Can we break open the chumocracy?

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Recent news reports suggesting that the “chumocracy” currently running Britain has enriched its personal contacts during the Covid-pandemic by handing out lucrative procurement contracts worth millions is a tell-tale sign of a self-entitled political elite acting like a law unto itself. This sickening self-aggrandisement is a reflection of a political system that lacks transparency and accountability – issues Liberals have long campaigned on. In the 21st century, why do we still have a political system that permits a small, well-connected elite to act as if the country’s riches are its own? Is it due to our political system or our education system? Are those issues inseparable? Fortunately, our neighbour’s politics show how things can be done differently.

In 2012 I moved to the Netherlands to study. 2012 was a tumultuous year for Dutch politics, the Dutch coalition government had collapsed in April and fresh elections were held just two weeks after I arrived in September. Keen to show a commitment to my new host country, I used to watch the news every night with my Dutch flatmates. I didn’t understand much but learnt enough to match faces with names. This was made easier by the location of my campus, just a stone’s throw away from the Dutch parliament.

It became very clear, very quickly that there was less distance between the Dutch public and their politicians than there is in the U.K. This transparency was characterised by the Binnenhof – a 13th century square that houses the Prime Minister’s office, among other government departments. Like Westminster, the Binnenhof is one of the oldest Parliament buildings still in use. However, unlike Westminster, you can walk right through it. Passers-by, tourists and students would shuttle through, occasionally stopping to gawk at the Ministers arriving in their cars.

It was easy to accidentally bump into Dutch politicians. One lunch break I found myself queuing for a cheese sandwich alongside Diederik Samson, then leader of the Dutch Labour party. The Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was even easier to track down, he had a favourite café where he could often be found sipping a coffee and reading the newspaper. I think I’m proud of the fact that I was one of the only students on my course not to have asked him for a selfie.

One day, trying to make sense of this brave new world of democratic transparency I’d found myself in, I accidentally triggered a desk war in one of my tutorials when I asked the Dutch students which university most Dutch politicians came from. In the UK the answer would have been simple: “Oxford”. Not in The Netherlands.

“Well Rutte comes from Leiden but Samson went to Delft and the Mayor didn’t go”.  “Yeah but Groningen has a good department for Public Administration and Wageningen has a good reputation for International Development”. “(Geert) Wilders has a certificate from the Open University”. “Ok but Balkenende went to Free University Amsterdam”.

I concluded you could study at any Dutch university and still become a Dutch politician. This is borne out by the facts. There have been 15 post-war Dutch Prime Ministers. Between them they have attended 9 different universities.

In stark contrast, the 15 British Prime Ministers since WW2 have mustered a grand total of 2 different universities between them. 11 went to Oxford, Gordon Brown went to Edinburgh; Major, Callaghan and Churchill didn’t attend any university.

The same dominance exists across the British business, legal and media professions. We are run by an interconnected elite who are groomed in one institution. Is it any wonder that we’re living in a chumocracy where a small cabal chuck each other favours? Is it any wonder that our political elite suffer from a permanent group think culture when they’ve been taught by the same people reading the same books? The purpose here is not to bedevil Oxford University graduates but to point out that an economic and political system dominated by them is not a healthy way to run a country in the 21st century. We need to focus more on creating new ladders to power than concentrating on getting more people into Oxford. The strongest argument for Proportional Representation is that it would enable us to pick a much more diverse, representative group of leaders. It’s still the right argument, and we can still win it.


* David is the former Parliamentary Candidate for North Dorset. He helped write our party's response to the government's National Data Strategy and has recently moved back to his hometown, Cheltenham.

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  • Richard Underhill 19th Nov '20 - 12:28pm

    David Chadwick | Thu 19th November 2020 – 10:00 am
    Compare the school attended by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, they were not as similar as some people thought, even what they thought themselves.

  • The problem with politicians isn’t the schools they went to but the way the vast majority of them want more and more power, Brexit a case in point – they are taking back power but then keeping it for themselves. Not sure how proportional representation will change this. Moving power from central govn to local areas will be a disaster at an individual level, the further power is away the greater the chance of ignoring endless, pointless laws rather than having a cadre of local lackeys going around checking people are obeying laws that are only there so that politicians can justify their lives.

