St James’s Palace to Hampton Court to Windsor. Another answer is Oxford’s excelling (historically) in law and classics and history, and then in the 20thcentury in PPE. Finally, there was the controversial Debating Union, (AKA, ‘The Union’) – although it must be said that as many Oxford Prime Ministers had nothing to do with the Union as embraced it.
Images: Oxford University Images, Shutterstock, Home Office