The Oxbridge Boat Race: A Symbol Of Britain’s Ruling Elite?

On the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme last Saturday morning (March 31st), the respected presenter John Humphreys queried whether Britain’s political leaders “have lost touch with the voters”. One of his guests, Michael Portillo, (a former Conservative Government Defence Minister and now a media commentator) responded by pointing out that UK politicians are “separated from the public  both by their life-style and the high standard of education they have received” (by implication, due to the fact that a large proportion have been to private schools and then graduated from either Oxford or Cambridge Universities). Furthermore, they “have to pretend” that  they understand the concerns of ordinary people and that in Britain “being a member of the ‘intelligensia’ (for example, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and his brother David) is considered an even bigger crime than being rich”. Finally, (asserted Portillo), there is a feeling “out there” that democracy “makes the people hapless victims of a self-interested political class”.

This discussion was broadcast just a week before the annual Oxford versus Cambridge Boat Race on Saturday 7th April. It will start at 2.15pm at Putney and finish 4 miles & 374 yards (6.779 kilometres) further up the Thames at Mortlake. Since it was inaugurated on 10th June 1829, Cambridge (in light blue colours) have won 80 times and Oxford (dark blue) 76, with one “dead heat”. Cambridge currently holds  the course record (set in 1998) of 16 minutes 19 seconds. It is estimated that this year’s race (the 158th), sponsored by Xchanging (the Business Process Outsourcing Provider), will be watched by a quarter of a million people crowded along the banks of the river or on big screens in the nearby Bishops Park and Furnival Gardens. The event will also be shown both on the BBC and television channels around the world, as well as being available online. The two crews will consist of eight rowers each plus the “coxswains” (who have to steer their boats and issue instructions). They are drawn from a range of countries: America (5), Germany (2), Australia (2), New Zealand (1), Holland (1), Britain (7). What they have in common (in addition to their rowing expertise) is that their future careers are likely to benefit considerably from having attended the UK’s two best-known and prestigious universities.

According to a survey conducted by the “Sutton Trust”, the majority of those at the top of the leading professions in Britain  “were educated in independent fee-paying schools which remain largely closed to most of the population”. This includes  “ 70% of the leading judges (78% of whom then went on to Oxford or Cambridge), 68% of barristers (82% subsequently “Oxbridge” graduates), 55% of the partners at the top law firms (53% Oxbridge graduates)” The Guardian columnist George Montbiot (who  studied at Oxford) has acknowledged that people of his social background” (upper middle class, public school) “dominate almost every economic sector” in the country  and that they “run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces and even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers”. He in addition quoted statistics from the “Milburn Report” showing that  “45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of Members of Parliament, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% who went to private schools”. The Guardian’s “Theatre Blog” has questioned why six of the nine previous artistic directors of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) have been Oxbridge graduates – especially as neither of these two universities  offer a degree in drama. The left- wing journalist Owen Jones (also an Oxford graduate) has advocated (on “”) the abolition of the current “Oxbridge System” on the basis that “just having an Oxbridge label attached to your name gives the presumption of being the smartest about” and that this prestige enables graduates from these two universities to get jobs at the expense of other (often brighter) people.

The Scottish journalist Andrew Neil (presenter of the BBC’s “This Week” on Thursday evenings, “The Daily Politics” Show, Chairman of “The Spectator” magazine  and  a graduate of Glasgow University) last year investigated in his ‘Posh and Posher’ TV documentary “why politicians from all parties appear to be drawn from an ever smaller social pool – and why it matters to us all”. He noted that even the Labour party hierarchy is  “increasingly middle-class, Oxford-educated and has done nothing but politics”: Ed & David Miliband, Ed Balls ( the Shadow Chancellor) and his wife Yvette Cooper ( Shadow Home Secretary) all graduated in PPE ( Philosophy, Politics and Economics) from Oxford. The blogger, Guido Fawkes, has observed that “there are quite a few millionaires around the Shadow Cabinet  table” – among them, Ed Miliband himself (through a combination of his “marital assets” and his inheritance from his Marxist father, Ralph) and the Balls/Cooper duo . This wealth, however, may appear somewhat modest compared to what the “Daily Mail” correspondent, Glen Owen, has dubbed “The £60 million Cabinet”: Of the 29 Coalition Government Ministers entitled to attend Cabinet meetings “23 have assets estimated to be worth (substantially) more than £1 million”. Furthermore, “Sutton Trust” data shows that 20 of these graduated from either Oxford or Cambridge – among them Prime Minister David Cameron himself (Oxford), Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Cambridge), Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (Oxford) and Foreign Secretary William Hague (Oxford) – and that since 1937 all Prime Ministers except three (among them, Gordon Brown, who went to Edinburgh University) graduated from Oxford. As former Labour Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, indicated  to John Humphreys ( who didn’t go to university) on the “Today” programme, it’s not completely surprising that so many Oxbridge graduates  with such privileged backgrounds  become British politicians  and  “end up living in a rarified atmosphere”. There are exceptions, of course: The writer of this article also went to Oxford.







Filed under: Society, Sports | Posted on April 4th, 2012 by Colin D Gordon

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