Where British Elites Come From (for Better or Worse)

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “This is a small country,” my American wife remarked, after watching the BBC’s 10 o’clock news for 15 minutes. It was a fair comment. Every story had featured (or been reported by) at least one contemporary of mine from Oxford. Most of them had been molded by the exact same degree: Philosophy, Politics and Economics, or PPE.

This is not the standard rant against the U.K.’s rancid class system. The Oxonians running the country are as influential on the left as the right, and many come from humble social backgrounds.

Rather, the issue is that Britain has somehow subcontracted the task of selecting its leaders to the University of Oxford’s PPE faculty. The last prime minister to graduate from Cambridge was Stanley Baldwin, who stood down in 1937. (Cambridge graduates make themselves useful, the saying goes; it is left to Oxonians to fail to run the country.) Since then every British premier who went to university went to Oxford, with the sole exception of Gordon Brown, a Scot who went to the University of Edinburgh.

Increasingly, PPEists (like me) lord it over other Oxonians. Introduced a century ago to modernize Oxford’s traditional offering of Latin, Greek, philosophy and ancient history, known as “Greats,” PPE was known as “Modern Greats” and intended to help train a new generation of leaders. That is what it has come to do.

David Cameron, who called the Brexit referendum, is my direct contemporary as a PPEist. Another eight PPEists were among ministers at his Cabinet meetings. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader whose defeat to Cameron ensured that the Brexit vote would happen, and whose rewriting of his party’s leadership election rules opened the way for Jeremy Corbyn, is another contemporary PPEist. So were two of his opponents for the job, including Miliband’s brother, David. Corbyn is not an Oxonian (which might explain why the media is scared of him), but his chief adviser, Seumas Milne, has a degree in PPE.

In media, many top jobs at the BBC are held by PPEists. The editor of The Economist is another direct contemporary as a PPEist. At the Financial Times, where I spent much of my career, I worked alongside five others who had overlapped with me taking PPE at the same college. (Only about 10 of us took the course at that college each year).

Which raises the question: Having been trained and given the opportunity to lead the country, how did we let down Britain so horribly? The debate is intensifying, with many PPEists inclined to turn on their own education and blame the degree course itself.

I have some sympathy with this. As I see it, the issues boil down to three. First, ours was a uniquely privileged generation. Only children during Britain’s recession of the 1970s, we came of age as prosperity returned in the 1980s. Though we were not asked to perform two years of compulsory military service, we were still the beneficiaries of the full generosity of the postwar welfare state. Our tuition was paid in full, with an extra grant for living costs. Unlike today’s Oxonians, we graduated debt-free.

Then, we skipped straight to the corridors of power without first having to prove ourselves in provincial newspapers, in business, the professions or the unions. Most of the big players in Brexit went straight from PPE to jobs as political advisors or journalists, and reached the cabinet in their 30s or early 40s. Were the likes of Cameron and Miliband more susceptible to the careless misjudgments that caused the Brexit mess because they were entitled and untested? Quite possibly.

Second, there is the way we learned to behave at Oxford. Ambitious young PPEists spent their lives playing at politics or journalism, making the connections that would see them through life, and engaging in the kind of nasty interpersonal rivalries and high jinks that the world is now watching at Westminster.

The way PPE is taught encouraged this behavior. Your degree is entirely dependent on a week-long series of three-hour exams taken at the end of your final term. Up until that point, your only academic commitments are one or two weekly one-hour tutorials with professors. Survive your first-year exams and pass muster in your tutorials, and you could build your CV almost full-time before some desperate studying at the very end.

Ed Luce of the Financial Times, a fellow PPEist, calls us the “essay crisis” generation: “people who mastered the art of delivering their assignments in limpid prose that they had only started working on overnight.” He adds, “If you learn young how to slip past Oxford’s best scholars, the rest of life ought to be a doddle.”

Third, there is the issue of PPE’s breadth. In theory, the different disciplines are vital for government and business. They each require rigor of thought, and they underpin each other. It becomes a boot camp for the mind. To survive, you need to know calculus, and symbolic logic, while also being able to write an essay.

The problem is that such breadth comes at the cost of shallowness. John Crace of the Guardian elicited this confession from a PPEist: “The thing is this, PPE is such a big subject that no one can ever know everything, so we all have to bullshit like mad at times to cover up our ignorance. And we by and large get away with it. So we carry on bullshitting once we leave Oxford and most of us are still getting away with it. ”

So how to deal with this? If we assume that Oxford will remain entrenched as one of the premier universities in the U.K., and that hopeful politicians will want to study politics and economics, then at the very least PPE should be reformed.

This may mean removing the “bullshit” option and assessing students on work as they go through the course, not just on exams. That way PPEists would be tested and have to master their material. Once I had given up playing at journalism and engaged seriously with the work, it was richly rewarding.

More broadly, truly understanding economics and philosophy is hard unless you study them a lot and delve into some specialized areas in detail. PPE is a three-year course, like most in the U.K. It should probably be a four-year course, as Greats is. More time and specialization might have trained us to avoid the glib and superficial thinking that gave us the Brexit mess. So might a compulsory thesis.

More supervision, and a wider course that forced us to go into detail, might have stopped us all from being student politicians and thinking we could behave the same way in the real world.

Without such changes, I would not blame the country if it decided it was time for PPExit. Like most alumni I love my alma mater, but the dominance of Oxford, and of the PPE course, is plainly doing the country no good. We should be compelled to cast a wider net when looking for our leaders.

One final point is in order. I have not mentioned the figure who has come to personify the travails of Brexit, Theresa May. She is an Oxford graduate, yes, but she graduated a few years before our entitled generation arrived. And she studied geography, not PPE.

May, you may recall, was originally in favor of Britain staying in the E.U. Perhaps it was this course of study that prompted her to point out, during the referendum campaign, that the U.K. shared a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which could make Brexit impossible a detail her PPEist colleagues appeared to miss.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

John Authers is a senior editor for markets. Before Bloomberg, he spent 29 years with the Financial Times, where he was head of the Lex Column and chief markets commentator. He is the author of “The Fearful Rise of Markets” and other books.

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