  • @ Richard Underhill Yes, interesting to compare, but I guess not many folk on Universal Credit, or at my local foodbank, will be able to afford either. Here are the fees this term for Westminster School.

    Westminster School Fees PLAY TERM 2020 (i.e. Autumn, 2020)
    Boarding £13,869
    Queen’s Scholars – joined before Play Term 2017 £6,936
    Queen’s Scholars – joined from Play Term 2017 £8,268
    Day £9,603
    Day (Sixth Form Entry) £10,497
    Westminster Under School £6,834

  • Why break it when you can join it ?

    Guess who’s a non-Executive Director of General Mediterranean Holding SA (Luxembourg)…….. and then there’s the Alpha Group.

  • While I admire the various campaigns to help get more people from poor and minority backgrounds into places like Oxford, I’ve always felt it was missing the point somewhat.

    I recall one of my school friends being told by the careers advisors that if she wanted a career in journalism, she should go to Oxford, and not because it had the best courses – it didn’t even do the specific course that interested her most. No, she was advised to go there because that’s where all the top journalists went, and that’s where they recruit from. My friend was disgusted and ignored this advice (despite having the required grades), but it has stuck with me, because it was sort off correct.

    I’m sure an Oxford education is a very good one, but it’s always been more about making contacts and training to fit in than most people would like to admit.

    I did see something about the BBC have stated they are aiming to recruit more widely than from Oxbridge, which is good news, though disappointed to see the narrow-minded assume this meant it would not be recruiting on merit.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Nov '20 - 3:30pm

    The problem, with keeping a very tight narrow minded approach to both life and education is lack of life skills.
    I think this country rates the old boys network as important, but as you say that network does not necessarily have the respect in EU countries.
    I feel great sympathy for those struggling with the after shock of this virus.
    I see the problems being caused by this ideal, as lacking understanding and respect to anyone out of the group.
    As a Conservative remarked today, you will have to wait for the next ballot box.
    Education is something you work for, not a privilege that sets you above others.

  • @ Fiona Well, maybe people ought to keep up with the news. It’s time for a reappraisal, Fiona.

    “The University of St Andrews has beaten Oxford for the first time in the Guardian’s 2020 University league tables. The Scottish university came in second place, while Cambridge took the overall top spot. The rankings are based on data tied to institutional performance and student outcomes across UK universities”. The Guardian.

    Of course, if you’re a Scottish resident think about the fees, something I could never
    “Agree with Nick” about however sorry he may have said he was later.

    @ Helen Dudden “Education is something you work for, not a privilege that sets you above others”. I agree, Helen, but with a rider.

    One of my most precious possessions is a technical Geology book (with his notes and annotations) bought by my Granddad out of his first wages when he went down the pit aged twelve at Hetton-le-Hole in 1900. He wanted to understand his new environment.

    Education shouldn’t be an expensive privilege for the privileged who can afford it. It should be a right for all.

  • Michael Mullaney 20th Nov '20 - 1:49am

    Very good article David!

  • Ian Sanderson – I think you will find that Oxford dominates because it offers PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). Although each of those subjects is offered separately at Cambridge it is the combination which is popular with would-be politicians. It also adds to the general culture at Oxford and has an impact on students studying other subjects.

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Nov '20 - 10:17am

    Oxford offers PPE. It’s strange that most of our politicians either don’t understand, or pretend not to, any of those disciplines.

  • Helen Dudden 20th Nov '20 - 10:45am

    David Raw. I agree on most of what you say.
    My grandfather was one of 16 children, all wanted and loved. Two, lost their lives in a pit accident in Radstock mines many years ago.
    You don’t have to go to Eton, and one of my cousins was a lecturer in Oxford on Mathematics. He would give me the copies of the National Geographic that were read. That started my love of learning.
    I think life takes you where you want to go, it’s wanting to do it.
    I find this government arrogant and thoughtless in the treatment of those struggling.

  • Johnson didn’t do PPE. He won a scholarship to read Literae Humaniores at Balliol – a four-year study of the Classics, ancient literature and classical philosophy. He got a Second.

    As far as I know the course doesn’t include any recommendations from Homer or Vergil on how to deal with a pandemic, although B.J. no doubt reflects that in Dante’s Inferno Virgil appears as the author’s guide through Hell and Purgatory.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Nov '20 - 12:15pm

    ? Need some quiz questions?
    Catch up on the Menshevik revolution: they abolished capital punishment, which was restored by Lenin after the Bolshevik revolution
    Lucy Worsley (Royalist) is on BBC2 at 21:00.

  • David Raw – my point was that Oxford attracts those who want to go into politics via PPE, and that has an impact on the culture across the whole university.

  • @ Mary Reid Thank you, Mary, I take your point, but ………….

    I’d suggest the best sort of politicians are those with some sort of wider life experience – not very usual with Etonians who go from school, to Balliol, to Spad, to M.P. for a safe Tory seat before they’re thirty. I, for one, remember squeaky little Duggy Hogg who proceeded from Eton to Christchurch, to President of the Union, to Tory MP, to getting the taxpayer to cough up to clear his moat.

    To Oxford at 18 from a cosy rich privileged background with mere overwhelming personal ambition to be a politician doesn’t necessarily indicate any great depth of thought, capability or altruism.

  • @David. I think you have missed my point. I wasn’t saying that employers are obsessed with league tables, I was saying they are obsessed with reputation, which is often well out of date, and actually just a surrogate for where the posh folk send their kids, and an excuse for collective back patting regarding how clever they must have been to have gone there too.

    And even if an intelligent person does a rigorous degree and learns loads, they are doing it in a culture which is very samey to others, both in terms of teaching staff and fellow students. Government and employers in general need to recruit from a wider variety of sources, and not just for the sake of variety, but because a lot of very bright people with great ideas didn’t want to go to Oxbridge in the first place.

    As a Scot who grew up near St Andrews, it was low on my list of universities I’d want to attend, even if it did have the course I wanted to do. It had a reputation for old fashioned teaching and being where all the boarding school kids who didn’t make it into Oxbridge went, and that’s only got worse in the time since Prince William attended. It wasn’t until I moved to London that I met so many people who thought St Andrews was prestigious! I always knew that entry requirements for A-levels were comparatively higher than for Highers, presumably reflecting the higher demand from English vs Scottish students.

    In other words, adding St Andrew into the mix with Oxbridge in the hope of getting a wider pool of life and educational experience isn’t going to cut it. You also have to remember that the university league tables incorporate entry requirements, which are partly down to demand, which is partly down to fashion, and whether or not Prince William went there etc.

    IMO, one of the reasons so many politicians, and actors, come from private school backgrounds is that ‘public school confidence’ that erases all doubts of their ability to do whatever it is they want. I get the sense that Oxford, especially PPE has a similar effect.

  • @ Fiona You make some interesting and valid points, Fiona, and I completely understood why you as a Fifer would want to see more of the outside world as a student. The lang spoon can operate in both directions.

    As to St Andrews there was a time when there was indeed an element of posh boys (and some) girls who didn’t quite make it into Oxbridge. I know this from my wife (daughter of an engine driver) who was there when Thatcher fan Lord Michael Forsyth and his cronies thought they ruled the roost.

    Thankfully things have move on – Forsyth was defeated in the election for Rector back in 2011, and Ming Campbell is now University Chancellor. More recently I’ve been involved with post grad work there and can confirm the change.

    I agree entirely with your final paragraph……. but still maintain that St Andrews and all the other Scottish Universities are something that Scotland should be very proud of.

  • Peter Hirst 24th Nov '20 - 3:54pm

    The issue is the criteria for choosing candidates and not what university they went to. If the best candidates go to Oxford then they should be chosen. We need loads more transparency and accountability for selection procedures across the board of political posts. Meritocracy is a nice word but requires vigorous procedures to implement.

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